and a recipe for
Sri Lankan Chicken Curry
When you have a very large and well-known neighbour such as India, as Sri Lanka does, it is hard to rise above the behemoth of their cuisine and promote your own; but, Sri Lankan cuisine is delicious and very different to Indian cuisine with the vast majority of dishes being unique to this diverse and beautiful island. Today, in part three about my recent trip to Sri Lanka, I want to concentrate on the subject of Sri Lanka for Food Lovers, and share a culinary food map of Sri Lankan classics, as well as some modern twists on old favourites. As well as promoting Sri Lankan food, ingredients and produce, I am also sharing an interview with Alice Luker (from Style in Sri Lanka), who has strong links with the island, and who is currently living there……plus, I have a wonderful recipe for an authentic Sri Lankan chicken curry too.
Before I share my interview with Alice, let’s look at some of the main Sri Lankan classics; they are all curry based, in the main, but there are a few very unusual recipes too. I have compiled a short list of the most common dishes below, the list is not a comprehensive list of Sri Lankan foods by any means, but just the most iconic dishes as I see them, and as I enjoyed and tasted them when I was in Sri Lanka. Many of the most popular Sri Lankan dishes are based on its colonial past, with British, Dutch and Portuguese influences being very evident in some recipes, BUT beware, Sri Lankan dishes can be EXTREMELY fiery in taste, so always try a small portion before loading up your plate! One more tip, expect to use your hands when eating out in Sri Lanka, unless you are dining in a hotel or an upmarket restaurant, and also expect to be served your meal on a banana leaf too, which I think is an excellent idea and saves on the washing up!
Hoppers and Egg Hoppers (Appa or Appam): no trip to Sri Lanka is complete without tasting this delicious dish; I tried my first egg hopper on my first day in Sri Lanka, in the Cinnamon Red hotel in Colombo, and I had one every day for breakfast for the remaining nine-day trip! Made with a crumpet type pancake batter, (as in a yeast batter) with rice flour and coconut milk, hoppers come in a variety of savoury and sweet flavours, including my favourite with eggs. Cooked in special hopper pans, they come out looking like deep pancake bowls in which you add assorted sambols, curry and/or fruit.
Fish Ambul Thiyal – Sour Fish Curry: this is the first curry I enjoyed whilst staying in Colombo, and despite it’s rather off-putting name, it is truly delicious. Firm fish such as fresh Tuna, Barracuda, Butter Fish and King Fish is used and the other main ingredient is Goraka, a small fruit that gives the curry its sourness – I brought some dried goraka fruit back with me, so expect some fish curry recipes in the future. This curry originates in Southern Sri Lanka, where it is found on most café and restaurant menus.
Kottu Roti (or Kothu, Kotthu, Kottu): you will hear this dish being made before you see or eat it! It is a very popular “Street Food” (or Short Eats as the Sri Lankans call it) dish that comprises Godamba Roti, a special type of roti bread, with vegetables, eggs and meat which is then served with a spicy sauce; it’s extremely tasty, if not that attractive to look at and is cooked on a large flat griddle whilst being chopped and mixed all the time with a special “choppers”, hence the excessive noise as it is being cooked. (NB: this dish is also found in Southern India too) I have shared a video of how it is made below, curiously enough not in Sri Lanka, but in Camden, London:
Lamprais: a Dutch Burgher recipe, the name of this dish is taken from the Dutch words for “lump” and “rice” and thus Lamprais is born; the dish is made up of rice cooked in a spiced meat stock which is then placed in a banana leaf with curry, frikkadels (Dutch meatballs), blachan (shrimp paste) and plantains or aubergines (brinjal). The banana leaf parcel is then steamed before being served on its own plate – the banana leaf! You will see these little green parcels all over Sri Lanka in little roadside stalls, and they make a tasty and quick “short eat” to enjoy whilst travelling.
String Hoppers (Indi Appa or Idyappam): another popular breakfast dish (although you can also east these for dinner too), string hoppers are made by squeezing rice flour paste through a special “ricer” into small mounds on to a mould, which are then steamed; you serve them in stacks, like pancakes, with curry or a thin coconut curry sauce. I had a go at making these with executive chef , Chef Sunanda, whilst I was staying in Cinnamon Lodge in Habarana (more about my stay there, my cooking class and all the 32 flavours of ice cream to come).
Halapa: another dish that executive Chef Sunanda demonstrated to us in a hands-on cookery class at Cinnamon Lodge hotel, these are sweet coconut and jaggery filled leaves (Kandha leaves) with cardamom; they are steamed before being served in the leaves as a sweet treat.
