Sri Lankan Food has its own special niche in Asia. They call it “rice and curry” . . . but that is just the beginning of an eclectic and fiery assembly of menu items, sometimes original and sometimes adapted from the various colonial powers who have ruled this Island in recent centuries.
The cuisine has its soft side . . . rice and some mild coconut dishes . . . but most flavours speak boldly for attention. The curries are often rich and fragrant and the chillies can turn them into a smouldering fire. If the curries grow a little too hot . . . then the rice will be the buffer. For quick snacks, there are “short eats” – a small fried samosa with coconut or chickpeas. One the differences between Sri Lanka cuisine and nearby Indian cuisine is that Sri Lanka has better access to a rich supply of fresh seafood in addition to beef and pork. Succulent crabs from the many pristine Sri Lankan coastal lagoons, giant prawns, and fresh tuna, are just some of the centrepieces in Sri Lankan dishes. And the flavours can be unexpected: lime pickle, onion relish, shredded coconut with chilli, bitter melon, and desserts sweetened with the syrup of the Kithul Palm. If you are expecting Indian cuisine –then expect everything to be just different in a Sri Lankan sort of way. “Hoppers” – rice flour pancakes for example – or “String Hoppers” – the same mixture in the form of moulded servings of thin noodles.
Sri Lankan cuisine rests upon a foundation of rice, coconut, and native tropical fruits and fresh vegetables. Coconuts are everywhere – frequently sold by bicycle-borne, machete-wielding vendors – who will hack open a golden king coconut for 100 Rupees or less. King coconut water is cool, refreshing and nutritious with just enough calories to refresh you. The coconut comes with a straw and, when empty, the vendor will cut it open for you – crafting a spoon from a portion of the shell for you to scrape out the soft coconut layer inside. And you will find coconut served with every meal of rice and curry – as “pol sambal” – spiced fresh shredded coconut.
Stroll through the countryside and the fragrant smell of cardamom and curry leaves will inevitably grab you. In a typical busy Sri Lankan vegetable market, the coconut stands are noisy places with vendors using electric grinders to shred each freshly split coconut. In the spice shops, turmeric, fenugreek, cardamom, cumin, fennel seed, cloves, coriander, ginger and garlic are used whole or ground are basic for the production of curries – as are the fragrant fresh cut curry and pandan leaves – which are rarely experienced by diners outside of the tropics. These spices are the foundation for the wide variety of curries, which can be prepared with a wide variety of ingredients including fresh pineapple, cashews, jackfruit and sweet potatoes. Of all the spices in Sri Lanka, however, none matches the native Cinnamon. The premium Ceylon Cinnamon offers a spectrum of fragrant spice which is far superior to the more commonly mass marketed variety. Plan to take some home with you.