Sri Lankan Cuisine
What is Sri Lankan Cuisine?Sri Lanka translates to "The Resplendent Isle" and just like it's country of origin, Sri Lankan cuisine is resplendent! Vibrant and fresh ingredients combined with centuries of local knowledge has created a diverse and delicious cuisine filled with curry, coconut and much more! There are thousands of different curries, with every cook having their own recipes.
Sri Lankan herbs and spices
Sri Lanka is home to a huge range of native and cultivated spices which have become essential in day to day cooking. Like it’s northern neighbour India, Sri Lankan cuisine makes great use of the natural flavours which are so abundant across the land, creating delicious spiced curries with a creamy base of coconut. The coconut and it’s products (milk, water and meat) are used across Sri Lanka in the aforementioned curries as well as one of the national delicacies, Hoppers. Hoppers, or appam, are a type of coconut and fermented rice batter pancake which is a breakfast staple.
The most distinctly Sri Lankan spice is Cinnamon, specifically Ceylon cinnamon also known as true cinnamon. Ceylon Cinnamon is named for Sri Lanka, which was called Ceylon in the time of the British Empire. Ceylon has more delicate, aromatic notes than it’s cheaper alternative Cassia, and is absolutely essential in Sri Lankan cooking. Cinnamon is a key ingredient in many curry blends, adding a sweetness which can help to balance the more pungent notes.
Other spices used in Sri Lanka includes the delightfully maple scented fenugreek which can bring a complex sweetness to and a sharp tang to a dish. Fennel is another firm favourite, providing sweet aniseed notes which bring a freshness to otherwise heavy dishes. Much like Indian cuisine, Sri Lankan cooking uses curry leaves to bring a slight citrus hit to their dishes.
Sri Lankan spice blends
The quintessential Sri Lankan spice blend is Ceylon curry powder, a deep roasted blend which provides great colour as well as a rich toasted flavour. As you roast the spices the maillard reaction caramelises the sugars, creating new and powerful flavours.
Another popular blend is Sambar powder which is a blend of roasted and unroasted spices used to season the popular spicy lentil soup known as Sambar.
History and Origins
The island of Sri Lanka sits in the Indian ocean, a location which means it has been a frequent stop for travellers throughout history. It's vast array of natural resources and spices have brought traders to the island for thousands of years. As traders travelled to the Eastern spice islands of Indonesia they stopped at the resplendent isle, adding more to the wide culinary tapestry of Sri Lanka. These traders brought spices such as nutmeg and cloves, which now grow widespread across the island.
Colonial influences also played a part in the development of Sri Lanka's culture and cuisine. Starting in the 16th century, first Portuguese, then Dutch and finally British colonial rule saw the end of the 2300 year old Sri Lankan monarchy. The Portuguese influence can still be felt today as they were the first to bring chilli peppers and tomatoes from the new world to the island, both of which are essential to creating modern Sri Lankan cuisine.
Food Holidays and Celebrations
In January each year Sri Lankan Tamils celebrate the end of the winter solstice in a festival called Thai Pongal by gathering in public spaces to pay tribute to the land, gods, animals and people who have helped create the harvest of the last year. The centrepiece of this celebration is the ceremonial rice dish Pongal.
Pongal is made with fresh rice boiled in milk and jaggery with spices like cardamom. It is traditionally cooked in clay or metal pots without handles, the word Pongal means to overflow, which is exactly what happens when the dish is being made. The overflowing represents the overflowing of plenty from the harvest.
Women traditionally gather with their pots in a communal area outside and cook together, under the sun to venerate the God Surya. The Pongal is first offered to the gods, then to the sacred cows and then finally to friends and family.
Sri Lankan cooks have mastered the use of cooking in clay. These clay pots are porous which prevents moisture loss during cooking, this means less oil is required, reducing the fat content of the final meal. Over time these pots will absorb flavour from the dishes they are used to cook. It's not uncommon for people to have multiple pots to cook specific dishes, which prevents contaminating the natural seasoning that has developed.
One essential technique (which doesn't require any new equipment) is the tempering of spices. Whole spices are shallowed fried with onions and other aromatics at a high heat, browning the spices near instantly and developing complex toasty flavours.
Farming and Sustainability
Sri Lanka has a strong tradition in agriculture and still to this day produces many crops for the international market. Spices are Sri Lanka's second most valuable agricultural export after tea which remains the clear leader by some way.
In 2021, the Sri Lankan government announced it was striving to be the first island nation to feed its people using only organic agriculture. While this was supported by many climate and environment activists, the scheme ended up failing as there had not been enough prior planning to educate farmers on a transition away from chemical farming. It remains to be seen if organic agriculture will continue to be promoted by the government moving forward into 2022.
During our sourcing trip to Sri Lanka we visited both organic and biodynamic farms in an effort to increase the different spices we purchase from the country.
Our first farm visit was to a cinnamon plantation in Matara district near to the coast and our second was inland in Kandy district. The latter is at a higher altitude with a slightly more temperate climate and so there is a greater variety of spices grown in the region. The farm we visited in Kandy district was a mixed farm growing nutmeg, black pepper & cloves
Flavour LeadersPeter Kuruvita- An Australian chef of Sri Lankan descent, Kuruvita has helped introduce Sri Lankan cuisine to the wider world through his books and travel documentaries. Kuruvita has worked in some of the best restaurants in the world including the 3 Michelin star Waterside Inn.
Renjith Sarathchandran- The Executive chef of the Hopper's group, Sarathchandran is of Keralan descent but has thrown himself into the job of bringing the ideals of home cooked Sri Lankan cuisine to the palates of the British public.