Lonely Planet Sri Lanka (Travel Guide) (2015)
FOOD AND DRINK
Sri Lankan cuisine may not be renowned beyond the island’s shores, but it features a distinctive and delicious blend of flavours based on local ingredients and spices, from the heat of chillies to the sweetness of coconuts.
Far more than a variation on the classic cuisines of neighbouring India, Sri Lankan cooking has its own unique set of flavours, inspired by the island’s abundant natural produce and the huge variety of spices grown here. Rice and curry remains culinary king, but with fiercer flavours than in India and with sauces based on coconut milk and fiery chilli sambols, making it somewhere between Indian and Thai cooking in style.
Over the centuries, Sri Lanka’s visitors and invaders have contributed Indian, Chinese, Malay and Arab influences, as well as Portuguese, Dutch and British dishes. In hotel buffets you might encounter all of them at the same time, so take the chance to sample what Sri Lanka can offer - rare spices, unusual vegetables, tropical fruits and some of the world’s fattest prawns, not to mention the classic Sri Lankan rice and curry, a miniature banquet all on its own.
A traditional Sri Lankan breakfast
Sri Lankan food has a reputation for being deliciously hot, thanks to the use of generous quantities of chillies and other warming spices. Sri Lankan cooks don’t reach for a packet of curry powder; they spend hours grinding selected spices to create a dish that is rich in flavour as well as pungent - a good cook can spend hours preparing an authentic curry. While Sri Lankans have been raised to expect their curries to be hot, visitors may be served milder versions, tamed by the addition of coconut milk.
The method of preparation has evolved over the centuries, with a dash of influence by Portuguese settlers in the 16th century. The abundance of fresh vegetables (some introduced by the British in the 19th century) and forest roots, as well as locally grown spices like cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and curry leaves - known as karapincha in Sinhala - contribute to making Sri Lankan curries special. This small green leaf adds a distinctive flavour with an aroma akin to lime and sesame when crushed, and also has the reputation of being good for lowering cholesterol.
Curries are flavoured with different spices to match the main ingredient. Meat or fish, and vegetables like eggplant, cabbage, beans and even pineapple, lend themselves to hot curries. Root vegetables and cashew nuts work better as mild curries. Curries cooked in the traditional way - in a clay pot over a wood fire - take on more spicy flavour, thanks to the time taken to cook them.
Rice is the staple, and there are over 15 varieties in Sri Lanka. A favourite is the red country rice, kakuluhaal . This strain is full of vitamins and has a nutty flavour, as the grains are left unpolished. White rice, whether the ball-shaped sambha , the long-grained basmati or the white milchard , is widely available.
Rice and curry meals, served at the table in bowls or on buffets, always have the meat or fish curries cooked and served separately from the vegetable curries, so vegetarians can select what to eat without qualms.
Colourful ingredients that pack a punch
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Appa (hoppers), a type of pancake with crispy edges and made of rice flour or plain flour with coconut milk and yeast, is a favourite Sri Lankan breakfast dish. It can also be served with a fried egg nestling in it and is sensational when eaten with a beef curry and seeni sambol , a sweet, spicy onion relish.
Kiribath (milk rice) is a breakfast dish made with rice, cooked in coconut cream or fresh milk and spices. This is considered an auspicious meal and is eaten during special occasions - on the first of each month, or when welcoming visitors.
You won’t go short of rice and curry
Lunch packets of rice and curry (usually rice with three vegetable curries and one meat curry) are the mainstay of office workers. Packets are available in simple cafés and from street stalls throughout Colombo. When Sri Lankans are touring the country, they typically lunch in rest houses where a typical spread would consist of curries made of plantain blossoms, radishes, lentils, beef, fish, beans and eggplant, accompanied by bitter gourd sambol (a relish), gotakola medun (a leaf salad), devilled potatoes, a spicy mango chutney, and papadum served with fried red chillies and chunks of dry fish.
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For dinner at home, a Sri Lankan might have a curry served with indiappa (string hoppers), a Sri Lankan invention that resembles fine noodles. It is made by squeezing a mixture of rice flour (or plain flour) and water through a colander onto bamboo trays and then steam-cooking the mix until it’s fluffy.
