Sri Lanka's culinary repertoire is an epicure's fantasy shaped by many historical, cultural, and other factors. The Indians, Arabs, Malays, Portuguese, Dutch and English who colonized, traded with or settled in this tear-shaped island over the centuries, all left their indelible mark on the cuisine that, in course of time, evolved into one with an identity of its own. Sri Lanka flaunts a rich culinary heritage, the result of a unique medley of local produce with recipes and spices brought to the island by these settlers. It is indeed a melting pot of food that emanated from myriad influences.
Rice plays a significant role in Sri Lanka and every meal comes with the ubiquitous rice. So don't be astonished if a Sinhalese greets you with a 'Have you eaten rice?' Like in Kerala, it's not just a staple but also the base for a large number of dishes. Uses of rice are versatile. 'Rice and curry' is the national dish of Sri Lanka. Rice is served at every meal including at breakfast. It is the main ingredient in the island's famed rice flour pancakes appam (hoppers), idiappam (string hoppers) and pittu (or the equivalent of the Kerala puttu).These popular breakfast dishes of Sri Lanka with the same nomenclature reminded me of the ones back home in Kerala.
Egg hopper with chicken curry.
The signature dish is appam, a crispy, bowl-shaped pancake made from a batter of fermented rice flour with coconut milk, palm toddy and a little sugar. It is generally served with hodhi (coconut milk stew) and sometimes with a fried egg cooked inside, then topped with chutney. In Kerala it is served with stew. Hopper variants can be either savoury (such as egg hoppers, milk hopper and string hoppers) or sweet (such as vandu appa). Another favourite is the idiyappam or nool puttu or steamed string hoppers of rice flour. Pittu is a preparation of rice flour and grated coconut steamed in a cylinder of bamboo or brass.
Egg hopper withe hodhi.
Besides being a daily staple, rice also features in celebratory dishes such as kiribath, or milk rice, which is traditionally the first solid food given to a baby, as well as weddings or on New Year's day. Like in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, some of the staples of Sri Lankan cuisine are rice, coconut and spices. The abundant use of spices is attributed to Sri Lanka's history as a spice producer and trading post over several centuries. The fragrant coconut milk curries, spicy fish dishes and spices enhance the earthy and robust flavours of the dishes. A favourite relish is the pol sambol, an eye-watering combination of grated coconut, onion, chilly powder and flakes, and salty shredded Maldive fish.
"South Tamil Nadu cuisine melded with the food of the Sinhalese. They have taken Madurai's signature parota and turned it into kothu roti (means chopped roti in Tamil). The pancake is fried with meat and vegetables on a large hot plate while simultaneously being chopped up with a cleaver. It is a delight watching it being made because of the clanking of metal," explained Sanjay Rawat, Chef, Bengaluru Marriott Hotel, Whitefield.
Sri Lankan cuisine is also influenced by the Dutch Burgher community. "The greatest culinary legacy of the Dutch is lamprais, a word that combines the two Dutch words for 'lump' and 'rice'. It is a combination of meat, rice and sambol chilli sauce, wrapped into a banana leaf packet and steamed. The rice is cooked with meat stock- usually a combination of different meats like beef, pork or lamb infused with cardamom, clove and cinnamon," says Rawat.
Deep fried fish.
Seafood is the mainstay of many people because of the proximity to the bountiful coastline. The succulent lobsters, prawns, crabs, mussels, and a whole range of delicacies, are all enticingly cooked with exotic spices. Kool is a seafood broth from Jaffna containing crab, fish, cuttlefish, prawns and crayfish. It also contains long beans, jackfruit seeds, spinach and tamarind. The dish is thickened with palmyra root flour. Fish ambul thiyal, a dry curry dish, is a delicious treat among Sri Lankans. All the ingredients are simmered with a small amount of water and cooked until the liquid reduces. This allows the spice mixture to coat each cube of fish.
Desserts are rich and sweet and reflect the many influences on the cuisine – from the elaborate cakes to rich custards flavoured with spices, such as wattalappam. Now a staple of Sri Lankan desserts, this spiced Sri Lankan custard is a perfect way to end a meal. It can be served warm or chilled. First introduced by the Malay immigrants, wattalappam is a steamed pudding concocted with coconut, milk, eggs, cardamom and jaggery. Palm jaggery is profusely used instead of sugar in the desserts.
A platter of desserts.
Most of these sweets have the traditional base of kithul honey, coconut and rice flour. They are also enhanced by the addition of various fruits and nuts such as cashew, raisins and pumpkin preserves. Many Sri Lankan sweets and desserts contain domestic spices, jaggery and kithul treacle. The golden crispy kokis (Dutch inspired crisps) are made with rice flour and coconut milk batter, deep fried in a flower-shaped mould. The delectable banana fritters form the ideal finale to a delicious Sri Lankan meal.
All photographs by Susheela Nair.
Susheela Nair is an independent food, travel and lifestyle writer, and photographer based in Bangalore. She has contributed content, articles and images on food, travel, lifestyle, photography, environment, and ecotourism to several reputed national publications. Her writings constitute a wide spectrum which also includes travel portals and guide books, brochures and coffee table books.