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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.

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