The Flavors of Sri Lankan Cuisine

The Flavors of Sri Lankan Cuisine
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This week, I introduced a new blog series, The Travel Edit. I started with the warm, tropical, flavorful island of Sri Lanka. Many of my friends and family have questions about this little pearl island, and the first one almost always regards food. From "What is Sri Lankan food like?" to "Is it spicy?" and my favorite, "Do you eat it everyday while you're there, or do you look for American food???"

Insert blank stare.....

.....of course we eat it everyday while we are there! How could you not, is the question. In fact, we eat it as often as possible while home in the US! Stephen's aunts are master chefs and the meals they prepare are completely irresistible. It's the type of food that, once your plate is becoming empty, you can't decide what to get seconds of, because it was all mind-blowing delicious. The good thing is, you don't feel greedy for getting seconds (or thirds) because your auntie or cousin (or uncle....whoever is eating with you) will fill up your plate for you until you put your hands over your plate and say "eti", meaning "enough."

Among my favorite of all Sri Lankan cuisine would have to be cashew curry; raw cashews soaked in water, drained, and simmered in the amazing flavors of coconut oil, coconut milk, green chiles, onion, ginger, coriander, turmeric, lemongrass and curry leaves. You pour this over white samba rice accompanied with coconut sambol (undoubtedly my favorite of the sambols); fresh coconut ground into flakes and mixed with chopped onion, lime juice, peppercorns, dried Maldive fish flakes, chile powder, green chiles, and salt. I make this one at home on the regular!

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Let's begin by taking a walk through a market in Colombo. Most Sri Lankans shop for their food daily, as refrigeration isn't very popular; the fresher, the better in my opinion! The freshness of said daily shopping really shines through at the dinner table!

A typical market is open-air, either in a larger warehouse-like space like the photos following; or in a tiny stall. Stacks upon heaping stacks, you'll find a rainbow of vividly colored vegetables and fruit. I especially love the mangoes, pineapple, oranges, eggplant, tomatoes, and carrots, because the difference in taste and freshness beats the chemically-ripened ones you'll find in most large markets in the US.

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Above, you'll find several items that you'll more than likely consume on a daily basis while in Sri Lanka. The smaller pearl onions are used in many curries, salads, sambols, which are similar to a relish, pickle, or chutney, eaten as an accompaniment to your main. The tomatoes are used in many curries to deepen the flavor and create a gravy, or simply sliced in a salad. The green chiles are used in many curries, pickles, relishes, and sambols. Ginger is also used in everything from curries, to rice dishes, vegetable sides, and beyond. The typical "starter" for curries and other vegetable dishes consists of chopped onion, garlic, chiles, ginger, curry leaves, and lemongrass or pandanus (also called rampe), fried in coconut oil and sometimes ghee, depending on the dish.

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Above you'll notice a couple of very large stalks of king coconuts...... don't mind the machete that so conveniently placed for you to cut your own coconut. Not trying to be dangerous or anything!

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Above, you'll find an open-air seafood market. The gentleman behind the counter will weigh and prepare your choice of fish for you to take home and cook that day. All of this fish is delivered daily and never frozen. Here, we were purchasing the thalapath (a fish endemic to Sri Lanka) for our dinner of fish curry and samba rice, which you'll see near the end of this post.

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Let's talk about spices! I mentioned in my introduction how unique and rare the curry blend is in Sri Lanka. The flavor is nothing comparable to the curry powders you'll find in the US. In fact, I'll venture to say you won't be able to find it. I am still searching for an online shop that sells the real deal, but for now, I just send my husband's family on errands to purchase it and ship it to me! Our last trip, in September 2015, I purchased roughly 5 kilos of curry powder, turmeric powder, chile powder, and red chile flakes....... you know, so I'll have enough to last until our next trip in about 2 years, I thought. I've already had them dispatch a box halfway around the world, less than a year later!

