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For Sri Lankans, 'koththu roti' sounds like freedom and an echo of home

Just as Sri Lanka's civil war exploded in the early 1980s, a new nighttime sound began to spread from odd corners of the country's capital: the rapid beat of steel blades. The rhythms flowed out of the oil-stained, all-night restaurants that catered to Colombo's night crawlers. The drummer was the koththu roti chef at work.

Koththu roti, a Sri Lankan street food, being made at a food stall that pops up nightly at the Galle Face Green, an open recreational field along downtown Colombo's shoreline. (Photo by Marwaan Macan-Markar)

Word spread quickly about this novelty: a street-food dish whose name means "chopped roti" in Tamil. It is a combination of gothamba roti (a flat, flaked bread) mixed with spices and shredded vegetables, topped with egg, gravy and chicken. The whole thing is heated on a griddle as the chef bangs away with two metal cleavers, crafting a spicy and carbohydrate-heavy dish perfect for late-night refueling.

The preoccupations of the unfolding war kept many Sri Lankans from digging for the roots of this dish, which seems to have emerged as a street food in the 1970s in Batticaloa, a quiet agrarian town with a Tamil majority on the island's eastern coast. Most people were more interested, then, in where to get the best koththu roti in Colombo. I was one of them.

It was two decades before I discovered, while covering the war on assignment in Batticaloa, that the dish had a deeper meaning. By then, I was following the military's eastern strategy, the movements of Tamil Tiger rebels in the surrounding forests, and the frightened civilians trapped in between.

The military had turned Batticaloa, known colloquially as Batti, into a garrison town. By day, it looked as if the army was in charge. But the locals knew better: The Tamil Tiger rebels ruled the night, slipping at will into Batti's narrow, dark streets. This shifting power structure reflected local ethnic tensions: The town was largely Tamil, with a Muslim minority, while the troops were from the country's Sinhalese majority.

I was on a limited budget, so I usually stayed in a small, rundown two-story hotel on the banks of Batti's lagoon. In the evenings, the hotel's rooftop terrace served as the ideal listening post to pick up the rhythms of the town. Among them was the sound of the koththu roti makers, which would roll over the lagoon from the town's center.

Grip of the curfew

On such evenings, the terrace would fill up with retirees who met for their regular sunset drinks and to chat, their eyes reflexively checking the clock, anxious to be home ahead of the nightly curfew. It was on one such evening, just before darkness, that an aging businessman offhandedly mentioned the wartime relevance of koththu roti. "That sound tells us how late we can be out on the street," I recall him saying.

Since then, the dish has never lost that quality for me: the sound of freedom in the tense atmosphere of war. A koththu roti chef at work in an eastern town or village meant the last hint of street life before the community slipped into the silent grip of the curfew.

But it did not end there. In December 2001, I realized koththu roti's other relevance: an easily recognized echo of home for a Sri Lankan ear. That happened in then-crumbling Phnom Penh, where I was on an assignment to report on the child sex trade.

On my third night, after working late, I stepped out of my shabby hotel to look for a place to have dinner. The street was potholed and dark, and I walked toward a naked light in the distance. As I approached it, a familiar sound cut through the still, tropical night: the koththu roti beat. I followed it and stumbled upon a small wooden restaurant serving the dish. It was run by Sri Lankan Tamils, who, I learned later, were Tamil Tiger operatives in Cambodia, then home to a thriving black market in the illegal weapons trade.

Today, koththu roti has made its mark across postwar Sri Lanka. It has become part of the local lingo. Some regard it as a cultural icon. And it is not confined to Tamil or Muslim food outlets. Sinhalese chefs churn it out in southern Sri Lanka with the same taste and din.

Against the backdrop of a raging civil war, koththu roti's unheralded rise from its Tamil-Muslim origins in Batti to a national comfort food has made it "the only Sri Lankan dish with a sound bite," as a friend has described it. Culturally, it has achieved unity through taste buds. And it suggests a further possibility -- that Sri Lanka's kitchens may hold the recipe for peace.

Marwaan Macan-Markar isan Asia regional correspondent for the Nikkei Asian Review.

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