“O tidings of comfort and joy!” a friend texted shortly before Christmas. “Cottage Ham has reappeared in Keells supermarket”. ‘Cottage Ham’ is what Keells call their sliced ham, a pale imitation of what one can buy in any UK supermarket but manna to us expats. So off we all trotted to buy out the stocks and cause a further shortage. Cooked ham is but one example of a range of goods that mysteriously appear and disappear from the shelves of Sri Lanka’s three main supermarket chains: Arpico. Keells and Cargills/Food City, and the expat community regards it as a sacred duty to monitor their comings and goings, and to buy in bulk whenever these treasures put in an appearance.
Now I don’t know whether the ham is imported (which might explain the periodic shortages) but I do know that many of the other things that regularly do disappearing acts are locally produced. Since there is no discernible seasonal pattern to their presence and absence I am at a complete loss to explain why it is only sometimes possible to buy rhubarb (grown up in the mountains of Nuwara Eliya and thin gruel compared to its Yorkshire cousins but still very welcome); button mushrooms (grown in nearby Kurunegula and hardly seasonal); and most bizarrely of all, supermarkets frequently run out of coconuts for which Sri Lanka is justly famous and produces in biblical quantities. On one occasion following a prolonged button mushroom drought, we encountered a friend in Keells with a trolley loaded with button mushrooms. “Whoopee! They’re back!” we exclaimed but she, shamefacedly, admitted to having bought up the entire shelf, before passing two packs on to us to assuage her guilt. Local butter, produced in the hills of Kotmale and Ambewela, is sometimes available and equally often vanishes from the shelves for weeks at a time. Why? Does something happen to the cows? The imported New Zealand alternatives cost fully twice as much. Why are orange and mango cordials always available but our favourite, passion fruit, from the same range, only occasionally pops up? We shall probably never know.
But the deepest mystery of all concerns cling film. Sri Lanka is plastic-obsessed. The supermarkets all display signs asking customers to refrain from single-use plastic bags while their staff put everything into single-use plastic bags, staring in slack-jawed amazement if you ask that they desist. “But sir, the bags are free”. ”Yes, that’s precisely the problem”. Arpico is especially the home of all things plastic. It wouldn’t surprise me if their buildings are constructed from some form of plastic. There are shelves of plastic bags of all kinds, as well as aluminium foil, and an inevitably empty section labelled “cling film”. Meanwhile the staff in the fruit and veg area are busy in pairs wrestling with industrial sized cling film dispensers to wrap around anything larger than a peanut. But can you buy a domestic sized roll of the stuff? Only very rarely. And will they sell you the industrial sized rolls? Nope. We’ve taken to asking UK guests to bring out Tesco’s finest in their suitcases so we have some way of keeping leftovers fresh in the fridge.
In Jungle Tide we bake our own bread, so maintaining a supply of dried yeast is crucial. We usually have plenty in stock but in November a national yeast shortage struck and this went on until we’d completely run out by mid-December. Sally does not take such things lying down. She asked a staff member in Keells why there was no yeast. “All finish, Madam” was the predictable and uninformative reply, accompanied by the usual Sri Lankan grin and wobble of the head. “When is more coming?” “I do not know, Madam” (grin, wobble). “Then can I ask the manager?” “Sorry, manager not here” (grin, wobble). “Then who is the next senior person I can talk to?” “Ah, Madam, that is me”. “So can you tell me why there is no yeast?” “Yes, Madam, it is management decision.” (grin, wobble). “Why?” “I cannot tell.” So we left two full trolleys near the checkouts and stormed out in high dudgeon (expats tend to do these pointless things despite knowing better). The yeast returned after Christmas, and rumour had it that there was some kind of temporary national ban imposed to prevent the locals from brewing up too much festive hooch. But one never knows which rumours to believe in Sri Lanka. We managed to get some UK guests to bring out an emergency supply.
The mysteries continue to pile up. UK guests often offer to bring out Marmite, assuming we can’t get it here. But the shops are full of the stuff. However, Bovril is unknown. You can get Lea and Perrins easily, if expensively, but not English mustard (they have some horrific creamy concoction masquerading as it). Squeezy bottles of lime juice are easily available, but not lemon juice. Some common proprietary medicines are easy to find, others don’t exist. Thank goodness we run a guest house with plenty of European people passing through our doors, bringing us good cheer. I’m off for a ham and mustard sandwich. Happy New Year.