Eating Sri Lanka

I ate rather well when I was in Sri Lanka. Although I was unable to explore the full spectrum of Sri Lankan cuisine – I didn’t have a chance to eat hoppers for example, or try Tamil food – I thoroughly indulged myself in some local specialties.

One such dish, or rather meal in itself, is the rather uninspiringly-named ‘rice and curry’, which made up my lunch for almost every day of my trip. However, the name belies its delicious nature: usually a choice of a fish or meat curry, three or four side dishes of vegetables and a dal, all served on top of a huge plate of rice. I’m not sure if rice and curry is the de facto national dish of Sri Lanka, but it seemed to be served everywhere. The locals seem quite particular about it, with the owner of the guesthouse I was staying in sternly warning me that it should only be eaten for lunch, and never in the evening.

Classic Sri Lankan Rice and Curry: beef curry, daal, potatoes with chilli, salad and a poppadum on the side.  Helped down with a bottle of ginger ale.

Compared to the fare I had in Maharashtra last year, the Sri Lankan food I ate seemed to be simpler and less elaborate, but delicious nonetheless. The spices used were in lesser quantity, the dishes not quite so rich and the sauces not as thick; instead trusting to the freshness of the ingredients for most of the taste and the spices simply providing an accompaniment.  Also a different spectrum of spices – revealing Sri Lanka’s more tropical nature – was used such as cinnamon, lemon grass, whole clove, grated coconut, curry leaves in almost everything and plenty of chilli, generally of the dried red variety that had been partially crushed. Also, I came across an ingredient I had never knowingly encountered before, the noble pandan leaf (called rampe locally): this was added to most of the curries I ate. Some dishes contained coconut milk but in rather modest quantities, when compared to say Thai food. Daal was ubiquitous but I couldn’t identify the variety.

Devon Food Court, Kandy.  I ate rice and curry there nearly every day for lunch.

Much like South India rice rather than wheat is the staple, and there were many types of rice on offer, including the regular patna and basmati, but the local variety was a curious one that the restaurant called samba rice. It is a small and round grain, even rounder than Japanese rice, but without the stickiness. One continuous theme throughout my trip was that when rice was served with a meal, it came in immense quantity, literally heaped in mounds on your plate. At my hotel in Negombo, rice was all-you-can-eat; for my first lunch there, I managed one and a half plates of it, before crying capivi (and feeling slightly unbalanced from the overindulgence) when the waiter offered to bring even more.

One dish that continuously cropped up in rice and curry meals was simply referred to as ‘brinjal (aubergine) curry’, and was quite delicious. I am not sure exactly how it is made but it appears the aubergines are sliced and then fried in oil very slowly over a low fire, till the vegetable becomes very brown and caramelised, but not at all crispy. The sweetness of the soft, fried aubergine flesh contrasts with its slightly bitter skin and makes a wonderful combination. It is flavoured with liberal splashes of rice vinegar, and other spices, giving it a tangy and aromatic aftertaste. Another favourite of mine was dry-fried chopped spring onions, which took on a lovely bittersweet taste as they browned on the edges, but somehow the chef managed to keep the onions completely dry and not the least bit soft or mushy. There was also a very good green bean curry made with coconut milk, curry leaves and basically whole cloves of garlic floating in it; mild, yet very rich and delicious. Some dishes were fiery chilli-hot, and often it was difficult to tell which. I had a nice seer (wahoo) fish curry on my first day in Kandy that was really quite searingly hot, despite looking rather inocuous. Other curries revolved largely around vegetables, and they were Legion: sweet potato, regular potato, jackfruit, spinach, green peppers and beetroot, to name a few.

From left, anticlockwise: jackfruit curry, beef ditto, potatoes and chilli, green salad and daal. The beef and the potatoes were blazing hot.

