Despite being quite well known for our sea-food, Sri Lanka is without a doubt a haven for vegans. Not only is it blessed with an incredible array of vegetables, fruit and grains, its cuisine with its rich coconut sauces are completely dairy free and therefore quite vegan. Though admittedly, almost all households are known to add a spoon full of maldive fish (cured tuna fish traditionally produced in Maldives and an essential in Sri Lankan cooking) to all vegetable curries and sambols, we can take pride in the fact that, if we remove that one fishy element, we have in our hands one of the most vegan friendly cuisines in the world.
That is why, Hela Bojun Centres are so important to our country. A brain child of the Extension and Training Unit of the Department of Agriculture, this food centre serves only plant-based food to its customers. The prices are subsidized in order to promote sales as well as the consumption of local and fresh food.
Hela Bojun Food Centres are located in a number of locations all the way from Jaffna right down to Matara. Our lunch stop however, was at the one located at Battaramulla, right across the Department of Forest and in close proximity to Sethsiripaya. Open from 7.00 am to 4.00 pm on weekdays, this open air food outlet has a bustling open kitchen in the centre of the premises with seating around it. It overlooks a beautifully landscaped area with ponds blossoming with water lilies and storks flittering about. The occasional iguana is a bonus.
What is even more precious is that it is completely run by women. Part of the Women’s Agricultural Extension programme to promote local food consumption, these food centres empower and train women of the area to uplift their lives while supplying food at affordable rates.
Hela Bojun, Battaramulla has been in operation for 5 years and having lived literally less than half a kilometer away for almost the same time, I was lamenting over the tragedy of not discovering this gem before. Ranging from rotis, string-hoppers, pittus and dosais to a variety of sweet meats, Hela Bojun interestingly, does not serve the country’s staple rice and curry. Yet come lunch time, the place is humming with a steady stream of customers who were heard saying that the food available here was a welcome change to the usual rice and curry. Nearly 17 vendors were cooking and serving food straight off the stove and that is why we felt Hela Bojun deserves a part two in our weekly reviews.
Ramesh and I started off with fresh juices. I had the wood-apple while Ramesh had the papaya and they were absolute value for money (each priced at an astounding Rs 50). While the woodapple was not as thick as my mother’s one, I loved it and Ramesh loved his. It would be great if you take your own straws or just drink it off the glass to avoid using the single use straws handed over at the counter.
To start things off, I ordered a pol roti infused with mukunuvenna (local herb) and carrot (Rs 20) as well as a kurakkan dosai (Rs 30) and two polos cutlets (tender Jak fruit – Rs50 for both) The polos cutlet was mixed with some sweet potatoes which acted as a binding agent and was quite delectable. I would definitely go for more.
There were some ready-made kurakkan dosais I could have had, but the lady in charge of the dosai stall refused to sell it to me and insisted she would make some while I wait. Apparently, the key element here was to serve it warm as the dosai becomes quite hard and dry after a while. Quality assurance standards, hygiene and professionalism is maintained and is a matter of personal pride for these wonderful ladies. I have never had kurakkan dosai before and was not disappointed. While it is certainly not the traditional fare, it was certainly delicious with the sambaru (mixed vegetable curry) and sambol. Kudos to the cook for insisting on eating it warm.
The roti was also piping hot and served with some of the best lunumiris I have had in a while. (And Yes! No maldive fish here. So much win!). I was pleasantly surprised by the addition of mukunuwenna, and I think it is a welcome change to eating it as a mallung (cooked greens). All this was placed on a Kanda leaf and that means no single use lunch sheets were used.
Meanwhile, Ramesh had a fabulous string-hopper feed. This too was made while we watched. Literally from the stove to the plate. This came with some dhal curry and a coconut sambol. Ramesh teamed it up with a hot hot parippu vadai (made out of dhal, this is similar to the falafel – Rs 20/-). The food tasted like home, love and a determination to strive for bigger and better things. While, one might say cooking might be the stereotypical role of a woman we were happy to see women in business, taking on entrepreneurial challenges and making a positive change in their lives and livelihood.
Being the gluttons that we are, we finished up our meal with a steaming cup of Belimal (herbal drink made out of the flowers of the beli fruit) and some local sweet meats. Created mainly with rice flour, treacle, coconut milk and other such plant based ingredients, Sri Lankan sweet meats are the best as they are truly vegan! One must remember however, that most of these are deep fried in oil therefore is not great for your health. But this was a treat.
Ramesh had pani walalu while I had a veli thalapa and narang kavum. They complimented well with the belimal and it was a truly relaxing afternoon. All this while watching some wondering storks and the wind playing with the leaf laden branches that was right across us was idyllic and therapeutic.
In Conclusion, we LOVED Hela Bojun, not only for the food but also for what it stands for. Our complete meal for two cost us less than Rs 500/ and imagine how wonderful it is for those on a tight budget. It is definitely a service in itself.
Most of all, it is incredible how we can make our daily staples vegan by simply not adding maldive fish. We as a nation are truly lucky that switching to vegetarian or vegan meals is actually easier than we think it is.
In Hela Bojun Part Two we plan to engage with the ladies who run this wonderful enterprise and of course dig into more food.
In the meantime, do not forget to drop by Hela Bojun and also tune in to our video food reviews on social media.
Until our next vegan food adventure, this is Suramya saying TTFN.