Sri Lankan Cuisine, Food Culture and Recipes
A Treasure Trove of Exotic Flavours
The amazing richness and variety of Sri Lankan food is a bit of a well-kept secret amongst foodies and travellers. People not in the know might equate Sri Lankan cuisine to Indian cuisine, but that doesn’t even begin to describe it. Sri Lankan food is unique in many ways. Sri Lankan food culture has seen many different influences during our island’s long history. A connaisseur will be able to spot the culinary impact of European cuisines that were brought to the island during colonial times quite easily. Of course, Sri Lankan cooking has it’s fair share of influence from Southern India as well. One of the major differences lies in the seasoning: Sri Lanka makes some of the world’s spiciest food. Indian dishes can only be described as “mild” compared to Sri Lankan food. In terms of spicyness it is on par with Thai cuisine. Newcomers to Sri Lankan recipes should be cautious. I recommend that you make sure to ask for mild seasoning when tasting Sri Lankan food for the first time. Unless, of course, you can handle some of the most fiery dishes in the world.
Sri Lankan cuisine has a bit of a reputation of being difficult to master. And indeed, some of the recipes require a lot of finesse. Sri Lankan wedding cake (sometimes also called Christmas cake) is a prime example for this. It takes multiple months of preparation time and days of active work to make this uncomparably rich fruit cake. I wouldn’t recommend someone just starting this culinary journey to attempt baking a wedding cake of course, but many other recipes howevr are very quick and easy to make.They get their unique flavour from the blend of herbs and spices that we use.
Video: A Sri Lankan street food vendor skillfully preparing kothu roti
Sri Lankan Food Culture
Sri Lankans have a complicated relationship with food. For many of us, food was a scarce commodity when we grew up. Sri Lanka has become more modern and arguably wealthier, but food is still something that is very highly valued. Consider that many Sri Lankans work 10 hours a day, 6 days a week for a monthly salary that is often less than 10.000 Rupees ($70). Something as seemingly simple as a small stick of butter can cost locals a small fortune. At its core, Sri Lankan food culture is a very social and public thing. No matter the cost, food is always shared with friends, neighbors and even strangers. A Sri Lankan will not hesitate to pawn his valuables just to be able to offer his guests a meal they won’t forget. There aren’t many experiences that are as bonding as sharing a meal. Sharing food also plays a major role during holidays and other special occasions. Street food is very pervasive in Sri Lanka. Vendors preparing food on the spot can be found all over the country. I’ve left Sri Lanka years ago, but growing up in Sri Lanka has taught me to appreciate food, to savour every bite and not to waste the ingredients at hand. When cooking and creating recipes I do it with the attitude that I want to make the most out the ingredients I use. Combining many flavors to achieve a rich and full taste is something that you will find quite often in Sri Lankan cuisine.
Main Ingredients of Sri Lankan Recipes
Sri Lankans use wide range of herbs and spices to give their food its unique flavour. If you haven’t cooked any Sri Lankan recipes before and you’re taking a first look at the list of ingredients you might see ingredients that are new to you. Don’t worry: All of the common ingredients of Sri Lankan recipes are available in most Asian grocery stores. I’ve lived abroad for many years now and never have any issues cooking authentic Sri Lankan dishes that taste just like home.
Curry leaves ( karapincha) are one of the most common ingredients in Sri Lankan recipes. Sri Lankans use whole branches of fresh curry leaves to add taste and aroma to their food. Their fragrance is one of the defining attributes of Sri Lankan food. Curry leaves don’t only improve the taste, they are also known to be healthy. They contain strong antioxidants, help against diabetes and indigestion and protect the liver. These health benefits have been known in Ayurvedic medicine for a long time and curry leaves – along with their roots – have been used to treat various ailments. Pandan leaves (rampe), also known as rampe leaves, are also very popular in Sri Lankan cuisine. Like curry leaves, Sri Lankans use them very generously and you will be able to find them in many of my recipes. Pandan leaves have a strong and pleasant fragrance and they add an unmistakable flavour to dishes like biryani and curries. Added to plain white rice, it gives the rice and aroma that is almost like the aroma of basmati rice. It’s therefore often used as a substitute, considering that basmati rice can be expensive for many Sri Lankans.
