Curry Research: Sri Lanka

Chopstick Cinema

In my research of Sri Lankan cuisine, I have discovered that, at only 25,332 square miles, this tiny teardrop of an island, just off the southern tip of India, features remarkable culinary diversity. Hill country cuisine is quite different from that of the coastal regions. And in the north, Tamil influence is strong. In addition to its regional fare, much like many Asian cuisines, Sri Lankan cuisine is an amalgam of dishes influenced over centuries by many cultures, including Indian, Middle-Eastern, Malaysian, Portuguese, Dutch, and British. And many of the dishes introduced by these traders and invaders have been adapted to its culinary ethos by the use of local ingredients.

Among them are tropical fruits such as coconut, pineapple, papaya, melon, passion fruit, and guavas; plantains, bananas and mangoes in many shapes and sizes, and the more exotic cashew apple, durian, mangosteen, wood apple, and rambutan. Vegetables come in two categories: hill country varieties such as cabbage, carrot, beetroot, cauliflower, knolkhol, beans, tomatoes, and bell peppers; and low country vegetables such as leafy greens, eggplant, cucumber, pumpkin, bitter gourd, loofah gourd, and snake gourd. Spices include chili peppers, ginger, garlic, turmeric, mustard seed, cumin, coriander, cardamom, clove, nutmeg, mace, and cinnamon.

And in this island cuisine, seafood is naturally a prime ingredient, including prawns, crabs, lobsters, tuna, mullet and squid. In addition to its essential place as a fresh ingredient, pickled and dried fish are also common in many Sri Lankan dishes.

Again, like every cuisine, its dishes vary with each individual who prepares them. Every family has its own style and preferences, with each day?s fare being improvisational, according to the season, and a tendency to cook by instinct and taste, rather than from a precise recipe.

Although global establishments such as McDonald?s and KFC are gradually gaining a toe-hold in Sri Lanka, it?s reassuring to know that the daily consumption of traditional Sri Lankan fare is still the status quo. On most tables, the daily menu typically includes rice accompanied by some sort of curry dish, the details of which vary by region. But it doesn?t end there. With the influence of Indian, Malaysian, Middle Eastern, Portuguese, Dutch and British cuisines, the choices are seemingly endless. Here are a few of the local favorites:

Rice ? The most basic of foods in Sri Lanka is rice. In its purest form, it is simply steamed and served with a variety of other foods, especially curries. On special occasions, a more elaborate rice pilav may be served, steeped in coconut milk, colored bright yellow with turmeric, and garnished with cashews and raisins. Another way of preparing rice, especially for celebratory occasions, is a dish called kiribath, cooked in coconut milk and accompanied by a chili relish called lunumiris or a thick, molasses-like syrup called panipol. And yet another rice dish called Pittu, consists of rice meal mixed with grated coconut, steamed in bamboo leaves and served with curry or chili relish. The Portuguese are credited with introducing a another popular rice dish called lamprais, in which the rice is boiled in curried beef stock, topped with meatballs called frikkadels, wrapped and baked in a banana leaf.

Curry ?This ubiquitous dish runs the gamut of meats, seafoods, vegetables, fruits and spices, and may be served for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. A typical Sri Lankan curry recipe includes some kind of protein (meat or seafood), two or more vegetables, and a variety of spices. Sri Lankan Curry Powder differs from Indian curry blends such as Madras and Bengal, in that the whole dried spices are pan-roasted to a toasty brown before they are ground and blended. The recipe I will use includes coriander seeds, cumin seeds, fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, whole cinnamon bark, cardamom pods, cloves, curry leaves, and cayenne pepper, with coconut milk as the liquid ingredient. A typical Sri Lankan meal might include both a ?main curry? of meat or fish, and one or more vegetable or legume curries. Sri Lankan curries tend to be fiery hot, and are served with an accompaniment of even more fiery sambols, cooling salads, piquant chutneys and pickles, plain rice, and a lentil flatbread called pappadam. At a Sri Lankan curry meal, everything is served at once, and the rice is hand-scooped in bite-sized morsels with a bit of this and that from the other dishes in each bite.

