The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Wartime scourge is peacetime gourmet’s delight

Kilinochchi (Sri Lanka), June 2 (Reuters): The house special in the trendiest restaurant in rebel-held Sri Lanka is a chicken dish called a ‘landmine’.

The dish with the explosive taste is made at a new restaurant that could compete with the best in the capital, Colombo, but is in the dusty town of Kilinochchi, 250 km to the north, and the headquarters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The “Seran Suvaigam” diner is a result of a 15-month truce and peace process that has given hope for a permanent end to the island’s 20-year ethnic war and has led to some businesses springing up, despite complaints aid is coming too slowly.

The restaurant was set up by the rebels themselves with a loan from their Tamil Eelam Bank, to cater to affluent Tamils and the odd tourist who shows up in the north. “I’m shocked. I did not expect to find such a place here,” said Shervana Raghavan, from India, after a tasty lunch in the restaurant’s air-conditioned dining room.

Neatly dressed waitresses wearing white beret-like caps serve everything from rice cakes and vadais — a spicier version of a doughnut — to curries. It is much more up-market than the typical rural restaurant on the island, where a cup of tea is usually served with the saucer on top to keep the flies off.

“We serve east and west cultural food,” said Sasi Nagarajah, a 27-year-old who moved into restaurant management after being an accountant. “We have food from India, Sri Lanka and the West,” he said.

Six rounds of peace talks have achieved some progress, with the rebels saying they are willing to give up their demand for a separate state if a federal form of government meets the needs of minority Tamils.

But they suspended the talks in April, saying despite the truce, not enough had been down to rebuild lives in Tamil areas. In the meantime, the rebels, who have always had a knack for business, are setting up a range of ventures in their zone.

“The restaurant is part of a group selling groceries, making textiles, jams and cordials and milling rice,” Nagarajah said.

And despite their tough military rule, the rebels are not ignoring free-market realities — the manager’s salary gets bumped up if he pulls in more customers.

Most people in the north are still struggling to eke out a living as there are few jobs that pay more than a nominal salary.

About a million people were displaced by the fighting, with about 400,000 believed to have returned home since the February 2002 ceasefire. But living conditions have not improved much since the truce.

The danger of landmines, with an estimated two million spread across the countryside, is behind the tongue-in-cheek nickname for the chicken pancake roll, called a midhi veddi — landmine in the Tamil language.

“It has chicken and egg inside. No beef or mutton,” said Nagarajah with a smile.

Susi, an 18-year old waitress, said she had trained for four months in “catering technology” and wanted to learn Sinhalese and English.

Few Tamils speak Sinhalese, the language of the majority, and fewer Sinhalese people speak Tamil — one of the reasons for the conflict between the communities.

English can be a problem and Nagarajah said he was planning to correct a few errors in the menu. Entries in a book of customer comments took a light-hearted look at that and more serious matters.

“It is not fine apple juice,” one customer wrote about a menu item, apparently pineapple juice. “And it is not fride fish.”

“This place is okay but think of the thousands who can’t afford to come here,” another customer wrote.

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