Ella is a little village in the heart of Sri Lanka’s hill country. It’s the place you come to to stretch your legs on long hikes, and wander around endless green hills, tea plantations and waterfalls.
I didn't want to come to Ella.
I was travelling north from the coast of Sri Lanka heading to Uda Walawe National Park, famous for the hundreds of elephants and sloth bears. It's thought that sloth bears are related to the sleepy furry animal, the South American sloth. I’m often called a sloth myself due to my (incredible) ability to fall asleep within minutes of stepping foot on public transport, so I really wanted to see some sloth bears, my sisters of the animal world.
I got on the bus on the south coast and I really tried so hard to keep my eyes open. But I fell asleep. And before I knew it, I’d travelled five hours on the wrong bus, and in the wrong direction, and I woke up to my head lolling around on an uphill climb to Ella. I arrived late at night with a crick in my neck, stepping off the bus into pouring rain and a muddy puddle. No elephants. No sleepy sloth bears. Needless to say, I was pretty pissed off.
But there’s nothing like a good Sri Lankan curry to calm me down. I headed through the village, deciding where to go, when a banner caught my eye. Burgers. The first sighting in all my time in Sri Lanka. I took it as a sign.
Dream Café has a choice of two burgers – a beef burger, or a veggie burger with satay sauce. I ruled out the beef burger straight away. All the cows I’d seen in Sri Lanka were at the side of the road looking scrawny. I didn’t like the thought of that. I went for the veggie patty and satay option, because if there is one sauce I love, it’s satay sauce. Even a veggie patty could taste good smothered in salty peanut sauce.
My burger arrived and on first inspection it looked pretty good. Very impressive bun, a hundred times better than I anticipated, tall and fluffy, dotted with seeds and almost a little shiny. It looked and tasted much better than many of the burger buns in London. The chips were also a winner, home cut, crunchy on the outside, soft in the middle. First chips I’d eaten in ages and they cheered me up a little. I didn't try the side salad.
Then I did the mandatory cross section cut of the burger, which revealed a large but insipid patty - a mush of carrot, potato and peas that looked liked they'd been violently punched together before being over fried. I reached for my satay sauce ready to smear the patty with it, covering up any visible signs of pale patty. But it turns out that in Sri Lanka, satay sauce isn’t satay sauce as I know it. Satay sauce means cement thick peanut butter. The smooth variety.
Very disappointing. But I didn’t dismiss it straight away, I’ve had peanut butter on burgers before and it’s been great, warmed and softened by a juicy beef patty. But peanut butter and a dense veggie patty? I realised with each bite that there could not be a more claggy combination of ingredients. Each mouthful felt like I was being dragged through the burger equivalent of quick sand as I chewed and chewed, glugging Lion beer, trying to provide some relief from the thick paste in my mouth which was proving hard to swallow.
Maybe you are thinking that I shouldn't expect much from a burger in a remote Sri Lankan village in the mountains. But I can tell you I have had some of my best burgers in unusual hilltop destinations, including a wagyu, pineapple fritter and mango chutney burger in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, without a doubt one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten. So I had high hopes (excuse the Springsteen song reference) for this burger in Sri Lanka. Unlike Springsteen, this burger was a let-down.
A bad burger and no sloth bears. I had to find something else to lift my spirits during my time in Ella. I found the 'Down Town Roti Shop' and cheered myself with a gigantic chocolate and banana roti - soft, chewy and sweet.
Disheartened but not defeated, I'm now on a mission to find some decent veggie burgers somewhere in the world, very soon. And hopefully one day I'll see some sloth bears too.