Spice island

Spice island
Prawn curry at the Colombo Fort Caf,

The aroma and taste of Sri Lankan cuisine may drive you into a feeding frenzy

Kalpana Sunder
March 20 , 2014
10 Min Read

It’s the tell-tale siren song of the clanging of metal on metal which tells me a delicious meal is at hand… I am in Tangalle on the southern coast of Sri Lanka with its white sandy beaches lined by swaying coconut palms and azure seas. Chef Sujith Surasena of Amanwella, a luxurious Aman property tucked into a coconut grove on a pristine stretch of beach, has arranged a special kottu class for me at the beach club. Kottu paratha is the quintessential street food of Sri Lanka — a local take on stir fry with chopped up pieces of vegetables and egg, curry powder and spices, as well as meats. I have loved listening to the rhythmic chop-chop sounds of the kottu maker. The chef teaches me how to blend together a kottu with finely-shredded vegetables, soya sauce, spices, ginger and garlic and pieces of rotis at lightning speed on a flat iron skillet using two metal cleavers with wooden handles. “Kottu originated as a simple way of dealing with leftovers and, therefore, can be usually found only in the evenings in street stalls,” he explains.

The teardrop-shaped island of Sri Lanka has been a stopover for ships, drawing merchants from the Middle East, Persia and southeast Asia, who brought with them their distinctive cuisines and cooking styles; its cuisine is also influenced by Malabar as well as Tamil cuisine. I discover that Sri Lankans use chillies — amu miri (fresh green chilli) and kochchi miris (a local variety of chilli)—more liberally than Indians. At breakfast there are hoppers (anglicized name for appam) made from fermented rice batter with a dash of palm toddy and coconut milk served in a myriad ways with eggs and meat, as well as pittu made from rice flour, traditionally steamed in a hollow bamboo, and eaten with coconut milk dribbled on it. The island’s signature dish is, of course, ‘rice and curry’ — sometimes accompanied by as many as fifteen side dishes inspired by the Indonesian nasi padang. Every meal comes with rice — usually brown rice cooked in coconut milk. Coconut sambol is a firm favourite throughout the island, a zesty paste of ground coconut and chilies, and lime juice; variants include katta sambol made with curry leaves, and the sweet-and-sour seeni sambol made with onions. Rice and curry is often served with tangy acharu (pickle made with pearl onions, carrots, turnips and cauliflower florets soaked in vinegar with mustard, turmeric and garlic). Another Sri Lankan staple, mallum or mallung — chopped greens and chilies, seasoned with ginger, red onions and a sprinkling of coconut — provides the vitamins to a meal loaded with carbs and protein!

Part of the ancient Spice Route, Sri Lanka uses spices extensively in its cuisine: fragrant fenugreek and cardamom, cloves and cinnamon, and the long and slightly nutty-flavoured pandan leaves (screwpine leaf) — often referred to as the ‘vanilla of Asia’ because of  its beautiful aroma — are all hallmarks of the country’s cuisine. Ceylon curry powder, made with roasted coriander, cumin, fenugreek, cardamom and fennel seeds, has a distinctive colour and aroma. I walk through a spice market in Galle, on the southern coast, looking at sunflower yellow turmeric, reams of cinnamon, and packets of spices. I see goraka, a sundried fruit as black as charcoal, which is used instead of tamarind to give a sour taste to food. After walking around the atmospheric Galle Fort, I have a meal at Mama’s Roof Café, which has panoramic views of the Indian Ocean, the fort and the mosque. Their tangy mango curry with brown rice and Sri Lankan ginger beer is worth trying. For some authentic ginger and honey Ceylon tea with homemade cake, I head to the Royal Dutch Café, housed in an Old Dutch house and owned by Fazal, who has some interesting stories to tell about the fort.

I take a traditional cooking class offered by Amangalla — a colonial heritage property with polished wooden floors and sepia prints on walls within the Dutch Fort in Galle. The brochure promises me ‘the cornucopia of smells and tastes complementing the sublime rice paddy views.’ The cooking class starts with a visit to the three hundred year old covered Dutch Market. I walk through the vegetable market laden with snake gourd and bush beans, spice market with lipstick red chilies and arm lengths of cinnamon. If this will not inspire culinary creativity, what will? I drive through paddy fields to reach a ‘paddy island,’ a lush piece of land fringed by the fields and a stream of water with bold monitor lizards and cormorants, and with bird song providing the background score. The moment I walk through the gates, I know I am in a special place. Lalitha, a local from a village, is waiting for me with her array of clay pots; she has learned to cook from her mother and grandmother, and still makes coconut milk by hand and uses a mortar and pestle to grind spices. Sri Lankans have and use clay pots in their homes and cook with charcoal. There are different earthen clay pots for different styles of cooking—deep ones for rice; longer, shallower ones for curries; and even smaller ones for serving. “Many people on the island are followers of the Ayurveda, where food is looked at as a way of life and has medicinal properties. “Our recipes are quick ones. Since it’s such a hot island, food tends to spoil quickly,” says Mahesh, the sous chef overseeing the cooking class.

