In spite of its small size, Sri Lanka boasts an amazing variety of food and styles of cooking.
The island has a rich heritage of indigenous dishes and its regional cooking is strongly individual and varied. For example, Kandyan Sinhalese cooking, with its emphasis on hill country vegetables and fruits; coastal cooking, making the best of the abundant seafood with which the land is blessed; Tamil cooking, closely linked to that of southern India, which is especially prevalent in Jaffna, in the north.In Sri Lanka, as in any other country, the most typical food is cooked in the villages – getting precise recipes is almost impossible. They don’t cook by a cookbook. A pinch of this, a handful of that, a good swirl of salty water; taste, consider, adjust seasoning. That’s the way Sinhalese women cook, and no two women cook exactly alike. Even using the same ingredients, the interpretation of a recipe is completely individual. Ask a cook how much of a certain ingredient she uses and she’ll say, ‘This much’, showing you with her hand. You watch, make notes and try to achieve the same results by trial and error. And when you arrive at the correct formula, write it down!!
In addition to regional characteristics, some of the most popular dishes reflect influences from other lands. After a hundred years or so it does not matter that this or that style of cooking was introduced by foreigners who came and stayed, either as traders or conquerors – Indian, Arabs, Malays, Moors, Portuguese, Dutch and British. The dishes they contributed have been adapted to local ingredients, but retain their original character. They are not presented as Sinhalese dishes but accepted and enjoyed as part of the richly varied cuisine.
The influence of the Muslims and Malays is responsible for the use of certain flavourings such as saffron and rose water and the spicy korma, pilau and biryani which are Sri Lankan only by adoption.
When the Portuguese ruled Sri Lanka for 150 years in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they left behind words which have worked into the language and customs which are very much a part of rural and urban life. Many recipes end with an instruction to ‘temper’ the dish. This comes from the Portuguese word, temperado, which means to fry and season. The Portuguese also contributed a number of sweetmeats which are popular to this day. These are served at celebrations (Sri Lankans are enthusiastic about celebrating every happy occasion) and people take enormous pride in old family recipes, which they guard with zealous care.
Then came the Dutch, and though their rule ended after 138 years, their descendants stayed on in this prosperous land. They too brought with them recipes laden with butter and eggs in true Dutch tradition, but in the spice-rich land of their adoption they took on new flavour with the addition of cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace. The traditional Ceylon Christmas cake is a fine example of this, a fruit cake which stands above all others for flavour and richness.
Today, many travellers, tourists, reviewers and expats regularly rave about the Sri Lankan cuisine. I have found some great links about Sri Lankan food that people have written (some famous & some not-so-famous) from across the world that I have felt worthy of a mention:
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.
Long, tapered manioc tubers are dull brown and rough on the outside. The white flesh of manioc can be composed into floury, sweet and sour mouth-watering dishes.
Cassava, tapioca alias manioc is renowned for its ability to survive extreme droughts and thrive in rainy conditions. A delicious substitute for potatoes and the third largest source of carbohydrates for human food, this tropical root continues to leave its mark in the world of gastronomy. In Sri Lanka, manioc is the next best thing to a staple food (other than rice!) and manioc lovers consume it in all its forms.
Boiled manioc with lunu miris (a tangy chilli paste with onions and sometimes maldive fish) and scraped coconut is a preferred breakfast dish amongst many Sri Lankans. Some prefer boiled manioc with a spicy meat dish and scraped coconut.
Ingredients for boiled manioc (3/4 people):
1.5 kg peeled, cubed manioc
1 tsp salt
1 tsp turmeric
Ingredients for lunu miris:
1 or 2 red onion chopped very finely
1 tomato chopped very finely
1 tsp chilli flakes (or more depending on how hot you like it)
2 tsp lime or lemon juice
salt (some use ground dried fish but this can be an acquired taste)
The yams are peeled, washed and boiled in an open pot for about 20 minutes, with a salt and turmeric to enhance the flavour and add a beautiful yellow hue to the dishes.
The ingredients for the lunu miris are mixed together and ground or in more modern kitchens passed briefly through the blender.
Manioc curry is a thick creamy curry that most Sri Lankans love. The rich consistency of this concoction owes its savoury aroma to the spices that go into making the dish. As is the case with most Sri Lankan dishes, manioc curry preparation slightly varies from region to region. However, the typical manioc curry is a simple and straightforward dish.
Ingredients for manioc curry (3/4 people):
1.5 kg manioc
1 ts turmeric powder
1 ts chilli powder
1 ts cumin powder
sprig of cinnamon pandan leaves & a sprig of curry leaves (or bay leaves)
salt & pepper
500 ml coconut milk (fresh or canned)
OPTIONAL: lightly browned onions and garlic (this is called tempering in Sri Lanka)
Peel the tubers, wash thoroughly and cut into fair sized pieces.
Boil until the manioc is tender. Drain.
Add turmeric powder, chilli powder, cumin powder, cinnamon pandan leaves, curry leaves and salt. Mix well and pour over coconut milk.
Boil the mixture until the yams absorb most of the liquid.
Lightly tempered (fried) onions and garlic is also sometimes added to the curry.
This tempting dish is served with plain rice.
Nevertheless, there is one rule that most Sri Lankan manioc fans comprehend – “never take manioc with ginger”. According to popular belief manioc and ginger taken together could cause poisoning.
Manioc chips come in several shapes and sizes; extra thin round chips, thick square chunks, long thin French fry lookalikes and much more. The making of manioc chips is an art in itself.
As dusk falls, roadside manioc vendors get ready for their days work. The brown outer layers are peeled off, revealing the chalk white flesh tinged with soft pink. The vendors then grate or cut the tubers with a swift rhythmic movement of the hand. The sliced of grated manioc slices go into a wok filled with boiling hot oil. Yellow chips with slightly browned edges are ladled out of the wok and then piled into partitioned sections of their carts. With the customary chilli powder and salt mix, the chips are sold to manioc lovers from all walks of life. I personally love them as a snack with my sunset beer 🙂
In this section I will post about Sri Lankan food and recipes. If there is anything you have eaten in Sri Lanka or in a Sri Lankan restaurant elsewhere and you would like to know to know how to make it at home, let me know and I will ask my friends here in Sri Lanka for their version or post from my collection of Sri Lankan cookbooks.
This is a recipe for a Spicy Prawn Curry:
500 g prawns – you can use large king prawns or smaller varieties
1 small stick cinnamon
1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
Sprig of fresh curry leaves (if not available you can use bay leaves)
1 stem fresh lemon grass, bruised
or 2 strips lemon rind
1 strip rampe leaf (if not available chop up one leek very finely)
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1-2 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp salt or to taste
2 cups thick coconut milk (fresh is best but canned is possible)
Lime or lemon juice to taste
Wash prawns and remove the heads and carefully take out the veins, but leave the rear of prawns with shells intact. Put all ingredients, except the prawns and lime juice into a saucepan. Stir in one cup of water and bring slowly to simmering point. Simmer uncovered for five minutes. Add prawns and lime juice and stir. Simmer for a further five minutes. Add more salt and lime juice if necessary and serve with boiled rice or bread.
This recipe is all about the prawns so I have not included onions or garlic but only spices. Spicy food is loved by most people and the spices blended in this curry will give the prawns a delicious twist.
A blog about freelance translation as a digital nomad, travel, food & drink and all things Sri Lankan and Dutch.