Thiruvananthapuram: Sri Lankan food is not for the timid eater: the fiery curries, sweet caramelized onion in seeni sambal (onion relish), and sour lime pickle are all dominant, powerful flavors that startle awake senses dulled by the thick, hot island air. While visitors to the island—or those eating in Sri Lankan restaurants outside the country—may
Thiruvananthapuram: Sri Lankan food is not for the timid eater: the fiery curries, sweet caramelized onion in seeni sambal (onion relish), and sour lime pickle are all dominant, powerful flavors that startle awake senses dulled by the thick, hot island air. While visitors to the island—or those eating in Sri Lankan restaurants outside the country—may find watered down versions, most Sri Lankan cooking is unapologetically, punch-you-in-the-face, get-the-adrenaline-pumping flavored.
Rice is an ever-present antidote to these big flavors. A meal in Sri Lanka is called “rice and curry”—a term that’s almost synonymous with food in general. There’s rice, of course, and usually a curry with a thin broth and large chunks of the featured protein (beef, pork, fish, goat, and on from there), plus an assortment of side dishes—anywhere from four to nine or ten, depending on the time and place. For a quicker bite, there are “short eats,” a Sri Lankan term essentially denoting snacks
All the food, whether coconut sambal made from coconut plucked from a nearby tree and served as part of a rice and curry, or a shrimp vadai (fritter) purchased from a vendor through a train window and wrapped in his children’s old schoolwork, bears marks of Sri Lanka’s geography and culture. As with many island nations, traders rampaged across the island, bringing spices (the now ubiquitous red pepper), dishes (a “Chinese roll” looks suspiciously like what we would call an egg roll in the States), and whole categories of food (such as Dutch sweets).
75 per cent of Sri Lankans are Sinhalese (mostly Buddhist), and the food generally described as Sri Lankan is their food. Tamils (mostly Hindus), especially those in the north, use slightly different spices and other ingredients in their curries, but the format of the dishes is similar to food found on the rest of the island. Many Westerners’ only reference to Tamil culture is the Tamil Tigers, a group of militant separatists from the north. Since the government’s defeat of the group in 2009, the island is quite safe for tourists, though the new reputation has not fully spread—so this exciting, delicious destination remains affordable to visit. (If this article makes your mouth water, go now!)
Muslims, mostly on the east coast of the island, have popularized dishes familiar from other parts of the world, such as biryani, and the Burghers (descendants of colonial Europeans) introduced Dutch and Portuguese candies and desserts. Every rice and curry is served with pol sambal, a scraped coconut condiment that varies in spiciness from table to table. Coconut is a major ingredient in the greens dish mallum, and, of course, it’s a big player in the island’s sweets. When I started testing Sri Lankan recipes, the first thing I did was buy a giant bag of desiccated coconut.
Stroll through the countryside and the fragrant smell of cardamom and curry leaves will inevitably grab you. In the city, piles of turmeric and fennel seed sit in ceramic pots at the market, waiting patiently for their turn in a curry. These spices are fundamental to the cuisine, serving as the base for the many curries, sambals (relishes), sundals (salads), and mallums (greens dishes) served with most meals. Black pepper is native to the island and was the most powerful spice in Sri Lankan cooking before spicy peppers arrived on colonial era trading ships. Black pepper curries still pop up on menus, and are worth seeking out for the original flavors of the island—and because they offer an entirely different type of heat.
To continue making a curry, you will likely need fenugreek, cardamom, cumin, fennel seed, cloves, and coriander, all used whole or ground. From underground, garlic, ginger, and turmeric are often added in chunks, while curry leaves and pandan leaves are used fresh. Finally, a list of Sri Lankan curry ingredients would be incomplete without the local cinnamon, often called Ceylon cinnamon, after the island’s former name
Along the coasts, you will often see fish, shrimp, or crab. In the high hills of central Sri Lanka, pork is used; chicken, beef, goat, and lamb are found island-wide. Crab curry is the stunner, and rightly famous, with the delicate local crab meat absorbing brilliant Sri Lankan spices.