Mallung ? This vegetable dish is quite simply a finely chopped mixture of leafy greens, quickly cooked and seasoned with Sri Lankan spices. It relies on the natural moisture from the greens rather than a sauce of any kind, and may also include grated coconut, chopped onion, and fresh lime juice. Mallung often accompanies a curry meal.

Sambol ? These Sri Lankan condiments come in many varieties, most of which are alarmingly spicy. The most popular sambols are pol, katta, and seeni. Pol is a mixture of grated coconut, red chili peppers and curry leaves. Katta sambol consists of onions and chili peppers ground to a paste. And Seeni sambol, a mixture of onions, chili peppers and spices, although sweetened with sugar, is still hair-raisingly hot. Some other sambols include pickled Maldives fish and fresh lime juice.

Breakfast in Sri Lanka might well mean a dish of curry and rice. But there are other appetizing choices as well, the most popular being a dish called ?hoppers?, no doubt a Westernization of their native name ?appa?. Made from a batter of sweetened rice flour and coconut milk, these crepe-like pancakes may be eaten plain, or with eggs, milk, or curry. A variation on the hopper is ?indi-appa?, made with rice-flour dough extruded like noodles into a bamboo steamer.

At snack time, Sri Lankans enjoy a variety of finger foods known as ?short eats?, which may include croquettes, cutlets, filled pastries, crispy squid with onions, deep-fried Chinese rolls filled with meat, seafood, or vegetables, and ?kottu roti?, a shredded flatbread stir-fried with eggs, meats and vegetables. Short eats are often accompanied by an assortment of sambol condiments.

To satisfy a sweet tooth, Sri Lanka offers a coconut custard called wattalpam, spiced with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. For a deep-fried treat, there?s kavun, rice-flour and molasses beignets. And thanks to European influence, a Dutch Christmas cake called breudher, and a Portuguese layer cake called bolo fiado, have been assimilated into the mainstream of Sri Lankan confections.

Stocking a kitchen pantry with all the requisite ingredients to prepare a Sri Lankan meal is not nearly as exotic as it may sound. Although esoteric ingredients may be required for some dishes, many others need only such items as can be found at your neighborhood market. As with many Asian cuisines, it?s the way that the elements are combined, rather than the ingredients themselves that give a dish its unique qualities.

Most important of course are the spices. So your spice rack should include turmeric, chili powder, mustard seed, cumin, coriander, cardamom, clove, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Aromatics to keep on hand are chili peppers, garlic, ginger, and onions.

For fresh ingredients, vegetables may include cabbage, carrots, beets, cauliflower, beans, tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, cucumber, and leafy greens. Fruits to enjoy with a Sri Lankan meal might include pineapple, papaya, melon, passion fruit, guava, plantains, bananas and mangoes. If you want to venture into more esoteric produce, and are able to find them, look for bitter gourds, loofah gourds, snake gourds, cashew apples, durians, mangosteens, wood apples, and rambutans. For the main dish, most any meat or seafood may be adapted to Sri Lankan cuisine, especially prawns, crabs, lobsters, tuna, squid, beef, chicken, and lamb.

Coconut milk is a must-have staple to keep on hand, and for a more authentic experience, you might visit a Sri Lankan or Indian market for pickled Maldives fish, rice flour, grated coconut, prepared chutneys, pickles and sambols, jaggery syrup, and specially blended Sri Lankan curry powder.

While Sri Lanka is its own unique country and culture, it shares many things in common with India, its neighbor to the northwest. And with its Middle-Eastern, Malaysian, Portuguese, Dutch, and British influences, finding Sri Lankan ingredients may require several sources. In recent years, our regular supermarkets carry an increasing number of international ingredients, which makes shopping for any type of cuisine much easier. However, when a recipe calls for something like fenugreek or tamarind paste, it may be necessary to seek a little farther afield.

My favorite place to shop for Indian spices is online at And since Sri Lankan cuisine includes many of the same spices, I found everything I needed there as well.

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