Chili powder (thani miris). Sri Lankan are very generous when it comes to adding chili powder to their meals. Finely ground chili peppers are mixed with cinnamon, black pepper and other typical Sri Lankan herbs and spices to get a fiery chili powder blend called kalawam miris. For some recipes, we use roughly ground chili pieces instead of this blend, in particular for fried dishes. Kalawam miris is an important ingredient in many Sri Lankan recipes. Thani miris is mostly used for cooking fish. Turmeric: The yellow turmeric powder is used extensively in Sri Lankan recipes, both for it’s flavor and it’s color. It gives yellow rice (kaha bath) its characteristic color and is used for most vegetable curry recipes. Turmeric has been used in traditional Sri Lankan medicine for thousands of years to treat gastro-intestinal problems, pain and even diabetes. Cardamom is a spice that’s made out of the seeds of various plants of the ginger family. It has a sharp, sweet flavour and gives the food and intense but pleasant fragrance. It’s best combined with other sweet spices, such as cloves. Ayurvedic medicine considers cardamom to be a warm spice. It is commonly used to treat digesitve problem, anaemia and is said to improve the male sex drive. Mustard seeds are small, usually brownish colored seeds of mustard plants, which belong to the same family as cabbage and broccoli. Sri Lankans like to add the mustard seeds to various curry dishes, often together with other spices like turmeric and coriander. Fenugreek seeds are well-known for their health benefits and is often used as an ingredient in weight loss supplements.
Vegetables and Fruits, Roots and Legumes
Cassava (manyok): Manyok roots have a taste and nutritional profile quite similar to that of sweet potato. Manyok is high in carbs and very filling. Boiled manyok is eaten with coconut and chili paste for breakfast. Street food vendors sell deep-fried manyok, similar to french fries in Western countries. Stir-fried manyok and manyok curry are also very popular in Sri Lanka.
Water Spinach (kankun): good for joints, stir-fried or devilled. devilled kankun prepared chinese style very popular among the younger generation. mostly used with lentils.
Kale: Everybody knows about kale by now. It’s low in carbs, high in vitamins, fiber, iron and calcium. I hate to brag, but we Sri Lankans have eaten kale long before Westerners discovered it as a “super food” and have found some unique ways to prepare it. Its incredible nutritional profile aside, kale makes for a particularly tasty and healthy curry.
Lentils (dal or parippu): Lentils are extremely popular in Sri Lanka. So much so that there’s a Sinhalese term that was coined especially for people who eat too much dal: We call them parippua in Sri Lanka. Lentils taste great as a curry and are a great source of protein, especially for vegetarians and vegans. The two kinds of lentils that are most commonly used in Sri Lanka are masoor dal, which is small and usually orange and Indian dal, which is bigger and has a yellowish color.
Coconut (pol): One of the main staples of Sri Lankan cuisine, it’s rare for a meal not to contain some form of coconut. Sri Lankans rarely cook with regular cow milk and prefer to use coconut milk instead. Coconut milk is the base of Sri Lankan milk rice, many different currys and even desserts like coconut milk pudding. Coconut salad (pol sambol) is a refreshing Sri Lankan specialty prepared with raw scraped coconut.
A typical Sri Lankan meal has many components. The main course is often centered around rice, with various curries, stir-fries and salads on the side. “Bites” or “short eats” like fish cutlets and parippu vade might be served as appetizers before the main meal. The main course is followed by a dessert like butter cake or watalappan (coconut milk pudding). There’s an almost unlimited amount of options, which might be overwhelming to people who are new to Sri Lankan cooking. I recommend that you start with some basic combinations:
- yellow rice, seeni sambol, chicken curry, boiled egg
- white rice, malu mirisata (spicy fish), pol sambol, pappadam, dhal curry
- idiyappam (string hoppers), pol sambol, kiri hodi
- white rice, pol sambol, karola thel dala (stir-fried dry fish), pappadam
- kiribath, lunu miris (chili paste), malu mirisata (spicy fish) – very spicy
- pol roti and lunu miris or fresh banana
- couscous, pork curry, mixed vegetable curry
- isso thel dala, parippu kariya, gotu