today’s lunch: fish ambul thiyal, pol (coconut) roti, and a Sri Lankan salad
While trying to figure out what recipe to make for the next episode of Pan Asian, a look at my blog statistics told me that many people were checking out an older post for the above dish, Fish Ambul Thiyal. Like coconut sambol, paripu, and cashew curry, Ambul Thiyal is one of those defining dished of Sri Lankan cuisine–because no other cultures have it. Perhaps it’s because one of the dish’s main ingredients, goraka or gamboge, is not found in too many other places besides Sri Lanka. This orange fruit, which resembles a tiny, shriveled black kidney when dried, imparts a unique tartness, which balances out with the salty and spicy flavors of the dish, creating a truly amazing flavor. I’m also told its an excellent preservative, and in the days before refrigeration, using goraka in cooking…
No football here today. My apologies if you ventured on here to find a football recipe today. It’s not going to happen – I’m too sore. Rest assured that I will try to put aside my prejudices in time for the quarter finals. Don’t be expecting any German or Portuguese food yet though. These things take time. Instead I’ll give you ten things that I love AND hate about Sri Lanka (in no particular order and don’t be too alarmed by the fact that the list is identical)
Rice and curry (because it is damn tasty)
Having the largest amount of public holidays of any other country in the world (go figure)
The Indian Ocean (I can stare at it for hours, relax and rejuvenate)
Complete strangers smiling at you (cheer you up on a bad day)
Wonderful abundance of wildlife (fascinating)
Buses available to go pretty much anywhere 24×7 (useful)
Coconuts and coconut trees (raw material for almost everything; coir, food (the delicious pol sambol and cocunut milk for curries), oil, toddy and arrack)
All day power cuts (perfect excuse to do nothing all day)
Many different climates in one country (incredibly interesting and beautiful)
Tuk tuks (versatile, quick; not to mention the cool factor)
Rice and curry (because sometimes you just fancy a pizza for lunch/dinner)
Having the largest amount of public holidays of any other country in the world (very annoying when you have foreign deadlines and you’re working when the rest of the country isn’t)
The Indian Ocean (tsunami 2004 – not a good moment and still freaks me out occasionally when the ocean is rough)
Complete strangers smiling at you (hugely irritating when trying to go about your business quietly and anonymously)
Wonderful abundance of wildlife (one word – BUGS)
Buses available to go pretty much anywhere 24×7 (noisy and smelly, some with exhausts capable of knocking you out for a few hours)
Coconuts and coconut trees (dangerous to pedestrians, kills quite a number of people annually)
All day power cuts (see foreign deadlines above plus the fact that your freezer defrosts and you have to throw out your food, not to mention being bloody hot)
Many different climates in one country (always having to travel with an umbrella and jacket in the Hill Country)
Tuk tuks (can be dangerous and smelly in Colombo too…I’ve travelled in some where I was actually surprised my foot didn’t go through the rusty floor). This is getting better now in the capital with some metered cabs but still dodgy.
Saying all that I do love the place and the people, otherwise I wouldn’t be here 🙂
Dining in Sri Lanka is still a ritual unlike in the West, so understanding the etiquette that prevails will help you get the best out of your meal
Mention the cuisine of Sri Lanka and the majority of foreigners will say they imagine it’s just like Indian food. Such comments completely underestimate the varied, eclectic cuisine that has developed on an island that has played host to different ethnic groups and nationalities. While there is, of course, an Indian influence, there are also Dutch, British, Arab and Portuguese flavours and recipes that vie for attention. Sri Lankan is definitely special!
This has led to a country in which the inescapable rice and curry sits alongside ‘Chinese’ food adjusted to suit the Sri Lankan palate. Numerous bakeries across the island overflow with “short eats” – pastries filled with spicy concoctions, fish cutlets – and freshly baked cakes and biscuits, reminiscent of British high teas. Then there are the wonderful home-grown treats such as kiri bath (milk rice served at all auspicious occasions), pol sambol (fresh grated coconut combined with chilli, salt, pepper, onions and lime), “hoppers” (crispy at the edge and gooey in the middle pancakes) and kavum (dough cakes deep-fried in coconut oil).
It is not only the cuisine that is distinctive, but also the way in which it is consumed. Sit down for a Sri Lankan meal and you must contend with a number of ‘consumption rules’ that are very different to what you might do elsewhere.
Eating With Your Fingers
Firstly, you have to forget about cutlery and prepare to delve in with your fingers. It may surprise all of the food lovers everywhere that this is absolutely the most delicious way to enjoy a curry. The different curries are mixed with the rice using the fingers of your right hand. This is because of the belief that the left hand is the ‘dirty’ one to be used for trips to the bathroom. Also the food should never work its way above your knuckles, as you should mix only with your fingers and not roll the food in your palms. Then as you are about to eat, the food should be balanced on your fingertips and then given the final push with the back of the thumb. Strangely, licking your fingers is also a no-no.
Don’t worry too much if you cannot master the technique, most hosts will gladly offer you cutlery to help you enjoy the meal.
Although we say “rice and curry”, in the west we often eat curry and rice, in that the rice is an accompaniment to the main curry dishes. In Sri Lanka it is truly RICE and curry. The slightest of Sri Lankan women can put away about three days’ worth of western rice portions at one sitting and that is nothing compared to the men. Also while the west is used to slices of bread, in Sri Lanka they just cut the loaves in half and dig in, mopping up the curry gravy with lumps of ripped apart bread.
A visitor eating a rice and curry should be careful to eat rice and curry rather than curry and rice. It would be embarrassing if a family had made what they felt was enough for them and their guest, only for the guest to ladle four large pieces of chicken, two slices of fish and half the vegetables on their plate and then a tablespoon of rice as an accompaniment. This would be depriving the family of food and also making them lose face.
Spicy Sri Lankan Food
There are other advantages to being sparing with the curries when you first begin to serve yourself. Sometimes, the food can be extremely hot, and by serving yourself a little of each curry you can test which ones you can handle, all tempered by generous handfuls of rice. If you do find you really like something, simply top up your serving as the meal progresses.
Other etiquette includes taking a small gift for your host. If they put it aside and don’t even bother to look at it for the duration of your visit, don’t leave highly offended vowing never to buy a gift for them again. It is actually polite not to make a big deal of a gift in Sri Lanka, since the act of giving is what is important – not the contents. Once you get used to it, it’s actually a great relief not to have to endure fake exclamations of delight when you have presented somebody with a gift they do not like.
There are culinary surprises to be aware of, too. Avocados in Sri Lanka is classed as a fruit, and rather than being served with prawns and mayonnaise or as a guacamole dip, are often blended with sugar or condensed milk to constitute a very sweet treat. Pineapple can be served not in fruit salad form, but with salt and pepper, and unripe mango tends to be dipped in salt and chilli.
A blog about freelance translation as a digital nomad, travel, food & drink and all things Sri Lankan and Dutch.