On The Curry-Culum: Sri Lanka's Best Known Dish

SINCE THE END of its civil war in 2009, and until the recent economic crisis, Sri Lanka has been a popular destination for Indian travellers, not least because of the lack of visa hassles. From the colonial influences in Colombo and Galle to the abundant flora and fauna of Yala, restful beach days to impressive heritage tours and adventure/nature-based activities, there’s plenty for any traveller to see and do — encompassing a wide range of experiences and budgets. And of course, if you’re a foodie, there’s a delicious indigenous cuisine for you to discover, and rediscover.

Myriad influences have shaped Sri Lankan cuisine. As the Journal of Ethnic Foods notes: 

“Several nations including, Arabic, Roman, Oriental, Central Asian, and Indian in the early centuries for internal and foreign trade, and the domination of three European nations (Portuguese, Dutch, and English) in the island governance since 1505 AD had profound influence on Sri Lankan culinary tradition and style. Buddhism and Hinduism that existed since ancient times with the later introduction of Islam and Christianity influenced the religious aspects of food culture, traditions, and taboos.”

Rice with curry is the most ubiquitous dish here, but the “curry” is closer to Southeast Asian flavours than typically Indian ones. It is prepared with a variety of ingredients, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. Among the best-loved ones are: kulkul maas (chicken) curry, parippu mirisata (lentil curry), ambul thiyal (sour fish curry), biththara hodi (egg curry), ambarella curry (a fruit curry made out of the June plum), kaju maluwa (cashew nut curry) and kos ata maluwa (curry made from the seeds of jackfruit).

                          Pic- Sri Lankan Chicken Curry

These preparations vary in consistency — some tend to be fairly dry, without much of a gravy, contrary to one’s mental picture of a “curry” as understood in Indian cuisine. The ambul thiyal, for instance, would be closer to a pickled dish: the tamarind in the recipe ensures it stays fresh even without refrigeration for up to a week. The bases for many of these curries make use of coconut milk; others — like the kulkul maas — are lighter and prepared with water.

While rice is the go-to accompaniment for a good curry, you can of course, mix it up: pol (coconut) or godamba (wheat) rotis, hoppers (appam) or string hoppers (idiyappam), all make for perfectly satisfactory combinations. Don’t forget to include liberal helpings of pol/thenkai sambol — a relish made of fresh grated coconut, shallots, dried chilies, lime juice, salt and Maldive fish (smoked tuna) — on your plate. And to wash it all down? Some refreshing Elephant House Ginger Beer.