I’ve always had a weak spot for places which exude a sense of history, and where, if only the walls could talk, we wondered what kind of tales they would tell. Such is the Pagoda Tea Rooms on Chatham Street. This venerable old place dates all the way back to 1884!
We ordered one of the must-have dishes when one visits Sri Lanka: the “lamprais”, a dish of Dutch-Burgher origin. The Dutch-Burghers are a distinct community of Eurasians in Sri Lanka, mainly of Sinhalese, Dutch and Portuguese admixture, and shared many of the same characteristics as the Portuguese-Eurasians of Malacca, Macao and Goa, the Dutch-Eurasians in Java, and the French-Tamil Creoles of Pondicherry/Puducherry - being staunchly Christian, adopting Western-style dressing & lifestyle, and using English as their lingua franca, instead of native dialects.
Lamprais is a twice-cooked dish - aromatic lightly-spiced rice cooked in ghee and coconut milk, with sides like a curried meat, seeni sambol ( spicy-sweet onion relish), hard-boiled egg which had been fried till lightly-browned on the outside, cooked vegetables, etc., all wrapped up into a parcel using banana leaf, then oven-baked so that the flavours meld together.
We also ordered a few interesting pastries to try - they were passable, not something which we’d especially come back for:
2) Scotch egg - this was nothing like what we’d expected when we ordered it: instead of sausage-meat, the hard-boiled egg (or rather, a wedge of it) was wrapped with curried minced fish and onions. It was chili-hot but not especially aromatic. And like almost eveything we tasted in Sri Lanka - it was over-salted.
Fish pie - same combination of curry spices as for the Scotch egg was used for the fish floss filling. The pie came across as a bit on the dry side.
Bacon-and-egg pie - this was the best-tasting pastry of the lot. Not especially generous with the filling - in fact, just about enough to keep the top and bottom pastry skins apart.
The place is not air-conditioned, but high-ceilinged and pretty airy. We did not especially enjoy the food, but loved the old feel of the place. Drink choices were pretty basic: bottled water, some cold coffee/tea in the chiller, and hot beverages. One orders and pays at the self-service counter, and waits for one’s orders to be placed onto the trays by the counter service staff. All very casual.
One interesting bit of trivia: the Pagoda Tea Rooms was used as a filming set in Duran Duran’s 1982 music video for “Hungry Like a Wolf”. Filmed in Sri Lanka - it had an Indiana Jones-like feel to it. I remembered watching it as a teenaged college freshman back then, and could scarcely believe that, 37 years later, I was actually in this very same spot where the music video was made.
Chatham Street is a small lively street - one interesting eatery is Pillawoos Hotel where Anthony Bourdain had his first taste of kottu roti in his Sri Lankan episode of No Reservations. It’s almost adjacent to where the Pagoda Tea Rooms is located.
Pagoda Tea Rooms
103 Chatham Street
Colombo 00100, Sri Lanka
Tel: +94 112 323 086
Operating hours: Mon-Fri 7.30am to 5.30pm, Sat 7.30am to 1.30pm. Closed on Sundays.