Tracing the Roots of Sri Lankan Cuisine

Tracing the Roots of Sri Lankan Cuisine
Sri Lankan fishermen caught on duty, Photo Credit: Shutterstock

The memories of Sri Lankan food evoke a cupboard full of spices and rich curries that bring together families. Trace their history to understand their modern importance

Peter Kuruvita
November 29 , 2020
12 Min Read

My Sri Lankan story begins with me standing on the very tip of southern India, stunned, because dad was about to try and jump our precious Austin minibus (containing everything we owned) off a rickety wharf onto two linked dugout canoes. This strange barge was to be paddled out to a ferry and our minibus hoisted like a cow onto the Sri Lanka-bound vessel. I was four-and-a-half years old.

We had already driven the minibus from the UK across France, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and India. Our arrival in Sri Lanka would mark the return of the prodigal son, Wickramapala Kuruvita— my father—who had left home on his Indian motorcycle many years earlier to seek his fortune in England. 

It must have been quite a sight: five-and-a-half of us packed into an Austin minibus—Dad, my Austrian mother, Liselotte Katharina, me, my eight-year-old brother Philip and, at the last minute, a Sri Lankan cousin who wanted to come along for the ride. The ‘half’ was my unborn brother, David Sangeeva—mum was four months pregnant when we set out from the UK.

Our family’s journey began in London in February 1968 and was due to be completed seven weeks later. Dad, the head of the London ‘house of Kuruvita’, had nursed the concept of this daring expedition for a long time. Now, after closing his business in London, his plan was to take the family overland to his hometown of Dehiwala, just outside the boundaries of Colombo. We all trusted in Dad’s ability to pull us through any difficulties, and so his dream became reality. The excitement of preparation was great. Dad charmed Lord Primrose (who was thirteenth in line to the British throne but preferred to do his own thing in a workshop close to Dad’s) into selling him the almost new Austin minibus for 20 pounds.

A delectable spicy fish curry

But because Mum was pregnant, Dad was worried about her undertaking the trip; he suggested she take a plane instead of risking her own and the baby’s life in the middle of some wilderness. This was completely unacceptable to Mum— how could she possibly forgo such an adventure? In the end Dad agreed, but found an insurance policy that would fly her ‘home’ should she need evacuation; he craftily worded the document in such a way that ‘home’ could mean London or Colombo.

The British Automobile Association provided detailed information on road conditions, distances, sights of particular interest and places where we could buy petrol en route. Eleven countries, three ferries and roughly 20,000 kilometres would be involved if we were to accomplish this journey. We had to drive through snow and ice, over mountains and deserts, and finally through the unforgiving heat of the dry season in India. Forty-one degrees Celsius in the shade made Dad decide to drive day and night to get to our destination one week earlier than planned.

After a visit to the 400-year-old temple at Madurai in southern India we were informed that Danushkodi could only be reached by train; and the minibus had to be loaded too. From Danushkodi, a ferry would take us across to Sri Lanka.

Danushkodi was a desolate, sandy outpost with only a large cadjan shed, thatched with coconut leaves, housing the immigration and customs officers. There were long queues stretching out over the white sand.

The seafront was cordoned off and the ferry was only just visible a kilometre out from the shore. Dad stood all morning in the burning sun trying to clear our passage, only to be told that it was impossible to take the minibus to the ferry: the last cyclone had washed away the pier. The next available port was Bombay, about 1400 kilometres away.

The best time for Dad’s particular genius to spring forth was when a situation became desperate. He asked us to stay put, and disappeared. Not long after, he returned with the owners of two dugout fishing canoes, showed them how to tie their flimsy craft together, and paid for some of the ferry’s cargo nets to be spread out on special wooden blocks on top of the newly created ‘barge’. By that time a huge crowd had secured a premier place on the beach to see what spectacle would unfold. My mother gasped—she realised what he intended to do and was frightened. Only that morning we had experienced the quicksand on the shores when we drove closer to the water to cool off. Some kind villagers had come to the rescue and helped to dig out the wheels. What would happen this time? 

We children were quiet, and everyone held their breath as Dad lined up our vehicle, accelerated to skim over the top of the treacherous sandy surface and landed with screeching brakes precisely on the two little canoes. He had to wait three hours for the tides to be right before a tugboat was able to pull him and his eccentric rig across a stretch of sea to meet the ferry.

Meanwhile, one small group at a time, all other passengers boarded an old, wobbly sailing boat hauled by a tug, which took them out to the ferry. By the time Dad’s strange procession came alongside, we were all standing on the ferry’s upper deck watching. The ship’s crane reached out and secured the minibus, ready to hoist it onto the cargo deck. Precariously balanced, it suddenly slipped, dangling halfway between the sea and the safety of the deck. I had asked to be picked up so I could see better, but when it looked as if the minibus was about to fall back into the sea I became hysterical, shouting, ‘Daddy, Daddy, my Daddy!’ I thought Dad was still in the minibus. With typical Wickramapala apblomb he appeared behind us, the minibus was successfully stowed on board and the ferry was able to set off.

We finally arrived in Sri Lanka exhausted but safe.

IN THE BEGINNING

Spices should always be bought in small quantities, so that they are fresh when used, chef Peter Kuruvita advises

Sri Lanka is a country rich in spices. While its formally recorded history began over 2500 years ago, it was in the sixteenth century that Ceylon, as it was then known, was discovered by the Portuguese. Trade in cinnamon and other spices was soon thriving. The Dutch and British followed, bringing with them their own history and influences, and establishing a strong western presence in the island nation.

