Spice me hot, it’s Sri Lanka!

Where am I? Exotic palm-fringed shores of an island in the Indian Ocean

What I do speak? Sinhalese and Tamil

How I say hello: Ayubovan

Best vegetarian dish I love to eat: Coconut Sambol (fiery coconut chutney)

Are you someone, like me, who is always looking forward to hot weather to escape the cold, and then immediately looking forward to cool weather when summer hits? A mild issue to say the least, but nonetheless one that I felt justified attention when I experienced my first summer in Cyprus. Hot means HOT here, and I would slowly waste away the afternoon hours dreaming of winter coats, mulled wine and snow. My saviour came in the form of a Facebook request from an old friend, who was looking for someone to take care of her dog for a few weeks. In Sri Lanka. Bingo!

Okay, so it wasn’t the cool weather of South Africa or Argentina that I had been praying for but it was close enough! There was one minor problem…in that I didn’t know a single thing about taking care of dogs. Although I did know a close someone who had some talent in this field. So as I hurriedly awoke my hubbie from his siesta, I asked him if he wanted to come on holiday to Sri Lanka. He mumbled something and went back to sleep. I’m pretty sure he said yes! I did not mention the dog until we were safely mid-air during our long haul flight.

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Welcome to Sri Lanka

Just a few weeks later, we were exiting the airport in the capital city of Colombo and making the journey down south to Galle, with its well-preserved fort city. We were immediately encircled by tuk tuks, street peddlers and stray animals, amid a tropical air of lively chaos.  Outside the city, my attention was captured by the lush green landscape,  and it seemed that every square inch of the country was covered in farms and trees and copper palms. It is said in Sri Lanka that “throw a few seeds today, and you will have a farm tomorrow”. I was feeling unusually excited and suddenly the tourist adverts depicting wild elephants and Asian jungle found home in the panorama surrounding me.

The people worship idols and are independent of every other state…their food is milk, rice and flesh, and they drink the wine drawn from trees – Marco Polo

I had been vaguely familiar with this “Pearl of the Indian Ocean” since childhood and as I delved deeper into its history, I was fascinated to learn that it had a richly documented past involving agricultural brilliance, the spice trade and colonial rule. Legend has it that the British, under orders of William Pitt the Younger, conquered Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was previously known) from the Dutch with a piece of cheese; they hid money in the cheese to bribe guards into handing over the last Dutch stronghold of Colombo.

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An offering to Buddha

Settling into Galle and waking up daily to the sights and sounds of monkeys, peacocks and monitor lizards in our garden, I began my quest to explore Sri Lanka’s history and culture through its food. It was apparent that food played an essential role in Sri Lankan life and customs. Whether it’s a religious festival, social event or an important milestone in a person’s life, the moment was celebrated through food. Popular belief holds that even the first offering made to the Buddha in this deeply religious nation was that of Kiribath, or rice cakes cooked in coconut milk. These cakes are enjoyed during religious events, and as Sri Lankans celebrate the Buddhist holiday of Uposatha each month on the a full moon’s day (called poya), visitors will most likely get the opportunity to taste this wonderful dish.

There is plenty of vegetarian food in Sri Lankan cuisine, and rice forms the backbone of it all. A quick word of warning though, small dried pieces of Maldive fish are occasionally added to Sri Lankan chutneys and sambals and it is always worth inquiring about this if you are vegetarian. Maldive fish are referred to as umbalakada in Sinhalese and masikaruvadu in Tamil.

Walking through the rice paddies behind our house, I felt a sense of contentment as I embraced their role as heart and soul of Sri Lankan society.

Around 3000 years ago, in the first capital of Anuradhapura, the King approved the construction of ellas, or channels to draw water from the highlands, and thus initiated the foundation of rice farming.It transformed the livelihood of villagers in this lush landscape and began to form intrinsic links to religion and culture through elaborate rituals around planting and harvesting. A farmer achieved one of the highest ranks of social class among both the Sinhalese and Tamil populations. Farming and agricultural architecture were improved further during Dutch occupation, and at one point, Sri Lanka was producing over 300 varieties of rice.

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Foodie paradise

In recent years, the Sri Lankan hopper has found its way onto foodie plates the world over and, hype aside, this dish is truly a feast for foodies and non-foodies alike. Made from a batter of fermented rice and coconut milk, the dish is presented as a pancake “bowl”. Whilst this dish is mostly accompanied by curries or chutney, such as the seeni sambol (chutney made from caramelised onions), I loved it for breakfast, topped to the brim with maple syrup glazed bananas. The origins of this dish are unknown but variations of the dish are popular and well-known across Southern India and Sri Lanka.  A bamboo cylinder press is used to make string hoppers from a slightly thicker batter of the same base ingredients.

I keep hinting at curries, and the first thing you must do is throw away all notions or expectations of an Indian style curry. Sri Lankan curry holds its own against its Indian counterpart, with a creamier texture on your palate. It accompanies most Sri Lankan dishes and meals, and uses the vast array of locally grown vegetables and fruits such as beans, beetroot, lotus root and even jackfruit!

Perhaps the one thing in common with India is the use of chillies, introduced to both countries by the Portuguese.

