Vibrant vintage vendors | Daily News

Vibrant vintage vendors

Time has a way of enforcing change. The human life is a journey, where we collect pleasant memories. On a rainy night two weeks ago I was having tea with David Ariyaratnam, a retired banker and Terry Genorge, a retired engineer. This was during the stillness of the avurudu holidays, when Colombo was temporarily quiet as her citizens went to their ancestral villages.

With most of the bakeries and fast food outlets closed, we were reminded to recollect the days when vendors used to come down our lane selling both sweet and spicy delights. To my memory, this unfolded 30 years ago, when Colombo still had the beautiful mild stains of old Ceylon. I am sure all our senior citizens reading this would recall your favourite vendors. With mass production, extended spending power, convenience and online food delivery, today these amiable old vendors are no more: at least in Colombo city.

The first who came to my mind was the bakery uncle. We never knew his name, strangely with all that interaction. He used to come daily between 4 pm and 5 pm with the enticing declaration of “paan paan”. He faithfully carried his large basket, woven together, which had a metal lid. Within this kooday (basket), was a three-layered domain of taste. The first had my personal favourites. All the sugary sensations - cream buns, tea buns (studded with raisins), kimbula bunnis (a local variant of a croissant), pol cake (again a local confectionery loaded with caramelized sugar and coconut), and gnana katha. Terry added some humour and asked if we can translate this in English to imply as the bun of wisdom. There were doughnuts and soft sponge cake as well. Every evening my mind was subject to some serious decision making, as I decided which one to buy. Uncle David endorsed that all of this would go down well with a steaming cup of tea. In the second tier were the spicy goods - maalu paan (fish buns stuffed with fish), cutlets, seeni sambol buns and egg rolls. At the bottom layer was the housewives’ favourite - “roast paan” baked to perfection with a dark brown crust. This had such culinary appeal that it went down perfectly with chicken curry, black pepper pork or chicken stew at dinner. Such dinners were once enjoyed by my uncle Justin Alwis, now domiciled in Canada. As Terry reminisced, we never had a dull evening with such choices for our tea. There was no Instagram then to upload these foodie moments.

The vendor coming second on our list was a woman who claimed she travelled from Ragama by train. She carried a box, which was immaculately padded with a soft cloth. Within its chamber rested some traditional delights. Halape (baked in a folded leaf), kalu dodol (the prince among Southern sweets), lavaria (string hoppers steamed with coconut and oozing with caramelized sugar). This box redefined temptation, well at least in the culinary sense. Another delight that would not be known by children of this digital generation, is called “wandu appa” which is a local variant to a muffin, steamed in a leaf. The type of leaf remains a mystery to me even after three decades.

Modestly taking the third slot on our topic was an old man, perhaps of Indian origin. As a child I gazed at him as a captivating magician, not fully understanding his culinary skills. He accentuated his image by wearing a cloth turban. He used to push a steel cart with wheels, after sunset. The cart had a burning lamp. The cart was modified to hold a kerosene oil stove (a safety hazard by today’s standards). When stopped the mobile cook would take stacks of kneaded rotti and heat it on the stove using a black iron skillet. He also sold boiled gram garnished with fiery red chillies, which was relished by some retired seniors who would attain realms of joy, aided by their distilled delights under the branches of a massive tree. In a way, the rotti cart was an ‘action station’ that brought the older folk for an extended pre-dinner chat.

On the weekends there was a short soul who sold his alluring “Bombay mittai”. I think the origins of this sweet candy has its roots in India. Again, this worthy enticed us by ringing a small brass bell. The strands of finely shredded cotton candy were wrapped in newspaper or between two soft thin wafers. My mother used to warn me that this man’s fingernails were not that clean. However, the innocent desires of childhood often yield fully to such temptations. Many of these vendors walked about ringing their bells. Even tourists ate from them. Another vendor who came also pushed a cart. His signature dish was the godamba rotti, which he made with effortless dexterity. Again this item went well with any curry, including tempered potatoes dusted with chilli flakes. I recall another old woman coming down the lane once in a while. She used to sell achcharu. This complex combination had boiled olives (veralu), chopped green mangoes and ambarella. Today this combination is sold by some vendors at Galle Face Green.

It rained incessantly that night. The wheels of time kept turning. As the years rolled by our choices for tea were redirected towards other forms of food. I never counted my calories. The services of the bakery did adapt as they sent a tri-cycle with a large red plastic box. We did patronize this, but somehow the young rider did not have the aura or sales competency of our beloved old baker, who probably retired afflicted with varicose veins after all those years of walking. The vendors of that era always engaged in humour filled carefree conversation. They did not mind the heat of the evening. Somehow, they mildly influenced our childhood with splendid memories. Today I have had all sorts of cuisine, including high tea. Every form of cuisine is indeed a reflection of its present timeline. In retrospect, as we travelled life’s highway these vintage vendors came along and made our journey enchanting, even as they faded into the sunset.