My introduction to Sri Lankan cuisine happened in Negombo, a beachside spot on Sri Lanka’s west coast, not quite sprawling enough to be a city but too large to be a town. Standing alone, waiting to meet my guide and tour group companions, I approached a man on the street.
“Excuse me, where do you like to eat around here?”
“I’m looking for something good to eat.”
“Rice and curry. Sri Lankans eat rice and curry.”
“Can you recommend a good restaurant?”
“Everywhere. Everywhere is good.”
Taking him at his word, the first eatery I walk into is garage sized and architecturally improvisational, and it seems popular. In the front window, a stocky man in an azure-coloured polo flips dough next to shelves of fried parcels, and behind the entrance is a room with a few stools. I ask for flat bread and a fried snack. The bread is paratha, made of fried, soft and buttery layers and used to soak and scoop a spicy dal and a tart, coconut-heavy sambal. The fried snack is a triangular pastry, densely packed with potato curry – like samosa but crumbed and elastic.
I look around the room and see plates of more paratha, but torn into shreds and slathered in the gravy from a thick curry. Other plates have mounds of rice with spots of different curries.
Rice and curry
Eateries like this are everywhere in Sri Lanka. Sometimes they’re as basic as a lectern-sized booth on the side of a highway and sometimes they’re enormous city-centre halls with armies of pots, each with a different dish inside. Every one is different but they all serve the mainstay of Sri Lankan cuisine: rice and curry. You’ll find it at every level of establishment, from fine hotels to street stalls, and it isn’t uncommon to eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
As I discover during my eight-days in Sri Lanka, ordering a “curry” is no predictor of what will arrive on my plate. An order of vegetable curry at a roadside diner near the massive Udawalawe National Park in the country’s south delivers sweet and spicy fried eggplant, a porridge-thick dal, a spiced banana leaf salad, and skin-on pumpkin hunks simmered in spiced coconut milk. Near Peradeniya in central Sri Lanka at Sthree Craft Shop and Café, a G Adventures-sponsored social enterprise, it’s jackfruits in a mustardy-coconut gravy and curried mango. At a 110-year-old colonial tea estate, it’s mild and mustardy beetroot stew, and paneer cheese tossed in curry spices and fried okra.
Our G Adventures guide, or “CEO (Chief Experience Officer)”, Uditha Lokuvithana tells us traditional Sri Lankan meals never have just one element. Almost every time we order what we think is a single dish – “chicken curry”, “cuttlefish curry” or “vegetable curry” (it’s never more specific) – we end up with a banquet of five different things. The only regulars are rice, curry and sambal. Sambal here is not like the chilli pastes of Southeast Asia. Like curry, there’s much variation and little point trying to define it. Just think of it as a full-flavoured, often very coconut-y side dish.
In the central Sri Lankan city of Kandy, Lokuvithana takes us to a local institution: Devon restaurant. It’s enormous. The side dedicated to baked goods and takeaway snacks is bustling, the other side, a big dining hall with a buffet section as long as a bus, barely squeezes 10 of us onto a table.
I end up with, of course, rice and curry (including a salty and searingly spiced mackerel curry, stewed snake beans, a particularly starchy dal, and a simple kale and coconut sambal), and a colossal banana-leaf-wrapped lucky dip called lumprice. We open it to find a mound of spiced, stock-cooked rice, plantains, shrimp paste, a classic chicken curry and spiced skin-on pumpkin.
Can’t go wrong
Day four. Leaving the leafy burbs of Kandy we’re headed to Nuwara Eliya, a cool forest town tucked into the Sri Lankan mountains. We’re supposed to be having a picnic in a colonial park, but because I’ve pestered Lokuvithana with questions about recipes and restaurants he’s made another plan.
