For those who have visited island nation of Sri Lanka, the first thing they miss when they leave is the food. Ever wondered why?
For centuries, the former Ceylon has been growing and trading spices, guaranteeing it a spot on the food map of the world. There’s more to the cuisine than mainstays rice and dhal curry. Founded on ethnic Sinhalese and Tamil roots, with some Eurasian and Malay influences thrown in, flavourful Sri Lankan food is prepared using an assortment of techniques that would take a lifetime to master and, predictably, a variety of spices. The best meals are cooked in traditional clay cooking pots over a wood fire.
If you haven’t had the pleasure of trying some of the country’s popular dishes, get to know them now, before Sri Lanka becomes a mainstream foodie destination.
A bowl-shaped crepe of fermented rice flour, coconut milk and a leavening agent–it’s a simple recipe that takes skill to make the sides crisp and lacy, leaving the centre fluffy. Whether for breakfast or dinner, hoppers are versatile enough to be sweet with sugar or treacle (kithul palm syrup), or savoury with an egg and sambol (chilli paste).
Coconut Sambol (Pol Sambola)
It’s rare to find a Sri Lankan table without this mixture of ground coconut, chillies, garlic, red onion, lime and a bit of salt. It serves as a side dish to rice and bread.
String Hoppers (Idiyappam)
More noodle than pancake, string hoppers is typically the main dish in the morning or in the evening. Rice flour is squeezed out of a mould, then steamed to make these soft circles. You’ll often find it served with a light coconut milk curry. It can also be made with red rice.
These come in different forms, but whether they’re in coconut milk (malu kirata), in a fiery red curry (miris malu) or reduced to a sour dry curry (ambulthiyal), you’ll find that it all about the fish made glorious by a host of spices.
Greens in Coconut (Mallum/Mallung)
Usually made with Indian pennywort (gotu kola), mallum can be any leafy greens you can get your hands on, cooked with shredded coconut. Healthy and easy to prepare, it’s a great accompaniment to rice and curry.
Brinjal Pickle (Wambatu Moju)
Is it pickle, chutney or curry? You decide as you sample this sticky deep-fried combination of brinjal, chilli and onion.
Call it a complete meal that tells Sri Lankan history, folded in a banana leaf. Hailing from the Dutch Burgher community, lamprais is a rich delicacy traditionally consisting of rice cooked in stock, meat curry, assembled with beef meatballs (frikkadels), fried ash plantain curry, brinjal curry, and shrimp paste (blachan).
Considered Sri Lankan fastfood, kottu announces itself with the clanging of the metal on metal as the cook tosses the shredded roti and vegetables together on the hot plate. The long list of variations: vegetarian, cheese, chicken, beef, and crab. There’s also the amusingly named dolphin kottu, which doesn’t contain dolphins but uses paratha instead of roti.
Coconut Flatbread (Pol Roti)
A quick- and easy-to-make bread, these discs of coconut, flour, water and salt join hoppers in the range of breakfast staples served with curries and sambol.
Tea time is incomplete without crispy golden brown lentil fritters made with onion, fennel seeds, curry leaves and a hint of green chilli.
New Year Sweets
For Avuruda, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, special food items turn up in the spread. Among them are fried mung bean sweet (moong kevum), kalu dodol (jaggery, rice flour and coconut milk toffee), kokis (crispy fried rosettes), and red rice oil cake (adhirasam). Also notable is milk rice (kiribath) cut into diamond shapes, which is served at other auspicious times such as births and weddings.
Buffalo Curd (Meekiri) and Treacle
The high fat content of buffalo milk makes it ideal for this traditional yogurt drizzled with treacle for sweetness. It is sold in clay pots at roadside stalls.
Take a break from the long drives around the country with fresh coconuts. After sipping the last of the coconut water, pass the shell back to the vendor and watch as he hacks off part of the husk to make a little spoon for scooping the coconut meat. Ingenious.
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