The Hungry Lawyer: Two Sri Lankan restaurants are better than one

The lamprais at AJs after unwrapping.
The lamprais at AJs after unwrapping.

To the best of my knowledge, there are two Sri Lankan restaurants in Hong Kong. One is the newer Serendib in Sheung Wan, and the other the more venerable AJ’s Sri Lankan cuisine in Saikung. You could be forgiven to thinking there was only one, because until a few weeks ago, AJ’s website persisted in its claim to be the only Sri Lankan game in town, but as of this column, AJs new Facebook page has dropped that contention.   

The fact that we have two Sri Lankan offerings in the city is certainly to the benefit of diners like me who enjoy the rich mix of influences that produce the island’s cuisine. So without further ado, here are my thoughts on meals I’ve had at each of them within the past month.

Serendib

Serendib is an unassuming establishment at the far end of Wing Lok Street in Sheung Wan, past Western Market when walking from Central. It has the vibe of a street stall that found a permanent location and this is reflected in the basic fare that is prepared in the small visible kitchen. The menu is simple, with mains consisting only of varieties of kottu, a Sri Lankan staple made from chopped roti stir fried with vegetables, egg and/or meat and spices. As an alternative, Serendib also serves a variety of kottu with string hoppers, the classic Sri Lankan dish consisting of rice flour pressed into a noodle form and steamed, in lieu of the chopped bread. 

On my visit, we tried one of each, with a chicken kottu (HKD90) complemented by a lamb string hopper kottu (HKD80). Serendib’s chicken kottu is a steaming mound of cabbage, sliced bread and other vegetables richly spiced, but not spicy hot. It is accompanied by a gravy bowl of medium spicy chicken curry. The crunchy cabbage, chewy chicken and sliced roti were a good mix of textures and easy to enjoy. In contrast, the string hoppers kottu is served as plain noodles on a plate accompanied by the gravy bowl filled with a simple lamb curry. I love the soft, squishy texture of string hoppers and how they are great at absorbing the robust flavors of Sri Lankan cuisine. At Serendib, the lamb was very basic with a few pieces in a spiced, oily sauce. It felt like the kind of dish that one could easily enjoy at a street stall or after a few beers but wasn’t otherwise particularly noteworthy.   

String hoppers kottu with lamb at Serendib. Photo: Marc Rubinstein

In addition to the limited selection of mains, Serendib has several vegetarian and non-vegetarian snacks under the heading “tapas”.  We tried the veg samosas (HKD40) and the deviled chick peas (HKD70). The chick peas were excellent, perhaps the best dish of the meal, arriving on an iron plate mixed with soft diced potatoes and flavored with mustard seeds and other aromatic spices. The samosas on the other hand were disappointing. Having been prepared in advance for reheating, the centers were still cold and, indeed, nearly frozen. To Serendib’s credit, the lovely staff apologized profusely and indicated we should have asked sooner and they certainly would have replaced them. As it was, we were quite full from everything else.

AJ’s Sri Lankan Cuisine

To get to AJ’s requires a trek to Sai Kung, on the MTR via Hang Hau or Choi Hung and then by bus or minibus to Sai Kung village. From there, it is a walk along the waterfront past the seafood restaurants until the road gets quiet and a large Sri Lankan flag awaits. There, a couple — he from Sri Lanka and she from Hong Kong — have created a full menu of Sri Lankan dishes ranging from rich curries and special occasion lamprais to the street staples found at Serendib. There is even a children’s menu for “little humans”.

The Sri Lankan flag outside AJs. Photo: Marc Rubinstein

Not being a little human, I ordered way too much for two of us, as so much sounded so good. The highlights of the meal were a rich and creamy cashew nut curry (HKD69) and the lamprais (HKD129) itself, a Dutch-influenced dish of rice steamed in a banana leaf along with, among other things, fish, an onion relish known as seeni sambal, egg and a choice of meat. We chose mutton. 

Unlike cashews out of a jar, the cashews in the curry were unsalted, unroasted and boiled semi-soft in a rich yellow coconut curry that was not spicy but full of taste. I hadn’t had a dish like it before and I loved it. The lamprais was also delicious. Aromatic steamed rice scented from the banana leaf was topped with tender mutton, sweet and spicy onion relish, a shelled hardboiled egg turned crispy on the outside, and more delicious steamed cashews. It was a feast for both the eyes and the belly.

Cashew Nut Curry at AJ’s. Photo: Marc Rubinstein

The balance of the meal was also very good. AJ’s kothu roti with chicken (HKD105) comes in a neater mound than that served at Serendib but was similarly satisfying, if just a bit more expensive. The gotu kola mallung (HKD69) was an excellent lighter choice, consisting of chopped pennywort leaves mixed with bell pepper and red onion. It reminded me in genre and lightness of a tea leaf salad from Myanmar but with a completely different flavor owing to the more typical Sri Lankan tastes of grated coconut and lime.   

All and all, to satisfy a quick craving for Sri Lankan flavors, Serendib certainly does the job from its convenient location in Sheung Wan. But for a real treat, the trip to Saikung is worth the effort. You could do a lot worse on a special occasion than AJ’s lamprais.

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