String-hopper biriyani - a lunch or dinner delicacy - is produced by breaking indiappa into small pieces and then cooking it with spices, meat and cashew nuts. Lamprais is a Dutch variation in which rice and curries are wrapped in banana leaves and steamed with chicken or beef.
Old Dutch and Portuguese delicacies such as bolo fiado (laminated cake) and boroa (semolina biscuits) are another element of Sri Lankan cuisine. Biriyani, a traditional Muslim rice-and-meat dish, and Tamil thosai (pancakes) and vade (fritters), have also become part of local cooking. Pittu is ground rice or plain flour mixed with coconut and then steam-cooked in a bamboo container; it is eaten with coconut milk, or with meat or fish.
A kind of flimsy pancake, godamba roti is a particular favourite among Muslims. It is fascinating to see this being made: with each turn of the expert handler’s wrist, a small ball of flour becomes longer and flatter. Another popular dish is watallappan , a deliciously rich dessert concocted out of jaggery (a coarse brown sugar made from the sap of the date palm), eggs, milk and cashew nuts.
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Local snacks, known as ‘short eats’, consist of savoury bite-sized pastries or rolls which can be bought in pastry shops to eat in or take away. There are many types, including miniature loaves baked and stuffed with seeni sambol , fried pancakes with a beef, fish, chicken or vegetable filling, meat or chicken patties, and ‘cutlets’, deep-fried soft round balls of mashed tuna.
The island’s cornucopia of tropical fruits includes pineapple, passion fruit, pomegranate, papaya, avocados, mangoes, several kinds of guava, more than a dozen varieties of banana (including the much-loved sweet red bananas), and many more exotic offerings that will not be familiar from back home. Look out for the deep purple, delicately grape-flavoured mangosteen, star apples and the maverick durian , a huge green fruit whose pungent smell usually puts people off sampling its delicious, nougat-flavoured flesh. Even bigger than the durian is the jak , the world’s largest fruit, which is eaten both raw and in cooked in curries.
Preparing a king coconut for drinking
WHERE TO EAT
Eating in the restaurant of your hotel or guesthouse is generally a safe bet: food turnover is usually high, as are standards of freshness and hygiene. That’s where you will also be able to get non-spicy dishes like grilled fish or barbecued lobster. There will always be a choice, so you don’t have to be like a Sri Lankan and have curry for every meal. Many of the island’s numerous private villas and small boutique hotels also dish up superb food, although this is sometimes served only to in-house guests. The best restaurants for fusion, ethnic or continental fine dining are in Colombo. Some hotels away from the city also have good restaurants, which offer a break from stereotypical buffet food.
Village restaurants and eateries may prove testing due to the spicy food and suspect hygiene. Unlike other Asian countries, Sri Lanka has no tradition of street food. Rest houses are usually a safe bet for local food as they are used to catering for foreign travellers as well as for their usual clientele of lawyers, government officials and sales reps. A nice custom is for drivers of guests to eat free with the staff, so don’t worry about inviting your chauffeur to join you for lunch.
All imported beverages (wines, spirits and beers) carry a high tax, making them relatively expensive. Wine is readily available, including Australian, Chilean and South African vintages. Several locally brewed beers like Lion Lager and Three Coins, are worth trying. For a taste of an authentic Sri Lankan product, try arrack , a feisty spirit, a bit like rum in both taste and strength, made from toddy (the sap of the coconut palm tree). Fresh, unfermented toddy is also much enjoyed by Sri Lankans, though its strong, sweaty aroma can be off-putting.
The sale of alcohol is prohibited on Poya (full moon) days, even to tourists staying in hotels, and on other days according to government decree. Buy your supplies the day before.
For teetotallers, there is tea, of course, as well as fruit juices, with fresh lime and soda being especially refreshing. A thambili (young coconut) cut open by a roadside vendor so you can drink the water within is a healthy natural beverage. Another local speciality is ginger beer made with real ginger (but make sure it’s the Elephant House brand for that distinctive taste).
Food and drink prices
Throughout this book, the below is a price guide for a meal for one:
$$$$ = over Rs3000
$$$ = Rs1500-3000
$$ = Rs750-1500
$ = below Rs750