Sri Lanka, the fabled island of precious stones (sapphires, rubies and others) is home to one of the least known Asian countries. Rarely found in restaurants outside of the country, Sri Lankan food fare is often mistaken for yet another Indian regional cuisine. To the gastronome, however, Sri Lankan food is an intriguiging and unique as the many other customs of this rich and diverse culture.
Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, is located off India’s southeast cost. The rugged terrain of the central highlands – characterised by high mountains and plateaus, and huge teas plantations (Sri Lanka supplies 55 percent of the world’s tea) dominate much of the island. This landscape falls away to sandy lowlands, rice paddies, and long stretches of palm-fringed, pristine beaches.
The ancestors of today’s Sinhalese people arrived some 25 centuries ago from northern India. They named themselves after the mythic figure who was born of a sinha (lion) and a princess. After conquering the indigenous Yakshas, a succession of kingdoms – Sinhalese in the centre and south, and Tamil in the Jaffna Peninsula – rose and fell over centuries
The first Portuguese captains chanced upon Ceylon in the early 16th century and set about trading in cinnamon and spices – two valuable commodities at the time. Then followed four centuries of western presence by Portuguese, Dutch and British before Sri Lanka regained her independence in 1948.
Such diverse influences may be tasted in dishes of Arab biryani (yellow rice with meat and nuts), Malay nasi kuning (turmeric rice), Portuguese love cakes and Dutch brenders (dough cakes) and lampries (savoury rice and meat packets). The British had nothing culinary to offer.
Sri Lanka cuisine is based on rice with vegetables, fish or meat curries, and a range of side dishes. Most foods are curried and people eat with their fingers (thumb, index and middle fingers of the right hand are used) claiming that there should be nothing between them and their food.
Seafood dishes such as seer fish (horse mackerel) stew, ambulthiyal (sour clay pot fish) crab curry, and Jaffna cool (Tamil seafood soup), are common to coastal, and increasingly, inland towns, mostly due to improved transportation Sri Lankan cooks curry everything – but there are levels of “hotness” in their curries – mild (mostly softened with coconut milk) and creamy, medium and hot.
Beef and large wild animal (deer) are less popular mainly due to the largely Buddhist ands Hindu population; chicken and seafood are usually preferred instead.
There is a small Muslim population (7 percent of the total of 18 million) that shuns pork, shellfish and alcohol.
Sri Lanka is blessed with an abundance of tropical fruits and vegetables. On high elevations (what locals call Up-Country) apples, pears, carrots, potatoes and herbs grow too.
Jackfruit, breadfruit, okra, gourds, plantains, sambol, finger bananas, sour sop, magosteen, rambutan, pineapple are only some of the tropical fruits and vegetables Sri Lankan cooks use.
It is a cuisine expressed in spices – cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, coriander, mace, pepper, cardamom, red chiles, mustard seeds, cumin, fenugreek and turmeric are only some of the flavouring agents.
Vegetable and coconut oil are used liberally. All fruits and vegetables taste as they should. Genetically modified foods have not yet made their way to the agriculture of Sri Lanka.
They are picked at the peak of their ripeness and transported quickly to markets. Needless to say, in coastal towns seafood is as fresh as will ever get!