You can differentiate between a white curry (without chillies and tempered in coconut milk), a red curry (using an abundance of red-hot chillies), or a black curry (with the aroma and flavour of dark roasted spices).

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Along with steamed rice and poppadums,  a variety of curries are popularly presented together as a “rice and curry meal”. Typically included is Parippu, or lentil dhal, a dish made with red lentils cooked in coconut milk. Dipping a slice of bread in this dhal, or even having it with rice, is an intensely comforting experience, one that had the nostalgic effect of taking me back to my childhood and eating my mum’s delicious food.

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The highlight of any rice and curry meal is the side dish of pol sambol, a tantalising hot coconut chutney that had all my senses tingling with every bite. I hadn’t tasted anything so exquisitely delicious in a long time, and I was truly drawn to it like a moth to a flame. One of the first things I did when I got back from our stay in Sri Lanka was to prepare this dish, and I’m excited to share this recipe for pol sambol with you.

Exotic Gotu Kola, Tropical Manioc

If you are lucky, you may also be offered a mellum, or Sri Lankan style salad, with your meal. Close in texture to the Middle Eastern tabbouleh, this is a small dish of finely cut vegetables or herbs. A popular mellum uses Gotu Kola, a member of the parsley family, whose naturally bitter taste is countered with a sprinkle of coconut, lemon and salt. Gotu Kola is widely renowned across the country for its medicinal properties and is an important ingredient in locally practiced Ayurvedic medicine and cuisine.

The juice of  Gotu Kola and other green vegetables and leaves is also used in Kola Kenda, or herbal porridge, which I purchased in sachets from my local corner shop. I loved to add some chilli powder or sweet jaggery to it, and it made for a great and healthy start to the day. Here is a recipe to get you started if you want to make your own.

Wandering through the Good Market in Galle on a sunny Saturday morning, we were also lucky to try a breakfast of boiled and spiced manioc, known more widely as the root vegetable cassava. Such a simple yet satisfying dish!

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Keep calm and coconut

You’ll notice that we were served in a dish made from the leaves of palmyra tree that grows across the island. Its neighbour, the coconut palm, is more famous, and is also used for its fruit and leaves. Coconut milk, cream and oil are used extensively both in local cuisine and apothecary, while the pinnate leaves are used to build roofs and shelters. Coconut water from the king coconut fruit is known as Thambili and is offered as a refreshing drink in most establishments, or along the roadside.  It is apparently so naturally sterile that it was used as a substitute for saline during World War II when the supply of the latter ran dry. These days it is touted as the best cure for a hangover!

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For me, nothing was better at nursing a headache, than a cup of tea. Synonymous with Sri Lanka, tea was introduced in 1852 by the Scotsman James Taylor, following a disease that ravaged the coffee growing industry. Sri Lanka soon became the world’s greatest exporter of tea, and the central hill country is dotted with tea plantations. English breakfast and black teas are widely available but we were also delighted by belimal, or golden apple, tea. I also enjoyed the opportunity to try cinnamon tea, another item that is so identified with Sri Lanka that any cinnamon originating from the country is known universally as True Ceylon cinnamon.

On the Spice Route

Cinnamon, also known locally as kurundu,  has captivated traders for centuries, from China and Rome to Arabia and Egypt.
It was the Portuguese conquerors who turned this humble tree bark into a commodity. Offering to protect the Sinhalese community against the Tamil population, they extorted over 110,000 kg of cinnamon a year from the Sinhalese. At the start of the 19th century, the cinnamon trade was worth well over 30 million pounds a year.
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Let’s get refreshed

It’s not only tea that you can enjoy in Sri Lanka, the country is blessed with a rich agricultural soil that produces dozens of varieties of tropical fruit from papaya and dragon fruit, to rambutan, mangosteen and wood apple. I couldn’t resist having at least one fresh juice every day, and my favourite had to be fresh papaya juice, with a dash of lime.
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If you’re still feeling the heat, cool down with some natural yoghurt, sold in local shops in a handmade clay pots. Dip some local bread in it, or use it take the heat off some of the hot fried street snacks called short eats. I would often hear the sing-song tune played by a “mini-bakery” tuk tuk, as it made its way down the hills behind us, stopping whenever needed to satisfy people’s demand for bread and snacks.

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There are plenty of desserts too if you have any hunger left after a curry meal. Try watalappan, a steamed coconut custard yummy delight infused with jaggery and cardamom. This dish is thought to have originated among the Sri Lankan Malay community who came to the country during its Dutch colonial period.

A few words to say goodbye

I must admit that as we only spent time in Galle, which is the mainly Sinhalese part of the country,  and so I am not able to share cuisine from the Tamil North, which has much to offer vegetarians. Please explore the cuisine of the North and the rest of this beautiful country with this amazing book by Bree Hutchins, Hidden Kitchens of Sri Lanka, where she explores cuisine in detail across all regions of Sri Lanka.

And if you’re got plans to travel to Sri Lanka, be inspired by John Gimlette’s insightful journey through the country in Elephant Complex. It is an eye-opening insight into Sri Lanka, old and new.

And so, I bid you Gihin Ennam! I hope you’ll join me next time as I explore vegetarian delicacies on offer in Italy!


Ps. if you loved reading this post on Sri Lanka, check out my previous post on Mauritius. I hope you enjoy it too!

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