A curry’s color is determined by how various spices are initially used and treated. Pork curry, which you’ll see in every color from light yellow to a nearly black shade, is often made with golaka, a dried fruit somewhat like tamarind, which gives sticky, sour notes to balance the otherwise rich broth (the pork is always cooked with all the fat left on). Deep red “Jaffna curry,” usually Tamil-style versions from the northern part of the island, is most often made with goat and with seafood. Some version of savory onion sambal (lunumiris) is common, with chopped shallots, lime juice, Maldive fish, and red pepper to provide a sharp, spicy bite with a touch of raw shallot crunch. Seeni sambal (sweet condiment), usually made with rich caramelized onions brings a softer, more mild spice, tamed by the sugary sweetness. There is no road map for how to eat the condiments served with Sri Lankan food, but since you’re digging in with your fingers, scooping up a bit with your rice and curry is usually easiest, though sambal can also be spooned onto a roti or pappadum
Kotthu or kotthu roti takes flaky roti bread and chops it up on a flat top with vegetables, meats, and/or eggs, resulting in a fried-rice-like dish, where tiny pieces of chopped bread replace the grains of rice. Those same roti can be found folded around egg, chicken, or any number of other fillings to become something of a mini-wrap. It is a delightful little package.
Cutlets are more like croquettes—breaded balls often made of beef, chicken, or shrimp. And as long as we’re talking deep-fried wonders, it would be a crime to miss the vadai—various deep-fried lentil fritters. There are many doughnut-shaped versions: corn-studded vadai, spicy vadai dotted with the green of curry leaf, and ones with tiny shrimp sticking out. They
Desserts in lanka-it is hard to go far in Sri Lanka without running into a sugary treat. In a restaurant, the dessert you will most likely find is watallapan. It is similar to flan, but made from coconut and, like any good island dessert, the coconut palm sugar jaggery. Air bubbles keep the thick dessert from getting too heavy and a good dose of chopped nuts on top gives a little bit of crunch to the otherwise soft sweet.
They offer coconut pancakes and string hoppers (much like the savory breakfast kind described above), both wrapped around jaggery. The mild, starchy wrap contrasts the blast of crunchy sweetness. You’ll also find the enticing-looking halapa: a mix of kurakkan (red millet) flour, coconut flour, and jaggery wrapped in a kanda leaf and steamed. It has the subtle flavor of the leaf (somewhat similar to a banana leaf), and a distinctive, thick texture, which had me guessing, mistakenly, it was made in part from dried bananas. If your sweet tooth’s not satisfied yet, head to the markets or mini-marts for vast selections of packaged sweets: fudgy toffees, British cakes, and Indian candies.
LANKAN BUFFET DINNER MENU
NiwithKoththamalli – Spinach & Coriander Salad with Grated Coconut
MuhuduMalu – Seafood Salad with Orang Garlic Dressing
Pathola – Snack Gourd Salad
Pol Sambol | Lime Pickle |Sinhala Achcharu|Mango Chutney |Papadam|Fried Chilies|Fried Cashewnut|Star Fruit Chutney|WaraluAchcharu|Dry Fish Bedamu|Dry Shrimp Malluma|Sprats
Chicken Rotti |Tender Jack Fruit Pattis|Fish Cutlet
Curry Flavored Chicken Soup
Kukul Mas – Chicken Red Curry
Elu Mas – Mutton Black Curry
Malu – Fish Stew
Murunga – Drumstick White Curry
WattakkaKalupolmaluwa – Pumpkin Kalupol
Bandakka – Ladyies FingerTempered
AnnasiMirisata – Raw Pineapple Dry Curry
Hoppers | Godamba –Rotti | Koththu– Parata
KaluDodol– Black Musket |Sago Pudding |Honey Coconut Craps – Pan Cake
(The author is Executive Chef, Hilton Garden Inn, Thiruvananthapuram)