The best way of starting a war in Sri Lanka, is to ask a group of housewives the exact recipe of curry powder. It’s something that every kitchen on the island contains, because it goes into a wide variety of dishes. But, as I found out soon enough, it’s akin to asking a bunch of Indian housewives what they put into their garam masala: there’s no single, definitive answer. “You must use equal quantities of jira and coriander seeds,” says the youngest lady. She gets a withering look. “No, she doesn’t know,” says another. “Actually, it’s jira, coriander seeds and methi seeds, all in equal quantities, with rampe leaves to taste.” “No, no, don’t tell her rubbish about our cuisine,” interjects a stout matron of advanced years. “You know, you can’t dry rampe leaves properly, so you never add it to curry powder, but you do dry roast a teaspoon of dried coconut that you grate and add it to the curry powder. It will make your curries shine beautifully.” Her eyes gleam at the memory of curries that shine.
I was walking about in Cargill, Sri Lanka’s most popular supermarket chain, looking for readymade curry powder, when shoppers stopped by to ask me if I wanted any help. The war that raged in a matter of seconds took me off-guard. They all seemed so kind and mild.
So, whatever it is that you put into curry powder, if you’re going to try your hand at Sri Lankan cooking, just be sure to add a trick or two to the powder, so that it is more jazzed up than your neighbour’s watered down version, yet not so over the top as to be inauthentic. Each and every one of the spices are those that are familiar in India; in fact, the onion is called Bombay onion, inspite of the name being objected to by nationalistic revolutionaries. I idly realized that no card-carrying Indian member of that breed has ever objected to our calling the oily, jelly-like halwa Karachi halwa. Only lemon grass (used in far more subtle quantities than in Thailand) and rampe leaves (pandanus latifolia) are exclusive to Sri Lankan cooking, the latter having foot-long stalks like the lily plant.
And no, it’s not difficult to try your hand at cooking Sri Lankan food, because it’s a whole lot like the food of Kerala, while having its own touches. As a matter of fact, once I had eaten my way around a mountains of mellums and lamprais and sambols that the island offers, I had come to the conclusion that its geographical position – a tiny tear-drop in the Indian Ocean – was a clue to its gastronomy: mid-way between South India and the Far East. The dosai, idlis, pittu (puttu), hoppers (appams) and string-hoppers (iddiappams) are straight out of Central Kerala (the backdrop’s quintessential Goan, but that’s another story), however, the milk rice is Malaysian ketupat, pure and simple.
It’s easy to claim that Sri Lanka’s staple food is rice, but it doesn’t even begin to describe the sheer ingenuity of the panoply of desserts, tea-time snacks and breakfast dishes that is made with rice. Milk rice – a breakfast favourite – is made with rice (white or red, take your pick) boiled with coconut milk or coconut milk and water till it’s a glutinous paste. That’s when you take it off the fire, pour it out into a metal tray and leave to cool. Then you cut it, a la barfi, and serve squares of it with cheese, jam, treacle made from coconut jaggery, fiery sambols, or fish curry. Milk rice, like its Malaysian counterpart, is the carbohydrate component of a snack. In Sri Lanka, it’s washed down with tea; in Malaysia, ketupat is wolfed down with satay and peanut sauce.
Sri Lanka’s gastronomic connections with south East Asia go deeper than that. The only two places in the world where lamprais is eaten, are Indonesia and Sri Lanka, and for that, we have the Dutch to thank. They came to Sri Lanka via Indonesia bringing lamprais with them. It’s a remarkable concept: you could consider it the precursor of fast food. In fact, had it not been for the calories, it would have been the most convenient lunch packet or thali meal wrapped in a banana leaf. Samba rice with its tiny grains that give it the appearance of giant couscous, is simmered, pulao-like in a broth fragrant with cardamoms, jira, lemon grass, rampe leaves, onions and ghee. Separately, a stir-fry of boneless chicken nuggets is prepared. A dry vegetable – usually aubergine with ash plantain – a sambol and a cutlet and/or a fried egg, all are prepared and kept ready. Each portion of lamprais requires one serving of every component to be assembled on a banana leaf, which is then grilled.
Just as there’s no restriction on who in India cooks and eats biryani, lamprais is enjoyed by just about every urbanized family, but there’s no doubt that the Burgher community have turned it into something of an art. Burghers – arguably Sri Lanka’s most colourful community – are, in the mould of our own Anglo-Indians, descendants of Dutch settlers on the island. Today, they all speak Sinhala just as well as the next person, and their love of spicy food is legendary. What sets them apart are their names – Anton Aloysius Reyhart (chef), Barbara Sansoni (owner of Barefoot Gallery), Carl Muller (author) and their startling grey eyes. Today, Burgher has become a one-size-fits-all name for all the descendants of British, Portuguese and Dutch settlers on the island, and if the British did the most for the economy of Sri Lanka, there’s no doubt that the Dutch have left their imprint on the cuisine.
Sambols, without which no Indonesian meal is complete, is an essential part of a meal in Sri Lanka. It is possible to enliven the dreariest meal with a dollop of sambol, roughly analogous to our pickle. Even an everyday meal in a middle-class home will have at least two types of sambol. Sun-dried tuna (known throughout the length and breadth of Sri Lanka as Maldive fish and pronounced mouldy fish, entirely unintentionally), chilly powder, roasted grated coconut, fried onions – this is the palette each cook has to play with in order to make a sambol. One sambol uses fried onions and chilly powder, another Maldive fish and chilly powder, and a third is made with roasted coconut and spices. In fact, sambols are not unlike the idichamanthi of Kerala, but the name and the variety is definitely South-East Asian.
Sri Lankan food embodies many of the main characteristics of South-East Asia. The chief one is the interplay of flavours and spice levels between one dish and another. Thai and Malaysian cuisines use palm sugar to heighten sweetness, whereas Sri Lanka relies on the natural sweetness of coconut to do the job, but the range of tastes – astringent, sour, sweet and spicy – feature prominently in both cases. Then too, pounded Maldive fish is used to flavour vegetable curries, in much the same way as nam pla is used in Thailand.
Western desserts are made, using essentially three ingredients: sugar, flour and eggs. It’s the proportion in which they are used and how they are used that goes to create everything from meringues to bavarois. It’s the same with Sri Lanka. Grated coconut, jaggery and rice flour are the three ingredients used in all their desserts. The only exception is thick curd made with buffalo milk topped with dark brown treacle from the kithul palm. It’s a shade more popular than sago pudding, in which the sago is boiled and moulded, and served with coconut milk and melted jaggery.
Other sweets include a wide range of toffee-like fudges that are sold at tea shops all over the country, but especially in Kandy, the largest city, next only to Colombo. Kandy is where you’ll find the highest density of unpretentious shops that specialize in short eats. Breaded fish cutlets, potato bondas and curry puffs all have their country cousins in India, but there’s a vegetable stir-fry wrapped in a rice pancake and formed into a sandwich-like triangle that bears a marked resemblance to buss-up shut, a Caribbean snack from the island of Trinidad!
One thing’s for sure: Sri Lankan breakfast dishes – perhaps the single most interesting meal on the island – are in no danger of dying out. You just have to walk the aisles of any supermarket to see several local brands of vacuum-sealed packets of rice flour, hopper flour, Maldive fish sambol, chilly paste with dried seafood (shades of Chinese XO sauce!), roasted red rice flour and ice-cream made with kithul jaggery. Everything, in short, to keep tradition alive in this age of working couples. And if you ever want the recipe for curry powder, all you have to do is ask a bunch of fellow shoppers.