The ubiquitous lunch packet

By Stan Stalla | Nov 19, 2009

There are a variety of ways that an office worker in Sri Lanka can meet his lunch needs. Most common is to bring a plastic container of rice and curry from home - often leftovers from the previous day's repasts. Here at USAID/Sri Lanka, we have the luxury of a microwave oven in our office.

Microwaves would be beyond affordability for most Sri Lankans, but those lucky enough to land a job with an American Embassy organization, like USAID, have access to some nice perks. For that hour after noon, I'm just as likely to see motor pool drivers as office secretaries and accountants pushing those two-minute timer buttons.

Another option is to buy your lunch. Across the street and down a piece is a five-star hotel with a food court, no less! Appropriate for a South Asian country, its fast food selections include Sri Lankan, Pakistani, Indian and Malaysian. The typical food court lunch costs Rs (Rupees) 200-250 - plus or minus $2 - drinks not included. I've rarely eaten there, but if I do, I calm my burning tongue with an "EGB," or Elephant (House) Ginger Beer. EGB itself has quite a kick to it, but it's the best ginger beer I've ever drunk.

A third option is to eat at a nice restaurant. Once a month, I take my secretary, Anoja, out to lunch at the Galle Face Hotel. These days, a U.S. government secretary is no longer a secretary. They're "administrative assistants" or "office management specialists." However, job titles are the furthest from our minds when Anoja and I walk the 200 meters to the Galle Face Hotel.

There, we enjoy 90 minutes of sitting at a table with a white tablecloth and heavy cutlery, on a terrace that looks out on the Indian Ocean. Though the rice and curry may cost Rs 700 (about $6.50), it's served by smiling, dark-skinned waiters with white jackets and polished shoes, ever solicitous of our drink needs (we often order fresh-squeezed lime juice, with a shot glass of sugar water on the side).

The Galle Face Hotel is a landmark in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo. Built by British entrepreneurs in 1864, this colonial structure is described by Wikipedia as "the oldest hotel east of the Suez, in Egypt."

Of all the lunch options, though, my favorite is the simple lunch packet. Ubiquitous throughout the city are card tables and dinged-up wooden tables with piles of lunch packets, neatly arranged by contents. My favorite place is in front of the Dutch Reformed Kirk, across the street from the American Center, where my office is.

Like Winnie the Pooh, my tummy starts to remind me, right around 11:30 a.m., that it'll soon be time for "a little something." Patient for another half-hour, I know that the young man will, by noon, have set up his beach umbrella and wooden table in front of the kirk. In a matter of minutes, I'm out the door, with a friendly wave to the security guards in the air-conditioned guard house.

Breezing through the metal detector, I push open the heavy, bullet-proof security doors and enter the sidewalk that fronts Galle Road. Remembering to first look right (a vestige of the British), I make my way between tuk-tuks and cars to the other side. People from neighboring buildings, not to mention the occasional policeman, have queued for their lunch packets, stamped in English on butcher paper with the name of the main course - fish (Rs 70); chicken (Rs 80), or egg (Rs 60).

With a cheerful smile, the vendor always includes a handful of papadums, as he packs my lunch of rice and fish curry in a flimsy blue plastic bag.

A variation on the lunch packet theme is an amazing, bicycle-based, delivery system. In the early morning, it's often the household staff who start the rice and curry process. By mid-morning, a man on a bicycle rings the bell at the front gate, and a servant brings out a plastic or metal lunch pail for her employer. The bicycle man places the lunch pail alongside dozens of others, in a wooden box that is fastened to his back fender.

Once finished with his pick-ups, by the noon hour, he has started distributing his dozens of lunches. Operating solely from memory, the bicycle men are always on time, and they never hand over the wrong lunch to the office employee.

At least twice a week, I buy my lunch across the street, in front of the kirk. After paying my Rs 70 (fish), I retrace the look-right, dash-between-vehicles, wave-at-friendly-security guards, beep-metal detector, open-heavy-security-door routine. Within minutes, I'm back at my desk.

At this point, most Sri Lankans would wash hands, roll up sleeves, and dive in using eating-with-fingers etiquette. My concession to not being Sri Lankan is the tablespoon I keep in my office cupboard. Once unfolded, the butcher paper becomes a placemat on my desktop.

Next, I unwind the tightly-wound plastic wrap that keeps the innards from leaking all over the place. Inside this brick of compressed food are round grains of Sri Lankan rice, a small sprat-like fish, fried in batter, yellow lentils, green beans, and a third bit of vegetables, all sprinkled with red chili flakes. Spooning up savory bits of this spicy lunch, I make sure to have a cold water bottle on hand.

It takes me about 10 minutes to spoon my way to the bottom of this pile of "a little something." Between bites, I turn to watch the ocean waves complete their journey on the sandy beach beyond my office compound. Usually as an afterthought, I remember the papadums, still in the blue bag, and crunch my way to completion.

A bit smug, I wipe my mouth on a paper towel and think of the McDonald's dollar menu, knowing that I've just had a nutritious meal, full of flavor, for 75 U.S. cents.

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