Our bus pulls up to a long open-air hall. At the back there’s a bar packed from end to end with food. We see roti flaked with coconut frying on a flat grill, circular pots crisping the edges of fresh hoppers (fermented rice flour crepes), and caramel-coloured dough sweetened with treacle and coconut being shaped into cakes and puddings. Two deep-fryers are preparing spiced doughnuts and spheres of curried jackfruit, and we smell the nose-tingling zing of a chilli-laden sambal. Lokuvithana explains that this is a Hela Bojun Hala, a traditional food court set up by the agricultural ministry to empower local out-of-work women, and to promote local produce and traditional recipes.
Another night, Lokuvithana takes us to a restaurant in a small town 10 minutes by tuk tuk from our hotel. There we eat kottu; a mix of roti, meat, onion, tomato and spice, with hoppers and extra gravy. I ask Lokuvithana if he knew this restaurant already. No, he says. He just knew he could take us anywhere. Everywhere is good.
If you’d like to create the authentic taste of Sri Lanka at home, here’s two recipes we picked up on our travels. The first is a fresh dal recipe from Amba Estate, an organic farm and teahouse in the south. The second is a chicken and curd biryani recipe from our guide, Uditha Lokuvithana.
Recipe: Dal from Amba Estate in Sri Lanka
A coconut (check it’s fresh by shaking it and listening for the swash of the juice inside) or one can of good quality coconut milk
200g yellow lentils, dried
1 tbsp coconut oil
1 tbsp black mustard seeds
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 small red onion, or around 3 red shallots, roughly chopped
1–8 green chillies, diced
1 medium-sized tomato, roughly chopped
1–6 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
1 pandan leaf
2–6 curry leaves
A pinch of turmeric powder
1 stick of cinnamon
½ tbsp unroasted Sri Lankan curry powder
½ tbsp roasted Sri Lankan curry powder
½ tbsp chilli powder
Salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
Half a lime
Crack open coconut and remove juice. Scoop out flesh and blend in food processor with enough lukewarm water to cover all coconut pieces. Blend until coconut resembles desiccated coconut. Place sieve over a mixing bowl and pour blended coconut mash into sieve. Squeeze blended coconut with hands until no juice left.
Wash lentils in water and drain. Add coconut oil and mustard seeds to pot on medium heat. When seeds are cracking and fragrant, add cumin seeds, onion, green chilli, tomato, garlic, a pandan leaf and a few curry leaves. Stir continuously until onions are translucent. Add lentils with a splash of water. Mix together and add turmeric, a cinnamon stick and both curry powders. Stir and add remaining curry leaves and chilli powder. Mix everything together and leave lentils to simmer for a few minutes. Stir in coconut milk and leave mixture to simmer until lentils are cooked. Once finished, season with salt, pepper and lime juice.
Recipe: Lokuvithana’s chicken and curd biryani
500g chicken on the bone, chopped
1 tbsp turmeric powder
Salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
Splash of vinegar
1 cup water
1 tbsp coconut oil
2 medium-sized red onions
½ tbsp unroasted curry powder
1–6 curry leaves
1–2 large tomatoes
2 cups of basmati rice
½ a cup of curd
Add chicken, turmeric, salt, black pepper and vinegar to pot, pour in two to three cups of water. Bring water to boil then lower heat and simmer for 10–15 minutes. Once finished, remove chicken and place liquid to side.
Heat coconut oil in a large pot or rice cooker. Add onion, curry power, curry leaves and tomato. Cook over medium to high heat until onions are translucent and tomatoes are breaking apart. Lower heat and add curd. Cook for two minutes while continuously stirring. Add rice and chicken, stir through on low heat and add the chicken stock. Cover and simmer until rice is cooked.
Please note, the amounts specified for both recipes are estimates. Sri Lankan cooking is rarely precise. These recipes offer conservative amounts – if you want more flavour or spice, add more spices, garlic or chillies. Most importantly, taste as you go.
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This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with G Adventures. Broadsheet travelled to Sri Lanka prior to the Easter 2019 terrorist attacks. While such an unfortunate event undoubtedly leaves a lasting impact, tourism directly helps local communities in their emotional and economic recoveries.