Right before the photo above was taken, the spice shop owner took me to the back room to show me how they grind their spices and blend them into curry powder. Not only was I yelling at everyone the rest of the day due to the amount of decibels my ears just withstood, but a month-long sinus congestion was gone in about 5 minutes, thanks to those ground chiles that were now in my hands!

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I photo above really makes me chuckle. After visiting the markets prior, we began walking home, when I quickly snapped this photo of a Sri Lankan man pulling his trailer of coconuts that he was selling. This is a common way of selling coconuts, bananas, and other fruits that the locals love to eat (or drink) on the go. Although I took the photo very fast as I walked by, he must have noticed in time to smile for the camera!

Anatomy of a Sri Lankan Dinner (also, amazing menu items you'll want to know about)

Curry- this dish is a pillar in Sri Lankan cuisine. It can be described as meat, poultry, or fish pieces simmered in a fragrant, flavorful blend of coconut oil & coconut milk, curry powder, onion, ginger, garlic, pandanus, curry leaves, and sometimes tomato, chile powder (we use a lot!), turmeric and possibly other seasonings, depending on the meat.

Vegetables are also curried, some popular ones are green beans, beets (my favorite of the vegetables), potatoes, carrots, eggplant, okra, cashews (as mentioned above), and many others.

Samba Rice, Pittu, String Hoppers- this would be classified as your starch. Most curries are served with rice, particularly samba rice; but since its harder to obtain in the US, we use Basmati rice. You may also see Pittu, which is a popular rice substitute made of toasted rice flour and coconut. the mixture is stuffed into a bamboo tube and steamed. The texture comes out very similar to rice. String Hoppers are a favorite in my family. They are delicately steamed rice noodles that are fed through a hand press to form fine noodle shapes. They are very labor intensive to make. Typically served with paripoo (more on that next) or other various mild curries.

Paripoo- I love to eat paripoo. It was one of the first dishes I learned to make. Red lentils are boiled with onion, green chiles, garlic, cinnamon stick, cloves, cardamom, pandanus or lemongrass, and turmeric; then doused in creamy coconut milk and topped with tempered spices, onion and chiles.

Sambols, Chutneys, Pickles- These are your accompaniment. They are eaten in small amounts mixed in little by little with your rice and curry. Sambols could be made with shredded coconut (pol sambola), sugar (seeni sambola, a complex mixture of tamarind, sugar, onion, and many other spices), chiles (katta sambola) and many others. Chutneys are any combination of spices, herbs, and chiles blend into a smooth paste or sauce texture. Pickles are typically a mixture of a certain fruit or vegetable mixed in a homemade paste of ginger, garlic, turmeric, salt and vinegar. The most popular one is mixed pickle, made with small onions, chiles, beans, carrots, cauliflower, and papaya.

Most meals are also served with fresh cut fruit such as pineapple, mango, papaya, banana or other in-season fruits, or a simple salad of cucumber, tomato and onion or steamed vegetables, or a salad made of a leafy green called gotu kola- which I love!

Are you feeling adventurous in the kitchen, yet? I hope so! If you would like to try your hand at Sri Lankan cuisine yourself, a very trustworthy source for recipes is Rice & Curry- Sri Lankan Home Cooking by S.H. Fernando. A staple in my cookbook collection! I use it to supplement the teaching I have received from my mother-in-law and my husband's aunts in Sri Lanka!

After reminiscing and remembering this amazing cuisine, I am aching for Sri Lankan food in a major way! It has become one of my comfort foods. It is fresh, healthy, spicy and incredibly addictive!

Unfortunately, it is quite difficult to achieve the exact same flavor in the US, or other non-tropical places due to the nature of the ingredients being native to Sri Lanka and other Asian countries. I happen to be lucky enough to get boxes of fresh rampe and curry leaves shipped to my door as I need them. However, I have done some research, and found a source online for some of the ingredients that I love to use, such as Maldive fish chips and some seasonings, lokubox.com.

I am thinking I have changed my dinner plans for this evening.....