Going to the vegetable market is always fun in Sri Lanka. It’s pretty much pointless to make a shopping list for me because I never stick to it. I can be convinced that I’m going to buy potatoes, onions, cabbage and tomatoes but what I’ll actually come home with are sweet potatoes (the normal variety were small and the sweet ones SOOO purple… seriously colours get me every time), aubergines (tomatoes weren’t fresh), courgette (zucchini – my new favourite food), limes (just because) and yes onions, always onions.
I have lived here for nearly twelve years and I still don’t know what all the vegetables in the market are.
A selection at my local market in Hikkaduwa
Don’t let the picture above fool you. I live in a tourist destination and our market caters for that so you will find many vegetables popular with non-locals (with prices to match). It makes for great shopping but what really interests me are the veggies that are so indigenous that they don’t have an English name, vegetables that aren’t well-known and have no endless recipe suggestions when you do a Google search on them, vegetables that have health benefits that only Ayurveda practitioners or Sri Lankan grandmothers (Aatchis) know. Strange vegetables. Weird vegetables. Wonderful vegetables.
Attention grabbers include the gourds (bitter gourd, snake gourd, bottle gourd, ridge gourd etc.). These are related to squashes and pumpkins but seem to have many more health benefits, such as helping to lower blood sugar and eradicating toxins. Locally these are usually made into curries and sambols.
Baby bitter gourds
Another vegetable you are not likely to encounter in an average supermarket abroad is murunga, also known as drumsticks. They are eaten in a similar way to their chicken equivalent in name, you basically hold them in your hand and suck off the edible bit. Again they are said to be incredibly healthy, not to mention an aphrodisiac.
One of my absolute favourites to use raw in a spicy sambol are winged beans, aka dambala:
This strange looking vegetable is so delicious fresh; simply finely chop it into a sambol with onions, tomatoes, chillies and lime (with salt and pepper to taste). Providing it is not too hot I even eat that on a cheese sandwich. Seriously good.
If you have followed this blog for a while you will know that I love aubergines (brinjals, eggplant, wambatu, whatever). So I’m in my element here in Sri Lanka because they come in all different shapes, sizes and colours! Big, long, oblong and deep purple to tiny, round and white and green.
Another favourite of mine are snake beans. They can be prepared just as normal beans but they are much longer and in my opinion tastier. They are less stringy than normal green beans and make an absolutely fantastic curry. Peter Kuruvita has a lovely recipe here.
Then there are all the different kinds of leaves, ranging from spinach to the more exotic gotu kola. Your more familiar vegetables such as potatoes, onions, leeks, carrots can of course also always be found and increasingly vegetables such as cauliflower, broccoli, courgettes, peppers etc. are available at larger markets and supermarkets.
One thing that I simply cannot imagine any Sri Lankan market to be without (other than coconuts) is the wonderful karapincha. These are curry leaves. A mere crunch of these in your hands gives off such a Sri Lankan curry smell that it is almost overpowering. They grow abundantly in my garden and I would consider them a horticultural nuisance if they weren’t so tasty and healthy!
Curry leaf (karapincha) tree in my garden
Karapincha are indispensable in any kitchen in Sri Lanka. They are added to almost every curry recipe or even just fried briefly in oil to flavour the cooking oil. It is a hardy plant and its health properties are numerous.
There are also dedicated karapincha dishes, like karapincha mallung (or mallum) and karapincha kenda (a herby drink). Karapincha kenda is a mixture of a cup or two of finely shredded leaves, grated coconut, chopped garlic and ginger, a teaspoon of mustard powder, and pepper and salt to taste. Mix the ingredients together with water and season with lime juice. Put the same spice mix with a couple of green chillies thrown in, through a blender to make a fine and healthy karapincha dip for your potato wedges.
Of course, Sri Lankan cooking is not just about taste. Combinations of ingredients and dishes are chosen to optimise nutritional balance and health, and often to address health issues. In that sense, karapincha is somewhat of a workhorse, adding much more than flavour. The native ayurvedic medicine system lists a variety of uses for almost all parts of the karapincha tree, from its leaves to bark, roots, fruits and flowers.
Its bark and roots are used as a tonic and a stomachic, and stimulant. The raw leaves, rich with amino acids and oils, purify the blood, bring down blood pressure, prevent diabetes and aid digestion. Studies have identified a compound that slows down the breakdown of starch, making it effective for weight control.
A visit to the vegetable market in Sri Lankan is therefore so much more than a shopping trip.