There seemed to less relishes and side-dishes compared to Indian food, which to me always appears to be surrounded by little delicious yoghurt dishes, sliced onions, pickles, chutneys and dips. There was hot, sour lime chutney, and there was also fried sambol – a relative of the SE Asian sambal? – which was dried, shredded fish and red chilli ditto that had been dry-roasted in a frying pan. In Negombo I was served different kind, that had been done in oil and tasted almost exactly like some of the preserved shrimp/chilli paste you get in Malaysian food. Apparently there is also a variety called pol sambol which is chilli mixed with coconut. On many occasions I had a sort of salad/relish which was made from finely chopped greens (young spinach?), grated coconut, and shredded green chilli, which was fiery hot.

On the beach in Negombo: beef in coconut milk curry, green bean curry, daal and brinjal curry, served with lime pickle, mango chutney and sambol.  Rice came on a separate huge plate with a basket of poppadums for support.

One of the best meals – apart from of course the one made with my fishing catch, which you can read about in the previous diary – I had was my last in Sri Lanka, in a restaurant called Ammehula, in Negombo. Apart from the immensely friendly welcome of the head waiter, the seafood was fantastic; a plate bearing a tuna steak, seer ditto, a shark fillet and some lovely lagoon prawns was brought to table, and I was asked which one I liked the look of. I went for the Negombo lagoon prawns, as they looked fresh enough to eat raw, and they were shelled (but with head left on), skewered and barbecued with lots of garlic, chilli and coriander. Sadly this was my last day in Sri Lanka and the battery on my digital camera had given out on me so I did not manage a photo of this feast.

Don’t drink arrack when you have stuff to do the next day.

As for drinks, most places offered a local bottled pilsner-style ‘Lion’ beer and also imported (or possibly brewed under license) Carlsberg. There is also a premium lager called Three Coins, which I had on the plane on the way in and was very nice. I would recommend the curious to try the local distilled spirit arrack (made from coconut toddy) once, but it really isn’t very good for sipping, or for drinking in large quantities before a day when you have affairs to attend to. It is generally taken mixed with ginger beer or cola drink. An ice-cold beer is accompanied most ably by a large plate of ‘devilled’ cashews; the nuts being deep-fried, drained and shaken with hot chilli powder and salt. I have yet to come across cashews that are as large and meaty-tasting as those from Sri Lanka, and I took the precaution of buying plenty at the airport on the way home. Even today I surprise my house guests by producing devilled cashews with the chota pegs before dinner, and although the cashews are the rather inferior store-bought variety, there are rarely any left over on the serving plate by the time the first course is served.

One thing I regret not trying is a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast; both the guesthouse in Kandy and the hotel in Negombo served up Western fare for the most important meal of the day. However, one morning the guesthouse did make me some rotti, with hot red sambol to go with, and they were delicious. Also, because I ate rice and curry basically every lunchtime, I did not have a chance to try other famous Sri Lankan foods, like hoppers or kotthu roti. I never got round to drinking a thambli coconut, despite there being a stall almost every hundred yards on the main roads, and the limit of my travels meant I couldn’t try any Tamil food either. There is always next time. It is with great sadness I read about Sri Lanka almost every week in the news on the BBC News website. Although my visit was short and my knowledge of Sri Lankan life the most superficial, I was constantly struck by the immense hospitality and genuine warmth of the people I met during my visit. The kingdom of Thailand is usually referred to as the ‘Land of Smiles’ but to be honest, Sri Lanka comes close too. These pleasant memories make it so much harder to read the stories of violence and terrible atrocities, sometimes on the very roads I myself travelled. I hope to visit again the island that Marco Polo described as the ‘finest of its size in the world’ in better times.


2 responses to “Eating Sri Lanka

  1. This was very interesting and informative, especially for the thirsty and hungry travelers out there. I especially liked what you had to say about Arrack, since I’ve been doing some research on alcohols of the world and this one came up many times. I’d like to try it sometime, as well as authentic Sri Lankan cuisine.

  2. Hi Matt,
    Thanks for taking the time to read my post and for your comment.
    Arrack is pretty good at making you forget your troubles, but I did not find it particularly tasty or pleasant, in the way a good whisky or rice wine can be, and I certainly wouldn’t drink it neat!

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