“I remember it was mid-morning, and I was home with my brother. My parents rushed home from work and told us we had to leave our home quickly. I remember the panic that gripped us all. I remember my mother cuddling me to stop my five-year-old brother and me from crying. I remember hearing that someone was coming to ‘get’ my father. We were renting a unit in Colombo from a Sinhalese family at the time. They hid my father in the water tank above our unit while my mother, brother, and I hid in their outdoor toilet.

But what I remember the most is sitting down, once the tension had eased off, to a humble meal of rice and fried fish prepared by this Sinhalese family.”

Gaya Thamendra sits across a screen, joining in from Melbourne, Australia. But if one looked closely, you’d see it in her eyes that she was back in Colombo, and the year was 1983. A time when Sri Lanka was gripped in nationwide panic. Black July, as this time is commonly referred to, marks the start of the Sri Lankan Civil War. Anti-Tamil riots that started in Colombo spread to the rest of the country, putting both Sinhalese and Tamil Sri Lankan lives in danger. Businesses were burnt to the ground, families tormented, stores looted, properties damaged, and lives destroyed.

Gaya was all of three years old when she found herself in an overcrowded airport in the capital city of Colombo, with thousands of Tamils, who had survived the massacre and were fleeing to safer parts of the country. Surviving on a few stale biscuits and milk, her family made its way to Chavakachcheri, a town in northern Jaffna. “Chavakachcheri was a farming town. I remember paddy fields markets with fresh vegetables. We cooked every day since we didn’t have a refrigerator to store food, so going to the market was a daily affair and I remember it vividly.”, Gaya thinks with fondness.

Gaya’s memories are filled with stories around simple meals of rice and locally sourced fried silver-fish, tamarind spiced eggplant curries (Katharikai curry), drumsticks curries, and the loyal sambol, showing up to elevate any meal. With war surges and curfews, humble meals of rice porridge (kanji) were flavored with raw onions. “I would hang out in the kitchen a lot. Even when I visited my grandmother in Maviddapuram, off the coast of Keerimalai. I had these toy clay pots, and I would imitate what my grandmother would do with her ‘real’ clay pot. She’d use her ammi or a granite stone grinder to make fresh sambol that just hit differently - something I am yet to fully recreate here with my modern blender!”, shares Gaya.

Gaya arrived in Australia when she was ten with a handful of English words and quickly adapted and assimilated like all immigrant kids. However, over the past few years, Gaya has realized that her fondest memories of Sri Lanka, of home, and of family, are neatly folded in recipes. Not recipes of fancy dishes that you might find in a Sri Lankan restaurant, but of simple meals cooked in times of strife and struggle. Some of these recipes are re-created by Gaya out of sheer memory, while others are hand-downs.

“When I look back,I think of how we would somehow keep everything outside the door when we sat down for a meal; we were grateful for what was on our plate. If it weren’t for that simple meal of fried fish shared with us by that Sinhalese family, my life would have been totally different. I’d like to believe we survived because of that one act of generosity.”

 Sinhalese Fried Fish & Rice Meal ︎

︎ Sinhalese Fried Fish ︎

I dont have the exact recipe of this dish because I was three when I had it. It is relatively commonplace, but of course, it holds a special place in my heart for its symbolism. It was simple, fresh, shared, and just what we needed to brace ourselves for what lay ahead of us.

Take any fresh, small, silvery fish. But to do this right, you need the Salaya fish. Clean the scales, if any but keep whole.

For the marinade
  • Chili powder
  • Turmeric
  • Some Jaffna spice blend (or you may use your local spice blend)
  • Salt

Fry in oil till the skin becomes crispy. It’s got to be crispy on the outside, so it got a nice spicy coating, and flaky white on the inside.

Enjoy hot with a plate of red rice.

︎ Sambol ︎

If you’d like some spunk to this, add a sambol! Here’s one way to make it (there are MANY ways to make a sambol)

  • A few shallots
  • A few chilies -  if you’d like a red sambal, use dried red chilies or fresh green chilies if you’d like a green sambol
  • Freshly scraped coconut, lemon juice, salt
  • Masi or dried fish flakes are used a lot in Colombo sambols that add umami and really taste great!

  • Mix onions, chilies and salt together.
  • Add coconut and grind to a coarse paste. Ideally, grind on a granite mortar pestle; else, use a blender.
  • Mix in some lime juice 
  • Make extra to enjoy with a bowl of Kiribath (coconut rice) or even with some puttu for breakfast (coconut rice logs).


If you’re making some sambol, you might as well try your hand at Katharikai curry (brinjal curry), which is my absolute favorite!

  • Eggplant, chopped into finger-sized pieces
  • Onions (few)
  • Black mustard seeds, fennel seeds, cinnamon stick
  • Turmeric powder and chili powder
  • Coriander and cumin powders
  • Curry leaves (many)
  • Tamarind pulp (oh yum!)
  • Coconut milk
  • Optional: sugar

  • Chop the eggplant into finger-sized pieces.
  • Fry it up to give it a bit of color and texture.
  • Then cook it with black mustard seeds, onions, curry leaves, chilies.
  • Add fennel and cinammon followed by spices like turmeric, coriander and cumin.
  • I also have a Jaffna spice blend that’s my go-to spice blend!
  • Add some crushed garlic, a few roughly chopped tomatoes, and tamarind water/ pulp. The tamarind makes the sauce spicy, sweet, sour, and simultaneously.
  • Add a cup of coconut milk to tame the heat of the spices.

Some Sri Lankans add sugar in the end. You have to balance it out right. Keep tasting as your cook.