Pol Sambol – Coconut Sambol: this coconut sambol is served with just about every savoury meal in Sri Lanka, and you can see my recipe for it here: Postcards from Beguiling Sri Lanka & Pol Sambol I loved it when piled into freshly cooked egg hoppers for breakfast, as seen below, as well as with rice and curry too.
Pol Roti (Coconut Flat Breads): these are the “bread and butter” accompaniment of all curries and food in Sri Lanka; I was lucky enough to see them being made by some of the ladies in the jungle restaurants I visited. They are easy to make and are essential for mopping up all the sauce in a curry, as well as being dipped into sambol sauces and pickles. Made with freshly grated coconut, maize flour and salt, you can whip these unleavened flat-breads up in under 10 minutes.
Kiribath and Imbul Kiribath: kiribath is a very Sri Lankan dish and is seen all over the island; it’s basically rice cooked in coconut milk, and is as comforting to Sri Lankans as baked rice pudding is to us. Once cooked, kiribath is cut into wedges and is served like cake with Lunu Miris, a fiery chilli sambol sauce made with Maldive fish, chillies, salt and lime or lemon juice. Another dish that uses kiribath as a base, is the delicous Imbul Kiribath, a little dome of coconut rice that is stuffed with a sweet jaggery and treacle coconut filling; we watched these being made at the Jetwing St Andrews hotel in Nuwara Eliya, and then enjoyed them on the terrace of the hotel with a Tea Mojito.
Rice and Curry: the generic name for all curries that are served with rice and an army of condiments such as brinjal pickle, pol roti, pol sambol, onion chutney, poppadums, dhal, cucumber and onion salads and many other accompaniments. Rice and curry can be fish curry, as I mention above, or chicken, pumpkin, jack fruit, brinjal (aubergine), prawn, crab, goat and sometimes pork and lamb. Curries can vary in colour and heat, and are regional to the main ethnic groups who lives in the different regions, such as the Tamils in the North and Jaffna, which are dark red as they use a lot of tamarind and chilli paste.
The above list is by no means definitive, but a short introduction to some of the most popular Sri Lankan dishes – I will be sharing more of my culinary experiences over the ext few weeks in other posts, as well as some wonderful Sri Lanka recipes. Karen
Disclaimer: I was the guest of the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau; all flights, transfers, food, drink and excursions were included in the media trip I attended. All views and opinions remain my own and I was not paid to publish this article, although I retain the right to publish similar material on a commissioned basis with other print and on-line publications. With thanks to Udara from the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau and Sunanda our driver who looked after us so well for the entire trip!
What makes Sri Lankan cuisine unique?
People who have never tried Sri Lankan food often assume it’s the same as Indian. Unlike Indian, coconut milk is used instead of butter ghee (especially in Sinhalese cooking), resulting in a fresher, lighter texture and flavour. Vegetarian and vegan options are plentiful, including lesser known curries of beetroot, pineapple and cashew nut. Although chilli levels can be fiery when dining locally, the spices (cardamom, cinnamon etc) don’t overpower each dish, allowing the flavour of each ingredient to flourish.
What advice would you give someone cooking Sri Lankan food for the first time?
Take your time to understand your ingredients, what they do and why they’re used. Having this knowledge will allow you to ‘freestyle’ accordingly, something I do with all my recipes as curry is a very ambiguous taste. The ingredients need to fuse with the gravy, what you don’t want is to simply cook the vegetables alongside a flavoursome sauce, they need to harmonise as one.
What’s your favourite on the go Sri Lankan snack?
My number 1 is parippu wade, a deep-fried flattened sphere of lentils with curry leave and a few other spices- often served alongside a fried red chilli. Not the healthiest of snacks but absolutely divine, especially when they arrive piping hot on a train. My other favourite are kimbula buns- I recently learnt the name for crocodile in Sinhala is kimbula- the bun lends it’s name based on the elongated length and texture of sugar sprinkled on top. Devilled cashew nuts (spiced) are also delicious, especially when hot.
How can Sri Lankan curry be adapted for the health conscious?
Use a lower ratio of coconut milk to water for the gravy, avoid adding too much salt, be brave and add chilli (it’s good for your metabolism!) and use red country rice instead of white. Mallum (translating in Sinhala literally as ‘mix up’)is the Sri Lankan equivalent of a stir fry; a healthy combination of lightly fried greens. Add this generously to your plate and be more sparing with rice.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever experienced in Sri Lanka?
It may not be the best but it’s certainly the most memorable. Back in 2004 (the first time I came to Sri Lanka) my dad simply ordered ‘rice and curry’ for around £3. 10 minutes later 19 dishes emerged, we were wondering whether the never-ending production line would stop!
THANK YOU ALICE!
For any help or advice on travel packages and tours in Sri Lanka, please email me via the contact form above, and I will put you in touch with the relevant tourism officers and/or hotel groups. Karen