As the train pulled into Peradeniya Junction station in central Sri Lanka, the man sitting across from me jumped out of his seat and leaned out the window, placing his thumb and forefinger in his mouth and hissing loudly. A mop the vendor soon appeared outside, removed a basket from above his head, and handed it to the passenger. The man quickly pulled out a flavored donut with a small bag of fiery sambol, leaving some money, then passed the basket to other hungry passengers, who did the same before returning the basket to the vendor through the window .
As the train pulled away, everyone settled into their seats and just understood what I would learn later was I’m fine: lentil patties topped with fresh shrimp and fried to create one of the most delicious street food you can find on an island.
Isso (prawn) vade (patty) is enjoyed throughout Sri Lanka, and its popularity can perhaps be attributed to its deeply familiar and simple ingredients: lentils and prawns, along with onions and curry leaves. Topped with a spicy sambol – made with chopped onions, tomatoes, green chillies and lime juice – plus a chilli sauce for extra punch, each fritter has the perfect balance of crispy texture, pungent aroma and spicy flavor. And at Rs 50 to 70 (12p to 18p) each, they’re an inexpensive and tasty treat for the masses.
The most famous isso vade are sold in carts along Galle Face, a seaside promenade in Colombo. Every evening when the gentle breeze, which has traveled for miles over the Indian Ocean, finally meets the land and cools the city, thousands of people gather here to spend time with family and friends. They walk along the boardwalk, sizing up each isso vade vendor to decide which one has the best deal – usually the one with the biggest crowd.