Under Lalitha’s guidance, I scrape coconut on a traditional scraper to make a fiery sambol with chillies, lime and herbs, prepare the mallum, and make a tangy, taboulleh-like salad with gotukola leaves (Centella Asiatica). “Gottukola is very good for memory and the mind. It increases longevity and intelligence,” says Mahesh. I slice and fry the eggplant until browned, chop green pepper length ways, clean shallots, crush garlic and shred ginger, and combine these with vinegar, mustard, garlic and ginger to make a piquant saucy moju. I then make a dal curry with red lentils (masoor dal) cooked in coconut milk with fenugreek, turmeric and pandan leaves. I feast on the finished meal under the shade of a traditional amabalama.

Over the next few days I discover that Sri Lankans love their ‘short eats’ — which is what they call the array of snacks and finger food sold in small bakeries, road­side cafés, kades (local shops) and by vendors. I indulge my sweet tooth with local desserts — thick buffalo milk curd with dollops of kitul, a local treacle made from the sap of a flowering palm; sorbets made from local fruits such as king coconut, lychee and mango; and creamy sago pudding. I love the Malay influenced vattalappam, a rich steamed custard made with eggs, palm sugar, coconut milk and spices — very popular with Sri Lankan Muslims — as well as the simple milk toffee made with condensed milk and sugar. I enjoy high tea (a British hangover found in many colonial properties around the island) of scones with butter and strawberry preserves at Amangalla.

Back in Colombo, for a whiff of something different, I visit the Cricket Club Café filled with memorabilia including bats, balls, gloves and shoes used by famous cricketing personalities. I love the posters, old newspaper clippings and sepia photographs on the walls. The food on the menu is eclectic and names after cricketers — Murali’s mulligatawny, Sobers’s stir fry and Miandad’s mango magic. For an authentic lamprais (boiled eggs, eggplant, mixed meats or soya and rice wrapped together in a banana leaf and baked at a low temperature for several hours) usually made by the Burgher community, I head to Colombo Fort Café at the atmospheric Dutch Hospital Complex (a 17th century hospital converted into a swish restaurant and boutique complex). The aromas that waft out as you unwrap the banana leaf are almost intoxicating, attracting the attention of diners at neighbouring tables!

My last meal in Sri Lanka is under the vast canopy of an ancient banyan tree in the Cinnamon Grand in Colombo. In the heart of the hotel, and accessed via a narrow walkway lit by coconut husk torches, is Nuga Gama, done up like a typical Sri Lankan village. Traditional music on flute and drums, sarong-wearing staff and food served in clay pots under awnings made of timber and clay — my final brush with local cuisine. I love the taste of the jackfruit curry with chillies, turmeric and coconut milk. Tea is served in a blackened old kettle with tiny glasses. There is even a kade, selling fruits, sweets, and household items.

The dining experience that I cherished the most, however, was one night in Amanwella, when a table was set for just my partner and me on a candle-lit stretch of beach. Bowls of curry and rice accompanied by an array of grilled vegetables kept coming to the table. With the waves lapping at our feet and the only sounds being that of the wind against the coconut palms, this was atmospheric food at its best! “Food is not just food in Sri Lanka, it is your life and being, it is your medicine, your aphrodisiac, everything,” says Peter Kuruvita, the Sydney based Sri Lankan celebrity chef. I have to agree with him!

The information

Getting there: 
Fly Sri Lankan Airlines to Colombo (approx. Rs 14,000 from Delhi) and drive down to Galle and Tangalle. With the new Southern Expressway, it takes around two and a half hours to reach Galle. and four hours to Tangalle. Contact your hotel for transfers; they may charge a fee.

 Where to stay: Stay at the centrally-located Cinnamon Grand (doubles from $120; +94-11-2437437; cinnamonhotels.com) at Colombo. In Galle, stay at the Amangalla (doubles from $700; +94-11-7743500; amanresorts.com), housed in Galle Fort. Stay at Amanwella (suites from $800;  +94-47-2241333; amanresorts.com) in Tangalle, which offers suites with plunge pools.

Where to eat:
Mama’s Roof Café
Meal for two from SLR700; 76 Leyn Baan Street, Galle Fort; +94-91-2226415.
Royal Dutch Café Meal for two from SLR400; 72 Leyn Baan Street, Galle.
Cricket Club Café Meal for two from SLR3,000; 34 Queens Road Colombo; +94-11-2501384; thecricketclubcafeceylon.com).
Nuga Gama Meal for two from SLR3,500; Cinnamon Grand, 77 Galle Road.
Colombo Fort Café Meal for two SLR1500; Old Dutch Hospital Complex, Hospital Street, Colombo; +94-11-2434946.

What & where to buy:
Sri Lanka offers a variety of colourful fabrics and bags, Kandyan paintings on wood, coconut-shell jewellery, precious gems, spices and colourful masks that visitors can pick up as souvenirs. Visit Paradise Road Gallery (2 Alfred House Rd, Colombo; +94-11-2582162) and Odel (Old Dutch Hospital Complex; Galle) for homeware and candles. Hospital Street in Colombo has shops selling souvenirs, clothes and pottery. Also, visit Barefoot (Dutch Hospital Complex, Galle) for brightly coloured sarongs, bags, placemats, table cloths and clothes.

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