Home > Gastronomy > Alive, Alive Oh! A story from Sri Lanka

Paola Fornari has lived and travelled all over the world. She has loads of incredible stories. For this topic of the month, Memorable Trips, she shares some of them. This one happened in Sri Lanka. Thanks so much Paola!


I sit on the lace-edged tideline, the cool waves lapping around my thighs, savouring the moment. Sri Lanka, Ceylon, Serendip. So many names for one island. I like Serendip best. Serendip. Serenity.

Yesterday, I was on my rooftop at home in Dhaka. The temperature was in the high thirties, as is typical of the two oppressive, humid months before the monsoon season. A suffocating wind rose, clouding the air with dust. A tornado was ripping through dozens of villages fifty miles east of us, leaving in its trail over thirty people dead and hundreds injured. Bangladesh didn’t need this.

And here am I sitting on a deserted beach, completely switched off. No parasols, no deckchairs, no ice-cream sellers, no one hawking sarongs. Not even exquisitely-sculpted women offering ayurvedic massages.

sri lanka

The tide is high. Balmy air, palm trees, a few fishermen in the hazy distance bringing in their catch. an occasional passing stray dog, too hot even to approach me for a sniff. And me, in an immensity of bleached sand and sparkling sea.

I am reminded of the Indian Ocean beaches of my childhood in Tanzania. We would mark the high tide line, and gauge the exact moment when it turned. Twice a month, at neap tide, from one hour before high tide to one hour after, it was tek-tek-catching time. At least, we called them tek-teks. In reality, these rainbow-coloured bivalves belong to a species of clam called donax. We had competitions to see how many we would find in ten minutes, or who would be the first to fill a plastic cup.

Those were the days before sunscreen and SPF had been invented, so we sloshed about in T-shirts and hats, the skin on our noses getting pink and tight under the scorching sun. Neap high tide was always at midday.

And it’s noon now, at Weligama on the south coast of Sri Lanka. My fingers instinctively scratch under the sand, until they make contact with something hard burrowing away.

Only it isn’t a fingernail-sized tek-tek  I hit, like the ones we used to find in the Indian Ocean. It’s a golf ball-sized one. It would make Molly Malone proud. I ply the sand and find a couple more. And I have an urge to eat them.

And suddenly I find myself in the kitchen, talking to the chef.

Do people in Sri Lanka eat these?‘ I ask him, opening my hand to reveal my catch. He turns his nose up.

Only the Chinese.’

Italians love them,’ I say. ‘I’m Italian. Would you cook them for me this evening?

I can’t,’ he replies. ‘They’re alive. I’m a Buddhist.’

But you cook fish.’

Someone else kills that.’ I just love the logic.

Okay, can I cook them?

He thinks for a moment, then smiles. ‘Why not?

He agrees to supply the ingredients I need, and we make a date for seven o’clock. Clutching a big bowl, I go back to my foraging. Soon I have collected a respectable quantity, and leave them soaking in salt water to spit out their sand, just like my mother taught me all those years ago.

At seven I’m back in the busy kitchen. A dozen men stand over steaming hot stoves, stirring and frying as the chef barks instructions. The place smells of fish. I find my tek-teks in a corner, their siphons raised in the water like snorkels.

The chef introduces me to a smiling young man. ‘This is Mahmood. He’s Muslim; he’ll help you.’

sri lanka

Mahmood has already chopped up garlic, parsley and chilli, and peeled some tomatoes. A packet of fettuccine rests on the counter. I empty the drained tek-teks into a frying pan over a strong flame, and a stab of guilt shoots through me as the words ‘sentient beings’ ring in my head. Fortunately the chef has his back turned. After a couple of minutes the shells are all open, and Mahmood and I extract the flesh.

A saucepan of water is boiling on a gas ring, and I toss in the fettuccine. Then into the frying pan go the garlic and chilli, followed by tomatoes and parsley, and finally the tek-teks, which just need to be warmed up. I inhale the familiar salt-and-fish aroma. The pasta is soon al dente.

I drain it, mix in the sauce, and ladle it into a bowl, adding a few sprigs of parsley and some empty shells as decoration. Leaving the stifling kitchen behind, I emerge into the cool evening air of the outdoor restaurant, and walk past the bemused stares of waiters and other guests to a table at the far end.

sri lanka

Fettuccine alle vongole. It is, modestia a parte, as my mother used to say, the best meal of my holiday.

Paola Fornari
Brussels, Belgium
July 2020
Photos @PaolaFornari
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