My Love affair with Sri Lankan food by Mark Snoxell from New Zealand


My love affair with Sri Lanka started over a decade ago in Adelaide when I had the good fortune to see Peter Kuruvita in action.  Many months later I embarked on a private cooking tour of Sri Lanka and have been specialising in Sri Lanka ever since.

Many people would describe Sri Lankan cuisine as Indian.  Maybe Southern Indian, but I’d like to say, no.  Most Aussies know there’s a difference between Thai & Vietnamese food.  It’s like that.

Firstly you need to think about the environment of Sri Lanka.  It is a tropical island paradise.  With that comes an abundance of wonderful fresh exotic ingredients such as seafood, coconuts, cinnamon (which originated in SL) and palm sugar.  Sri Lankans love their herbs and spices.  It’s usual for dishes to have a lot and they not only differ from district to district, but also home to home.   An example of this is dhal (lentil curry).  It’s served at most places, though every time it’s a new taste sensation and usually a good one.  I say that you know how good the whole meal is going to be by simply tasting the dhal.

I don’t think I have ever met a Sri Lankan who isn’t passionate about food.  Despite using lots of spices and herbs, the food is never overbearing, nor heavy.  Unlike a lot of Indian dishes, Sri Lankan ones are not laden with ghee, so you’re more than happy to indulge with a few more mouthfuls!   The “feel good” and healthy element to Sri Lankan food is very important to locals with many of the recipes having an Ayurvedic influence for wellbeing. Goraka, which is used like tamarind, has medical qualities and is used frequently, especially in seafood dishes to give them a pleasing zing.

The importance of rice is evident in the Sri Lankan culture, where rice cultivation has played a key role in shaping the culture with “rice and curry” being a staple in every Sri Lankan household, including for breakfast.  

Note that it is “rice and curry”, not “curry and rice”.  This is because rice is seen as the most important part of the meal.  In ancient times there were approximately 400 types of rice grown on the island.  Today there are mainly five (whereas India tends to use basmati) that are prepared in many different delicious & nutritional forms. Milk rice (coconut milk) or “Kiribath” is a crowd pleaser made for any auspicious occasion as a sign of good luck and prosperity.  

For many visitors, rice is very much welcomed as it acts as a mild mediator to tame the usual fiery curries that accompany it.  Although the traditional Sri Lankan curries are mainly vegetarian due to the Buddhist influence, today dishes vary from vegetables, cereals, meat, fish, sambols, pickles and chutneys.   “Polos Ambula” is a favourite among the locals and is made with young jackfruit, loaded with spices and cooked for several hours, ending up having the consistency of pulled pork (and makes a mean slider). 

There’s also a term in Sri Lanka called “short eats”, which is basically a good reason to have sweet & savoury snacks throughout the day with a good cup of Ceylon tea!   Also unlike India, if you see something you like the look of, go for it!  I’m always arriving back to my hotel room laden with small packets, perfect for midnight munchies after drinking the local arrack!  Talking about comfort food, kottu (stir fried sliced flat bread) and vada (lentil fritters) are popular street foods found in abundance across the island. They are often made during the evenings and through the night, to be found on small roadside vending stalls for day break.  

Other than the main Sri Lankan food by the majority Sinhala community, Sri Lanka is also enriched by many different cultures.  The Arabic influenced mutton biriyani has its own character (vs that from India) and has been localised by Sri Lankan Muslims, while the infamous crab curry comes from the Tamil community in the northern region of Jaffna.  The Dutch & Portuguese also have had a strong influence with the one most widely recognised Sri Lankan food: hoppers.

Hoppers are usually served at breakfast. These crispy, bowl-shaped pancakes are addictive; made with rice flour & coconut milk and are best enjoyed hot from the pan with an egg cooked inside with some chutney & sambol on the side.  You will understand why I always try to have some on the way to the airport before returning home.  I always hate to leave.  Sri Lanka – it truly was love at first bite!

#loveatfirstbite #hoppers #milkrice #traditionalfood#sweetandsour #Srilanka

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