Pettah produce markets: a feast for your senses

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All my memories of the central Colombo district of Pettah over the years are pretty much the same – loud, brash, haphazard, gritty and at times claustrophobic and somewhat unnerving. Pettah is an old trading district created during Dutch colonial times outside of Colombo Fort (and literally named after that fact – “Pettah” is a corruption of a Tamil word “pettai” which means “a town outside the fort”). It also goes by the official district code of Colombo 11 and “pita kotuwa” if you’re talking in Sinhalese. It was the sort of place I remember being told when I was younger that you could change US dollars “on the black market” if you needed to – not that I ever witnessed any of that activity, but it firmly reinforced in my mind that in Pettah, anything is possible. So, every time I return to Sri Lanka, I make it a point of going there.

 
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You’re probably wondering why I keep coming back to this seemingly unsavoury place. Well to my mind, Pettah is about the only place in Colombo’s urbanised sprawl that you can consider yourself an intrepid traveller and truly discover something new each time. It is a multi-ethnic melting pot of people, food and culture and not to mention the mind-boggling variety goods, knick-knacks and other paraphernalia available for purchase on every street corner and hidden alleyway. If you think of Pettah as a huge (mostly) open-air, traditional bazaar then you’re in the right mindset to get the most out of it. And you certainly don’t need to buy anything to have a memorable experience.

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Walking around, take in the vibrant signage of the stores and their colourful wares packed to the rafters, chance upon beautiful mosques, kovils and even a museum or two, admire the delivery men physically pulling loaded trolley-beds of goods down narrow streets (it is said that all commerce in Pettah would stop but for these delivery men) and, if you really must spend cash, eat some food originating from the predominant cultural heritage of Pettah – the Tamils, Muslims and Malays – think dosas, waddai, muscat (or halva), faluda, jalebi and the list goes on. Or you might just want to sit on a corner (if you can find one) and watch the diversity of Pettah’s people, who in many ways reflect the trading port which Sri Lanka had been for many centuries.

 
The Middle Eastern treat known as  jalebi . To quote Skiz from Rice and Curry (photo credit): "These spiral rings filled with honey are made from a fermented wheat flour that is deep fried in ghee (of course) and then soaked in a heavy syrup until they become tentacles that squirt pure sweetness in every bite". Yum :)

The Middle Eastern treat known as jalebi. To quote Skiz from Rice and Curry (photo credit): "These spiral rings filled with honey are made from a fermented wheat flour that is deep fried in ghee (of course) and then soaked in a heavy syrup until they become tentacles that squirt pure sweetness in every bite". Yum :)

TheJaimul Alfar Masjid or Red Mosque with its distinctive read and white patterned walls. 

TheJaimul Alfar Masjid or Red Mosque with its distinctive read and white patterned walls. 

The front relief of the Sammangodu Sri Kathiravelayutha Swami Temple on 1st Cross Street.

The front relief of the Sammangodu Sri Kathiravelayutha Swami Temple on 1st Cross Street.

Muscat is a dense, gelatinous sweet produced in an array of colours. This sweet is based on the Persian halva and the Sri Lankan name for it likely refers to the place of origin of the people who introduced to Sri Lanka (from Muscat, Oman). Those migrants adapted the recipe to use coconut oil instead of ghee and local cashews instead of almonds or pistachios. Photo credit: Asiff Hussein

Muscat is a dense, gelatinous sweet produced in an array of colours. This sweet is based on the Persian halva and the Sri Lankan name for it likely refers to the place of origin of the people who introduced to Sri Lanka (from Muscat, Oman). Those migrants adapted the recipe to use coconut oil instead of ghee and local cashews instead of almonds or pistachios. Photo credit: Asiff Hussein

The load carried on foot by Pettah's delivery men.

The load carried on foot by Pettah's delivery men.

The Dutch Museum containing artefacts from the period of Dutch colonial rule

The Dutch Museum containing artefacts from the period of Dutch colonial rule

The famous crab curry from the Mayura Hotel located on Sri Kathiresan Street. It's reputed to be as good as the crab curry found at the upmarket Ministry of Crab in Colombo Fort and at a small fraction of that price. Bear in mind that a "hotel" in Sri Lanka traditionally refers to a small roadside diner so you know what you're in for!  Photo credit: YAMU

The famous crab curry from the Mayura Hotel located on Sri Kathiresan Street. It's reputed to be as good as the crab curry found at the upmarket Ministry of Crab in Colombo Fort and at a small fraction of that price. Bear in mind that a "hotel" in Sri Lanka traditionally refers to a small roadside diner so you know what you're in for!  Photo credit: YAMU

 

I’ll be writing in greater detail a later article on how to while away a few hours navigating the district of Pettah, including its markets and monuments.  However, as a taster today, I wanted to share some of the sights of the Pettah fresh produce markets located at 5th Cross Street. The variety of produce and the kaleidoscope of colours will amaze you, changing with the seasons. Ask the vendors questions about produce you’ve never seen before – they usually happily oblige with answers. In fact, if all you had time for was an early morning look at the main Pettah monuments (I’m thinking the Red Mosque, Kayman’s Gate and Bell Tower and the Dutch Museum (closed at the time of writing for renovations)) and then a wander through the fresh produce markets, you will have caught the essence of Pettah. And don’t forget to look around the streets leading up the fresh produce market (mainly Keyzer St and surrounds) where there are wholesale goods warehouses doubling up as shops. Here you’ll find barrels of every kind of dried fish imaginable (my mother’s cooking flooded back to me with their sweetly pungent smells), spices, legumes and pulses, coconuts and sacks of onions or potatoes to name a few. It’s definitely a feast for the senses.

 
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