Sri Lankan food is an expression of the country’s rich history and is full of delightful surprises, just like the island itself. Characterised by vibrant colours and fragrant aromas, every dish, from main meals to desserts and cakes, makes use of the country’s bounty of fresh spices. An ordinary Sinhalese curry, for example, can contain up to thirteen herbs and spices: chillies, coriander, cumin, curry leaves, fennel, fenugreek, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, lime, onion, pandanus leaf and turmeric.

It is no wonder, then, that spices are used by Sri Lankan people with such ease, not only creating food that is unique and interesting, but also accessing their healing properties as part of Ayurvedic medicine.

Stocking the Spice Rack

I’ll bet most of the spices in your cupboard are as old as your youngest child or sibling! But when it comes to spices, fresh is best. To revitalise your spice rack, why not go on an adventure and find the Sri Lankan spice store nearest you? And be sure to buy in small quantities: the fresher the spice, the better the flavour of your curry. Storage is important too: your spices should be stored in airtight jars away from direct light and heat.

Which ones to buy? With the following basics you will be ready to cook curry: cardamom, chillies (dried and fresh), cinnamon, cloves, coriander seeds, fenugreek, ginger, Goroka, fennel seeds, black mustard seeds, black peppercorns, cumin seeds, salt, tamarind, turmeric powder, curry powder, lemongrass, pandanus leaf. It’s a good idea to keep these other important ingredients on hand as well: Maldive fish flakes, ghee, coconut powder, onions and garlic.

If you are just beginning to use spices, try starting with a teaspoon of spice to a dish for four people, then add more according to taste. Remember that freshly ground spices release their flavours more readily. As spices enhance the natural flavour of your food you might also like to experiment by combining spices that complement each other to create new spice sensations. Roasting of spices such as cumin, coriander and fennel seeds to bring out their flavour is a method used to make a black curry. The smell of a good curry powder being roasted can excite the senses to great heights!

Rice and Curry

A serving of pol sambol

Rice and curry form the staple diet of Sri Lankans who enjoy some of the spiciest foods in the world. Meat, poultry, fish and vegetables are prepared as curries while sliced onions, green chillies, black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg and saffron are used to add flavours.

A basic meal of rice and curry requires one fish (or beef or chicken) curry, two different vegetables, one portion of fried crispy stuff like poppadum, a malum (salad) of chopped leaves and coconut, and a hodda (gravy) of spices cooked with coconut milk. 

The rice is always put on the plate first and curries are selected from the other dishes so you end up with a collection of minor meals around the plate. You eat with your hand, mixing the rice with some of the curry, forming the food into bite-sized balls and popping them into your mouth.

There is a vast range of flavours and different curry mixes used for different foods, and there are regional differences too. Even with the same base food, you can create completely different tastes. The way spices are combined and the quantities of each put a very personal signature onto a curry. You could eat the same kind of curry in a dozen homes in the same area, yet each will be slightly different.

Traditionally, there was no recipe book; knowledge was simply handed down to the daughters of the next generation. But modern life is diluting this process as people live and cook in separate kitchens, and pre-made spice mixes are now available.

MY GRANDMOTHER'S KITCHEN

My achi’s kitchen was the centre of our family’s universe. In it, there were love matches, fights, drunken uncles, weddings, special full moon rituals, wonderful food and the travelling chefs who would arrive in bullock carts with their massive pots and cook for hundreds. I feel very lucky to have been given some of the recipes that were nurtured there.

Old photographs that beautifully capture Peter Kuruvita's family and childhood in Sri Lanka

My childhood memories are flooded with recollections of the time, love and joy that went into the preparation of any meal from that kitchen. In fact, when I was quite young, Achi had a stool made for me so I could spend all my time in the kitchen with the women; I think that is how my understanding of passion for food was fostered. 

There was no such thing as friends dropping over to this house—everyone was related in some way or another and it was considered very rude not to know how and to whom they were related. These family members came from all parts of the country, bringing with them their regions’ gourmet delicacies. All were greeted with great respect and everone gathered around to hear their stories.

Piyadasa Kuruvitage, my uncle, was a tailor, and also a regular visitor to our house. He was known for his humour and for acting like the Yakka or devil. He was also famous for his unbelievable talent in knowing every one of our clan’s addresses, so whenever there was a wedding, funeral or any special family gathering he would personally go to everyone’s house, arriving with the traditional method of invitation—a wad of betel leaves. When this man died so did his knowledge of all the families’ addresses. Believe it or not, no one had ever bothered to write them down, so it was very hard to gather everyone to his funeral. 

When he came to visit, we would turn off all the lights and he would go into my grandmother’s room and start making eerie noises behind the curtain before bursting out with the flashlight in his mouth and doing a crazy dance. This scared the wits out of all the children, but everyone laughed.

At Achi’s we would always be entertained by someone, and the constant conversations were as normal then as the background noise of a TV is today; I much prefer the old ways.

Although Achi was in total control of the kitchen her two daughters were the faithful apprentices. A deaf and mute lady, Premawathi Prera, who had been adopted by the family, was the hard-working ‘gofer’ who picked, chopped, sorted and sieved all the ingredients so that one of my aunties could cook them under the watchful eye of Achi. A perfectionist and the feared master cook, Achi was given to occasionally throwing things and screaming at her daughters. As both my aunties will attest, she would taste absolutely everything to ensure the seasoning was correct.

The amount of salt and sugar added in a dish would be discussed for a while before being added. Even then, Achi would probably come along and pop in one more pinch of sugar or a little bit more salt or lime.

There was a lot of pressure in Achi’s kitchen. The celebrity chefs of today have nothing on my grandmother in full flight. Her food was delectable and remains the cornerstone for my style of Sri Lankan cooking. Achi’s daughters have taught their daughters who are now in control but still being watched and guided by my aunties.

Extract from Peter Kuruvita’s Serendip: My Sri Lankan Kitchen (Murdoch Books; £25)


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