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Its cuisine is marked by the clever use of spices, writes Tan Bee Hong

I didn’t realise that I’d been going to my favourite Sri Lankan restaurant for a whole decade, since it first opened in Jalan Dungun, Kuala Lumpur, in 2007.

When I was there again recently, I realised why. Though A Li Yaa Island Restaurant has moved to the nearby cosy enclave of Plaza Damansara, it is still staffed by the same familiar faces, from Chef Shiva to restaurant manager Asif Khan, and most of the waiting staff.

At the recent four-day 10th anniversary celebration themed A Journey To Yalpanam (the original name for Jaffna), its marketing manager, Janaka Ranjana, says a special guest chef was flown in to lead the kitchen team to dish up 50 dishes daily. He adds that regular customers liked these so much that they have asked for some of the dishes to be on the regular menu.

Hot and hearty

Sri Lankan cuisine is marked by the complex combinations of spices and the food at A Li Yaa is representative of that. We start with a taste of the Sri Lankan Sambal Set (RM12) with papadum and four types of sambal: Katta, Seeni, Pol and Karupillay.

The red hot Katta Sambal with Maldive fish is the most fiery while Seeni Sambal is sweet from the caramelised onions. The green Karupillay Sambal is a blend of fresh curry leaves, chilli and mint while Pol Sambal is made from fresh grated coconut, dried chilli, onion, lime juice and curry leaves and goes very well with the range of roti.

Then we nibble on Rotti Rolls, wraps stuffed with spicy marinated lamb and onions. The rolls are panfried to brown lightly. There are also cutlets such as potato, fish and lamb. Each is unique in itself and equally scrumptious. The lamb cutlets taste rather like the filling in the Rotti Rolls but I like the fish cutlets best. The combination of flaked fish with onion and chilli just hits the right spot.

While rice is a good foil for all the spicy dishes, A Li Yaa also offers roti, appam, puttu and string hoppers, all of which make fabulous accompaniments to the curries.
String hoppers are particularly lovely with Mutton Paal Poriyal. The mutton, slow cooked in a well-balanced combination of spices, is tender and scrumptious.

Mutton is served in other forms, such as Mutton Curry, Mutton Masala and Mutton Poriyal.
Try some roti with the mild but delicious Fish Sothi and savour the aroma of the spices. The fish is cooked in coconut milk with lemongrass, garlic, shallots and curry leaves.

Get crabby

Sri Lanka is famous for its crabs. On A Li Yaa’s menu, Colombo Crab Curry and Jaffna Crab Curry are top sellers. “We import all our crabs from Sri Lanka,” says Shiva, who blends his own spices in the kitchen. Bottles of various blends of spices are now on sale at the restaurant.

We pick Jaffna Crab Curry, in a sauce as exciting as it is dark, is finger-licking good. It’s not as pedas as the Colombo Crab Curry though. The meaty crabs are sweet and match perfectly with the dry, dark sauce scented with curry leaves.

Jaffna-Style Eggplant Sambal is a real treat. The eggplant is cut into thin slivers, deepfried and tossed with caramelised onion, chilli, tomato and curry leaves.

Sweet appam

I am partial to the Sweet Appam from A Li Yaa. Unlike the appam meant to be eaten with curries and savoury dishes, the sweet appam has a fluffy, moist heart from a lashing of coconut cream. When it’s done with perfectly crispy edges, the appam is dotted with generous sprinkles of brown sugar. I fold the soft centre over the crisp edge and pop this into the mouth, relishing the contrast in textures.

New Straits Times