Walking the Arrack Rope

Akanksha Maker | November 28, 2023 | Life

Sitting with Claire Holman, General Manager at Galle Fort Hotel, I find myself at one of the latest culinary offerings of this quaint little town of Sri Lanka – Ropewalk.

Sri Lanka’s first arrack-speciality bar, Ropewalk opened only a few months ago, at the iconic 300-year old structure of the Galle Fort Hotel, within the UNESCO heritage site of Galle. Influenced by the 1920s flapper era (a subculture of young Western women in the 1920s), Ropewalk’s endeavour is to put the Sri Lankan arrack on the world gastronomical map.

For those who are as unaware as me about this spirit, arrack is a distilled alcoholic drink made from the fermented sap of coconut flowers. Finding its origin in the Indian sub-continent, this spirit is now popularly found in South India, Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. As of today, Sri Lanka is the largest producer of arrack in the world.

Asking Claire about how the restaurant got its name, she explains that the bar is close to Leyn Baan street – which translates to Ropewalk in Dutch. Another etymology is the process of making the arrack itself, where the makers walk across a rope positioned between the two coconut trees, to gather the coconut sap.

Ropewalk signature sour (Rockland old arrack, lime, ginger, lemon-grass)

While the bar gives a modern vibe with its design and ideology, the decor itself is inspired from traditional Dutch colonial and Sri Lankan eras. The designer, Eranga Tennakoon, has sourced and replicated original furniture, combining indigenous Sri Lankan pieces with those influenced by the Dutch colonial era, to create a speakeasy bar aesthetic.

To start the night, Claire ordered a round of Ropewalk signature sours for us. This signature drink made with Rockland arrack features homegrown ginger, lemongrass and lime – making for an interesting introduction to the world of arracks.

The drinks menu features a range of arrack cocktails and proudly reads “We are Sri Lankan, we drink arrack, we endure” on top of it. Some of the recommendations here include Smokey Marmalade (Halmilla arrack, amaretto, bitters, lemon marmalade, panda, rosemary), Rampart Sunset (Rockland Old Arrack, creme de cacao, fresh pineapple, bitters, treacle) and The Nosy Neighbour (Hamilla arrack, pineapple, ginger, lychee, ginger beer).

Rampart Sunset (Rockland arrack, fresh pineapple, bitters) & the Nosy Neighbour (Halmilla arrack, ginger beer, lychee) cocktails 

Claire explains how this is the only bar in the country which specialises in arrack-based cocktails. Their eventual goal is to house all the brands of arrack in the country in their bar. She also points out the difference in recognising a good quality arrack spirit is the spelling. “When it’s spelled without the c (arrak) – you know it isn’t the high quality arrack,” she says.

She goes on to talk about the food at Ropewalk and how they’ve endeavoured to make the culinary offerings a blend of European and Sri Lankan flavours. Making the dishes appealing to the international audience while adding local flavours, the dishes boast of subtle Lankan touches with spices, herbs and hints of indigenous ingredients. For instance, the mutton rolls I tried from the bites were a delicious blend of marinated mutton, coriander, garlic and chilli mango salsa. There are some interesting vegetarian options as well, including eggplant “pahi” bruschetta (pickled eggplant, home-made cheese and cherry tomato) and young jackfruit frikadelles (spiced young jackfruit, jackfruit seeds).

Salted Watalappan and mutton roll

I quite enjoyed their grilled hallumi salad as well which featured gotukola (local herb), quinoa, roasted sweet pumpkin and pomegranate vinaigrette. You can also opt for interesting options that integrate various cuisines such as Lampreys – a Sri Lankan Dutch burger which derives from there Dutch word lomprijst, which loosely translates to a packet or rice; and Babath – a tripe dish that’s loved among Sri Lankan homes, especially the Malay community). Desserts too feature Lankan touches; for instance the salted watalappan comes with coconut cream custard, kithul (a local plant) jaggery and salted peanut crumble.

A visit to Ropewalk is not only an orientation with the Sri Lankan arrack but also a rendesvous with an establishment that’s going the extra mile with its ingredients and preparation to put Lankan flavours on the global arena.

Reservations for Ropewalk: +94 912 232 870

Address: Galle Fort Hotel,  30 Church St, Galle 80000, Sri Lanka

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