When it comes to Sri Lankan cooking, spices are an element that does not bear sparing use. Having a reputation in international spice trade from the days of its early history, the Sri Lankan palate is used to having their meals well-seasoned in aromatic ground herbs and chilli such as coriander, cumin, cardamom, red chilli powder and curry leaves, among others.
Despite its initial resemblance, Sri Lankan food supersedes even South Indian cuisine in terms of chilli content. It is said that the Sri Lankan seasonings create some of the spiciest food cultures in the world. While the taste buds and stomachs of the locals have long since become assimilated to the red-hot fare, foreigners should be wary of sampling dishes meant for the locals. Hotels and dining establishments catering to the foreign crowd usually offer low-spice versions of the dishes that novices will probably appreciate better.
The recipes of these dishes rarely follow any set menu, allowing for many inventive forms of seasoning that vary from region to region as well as between ethnicities. It is generally agreed, however, that rice is the staple food of the nation. Rice can be consumed for nearly every meal with few noticing any lack of variety; if someone does, a local would probably suggest substituting the types of rice instead of considering changing the staple dish. Boiled rice is usually consumed with some sort of curry, a gravy and possibly a “sambol” or a “mallung”. These are usually supplemented by tangy or sweet preserves such as pickles and chutneys.
Sambols are generally mixtures of scraped coconut with some other ingredient. The favourite of these is the chilli sambol, where salted and ground chilli paste is mixed liberally with scraped coconut, which can be eaten with either bread, rice or any other bland main course. The classic “mallung” comprises finely chopped greens mixed with a smattering of coconut.
The coconut is an indispensable element of Sri Lankan cuisine. Apart from the finely scraped coconut used to make the aforesaid sambols and mallungs, coconut milk is used as a base for making gravies and curries. Whether the curry is of fruit, meats or vegetables, they are invariably seasoned and boiled in first the thinner extraction of coconut milk, and after they are properly cooked, the thick, creamy first extraction is added to give body to the gravy. There is even a main dish called “kiribath” or milk-rice which is made by adding salt and thick coconut milk to boiled rice. Milk-rice is normally reserved as a dish for auspicious or festive occasions, such as the Sinhala – Tamil New Year.
The Sinhala New Year, which falls in mid-April, sees both urban and rural households toting out the traditional sweetmeats and delicacies of the island. These are usually sweet and oily, from the Dutch and Portuguese sweets such as “kokis” and “athirasa” to the more native “dosi” (the local version of toffee created from fruits) and floury “aluwa”. The “Kavum” and “mung kavum”, however, take pride of place in the menu of Sri Lankan sweetmeats.
A spread of indigenous and tropical fruits is also given prominence in the Sri Lankan table. Bananas and plantains are chief among these, followed closely by avocado, wood apple, papaya and the seasonal favourite – the ruby red clusters of “rambutan”. The Jackfruit, however, is the one held in great veneration amongst the traditional cooks. High in nutrients, the unripe jackfruit can be served as a poor man’s substitute for rice or a tasty curry or “mallung”, while the sweet, ripened version of the same are greatly favoured as a dessert.
Another local favourite is the sour fish curry, or “ambul-thiyal”, especially among the fortunate coastal towns which sees an abundance of fresh-caught seer fish, tuna and prawns. Usually fish such as seer is used for this dish, which is well-seasoned even by Sri Lankan standards and cooked in an earthenware pot to give it that extra flavour.
The best and most authentic Sri Lankan dishes are those cooked in earthenware pots over open stoves and wrapped in banana leaves. Furthermore, those who sit down to eat a traditional meal with the locals might be taken aback by their table manners, as like most South Asians, Sri Lankans too eat with their fingers. However, this is done in a very clean and refined manner, following a table etiquette whose rules have been laid down in the Buddhist scriptures themselves, thousands of years ago. It is more difficult than it looks, so if you’re a first-timer, it’s best not to lose the forks!
Those who wish to learn more about Sri Lankan cuisine while on a trip to the beautiful equatorial isle are directed to the travel portal Truly Sri Lanka. This website provides you with the best places for hotel dining in Sri Lanka, as well as the lesser-known places wherein to sample authentic Sri Lankan cooking.
Pushpitha Wijesinghe is an experienced independent freelance writer. He specializes in providing a wide variety of content and articles related to the travel hospitality industry.