Oh yes, Sri Lankan food is a lot similar to Tamil Nadu and Kerala cuisine. But, where it deviates, it turns intriguingly distinct.

The elephants come out at lunch time — around the time we're knee deep in Elephant Bay restaurants' spicy Sri Lankan sambol and chicken curry. As they gambol by the river, we drink in the view and lots of steaming Dilmah tea.

Sure, India has elephants, but we've never managed to market them as efficiently as Sri Lanka has. On the other hand, when it comes to food, it looks like Indian curry has submerged the world.

All through our weekend in Kandy and Colombo, the food is startlingly familiar, replete with flavours revisiting us like old friends. Cardamom. Cloves. Coriander. Cumin. Curries are thickened with coconut milk and spiked with fennel, fenugreek and tamarind. Colours are deepened with turmeric, and brightened with curry leaves.

We eat string hoppers for breakfast, similar to the Kerala lace idiaappams, but team them with sambols, little bowls of explosive flavour that add new dimensions to every mouthful of food. They come in the form of caramelised onion sharpened with chillies, powerful dried shrimp teamed with coconut, and fish flakes, moist mint echoing with the twang of onions and sweet sultanas.

String hoppers appear regularly. Desserts, besides the classic wattalappamn (a caramel custard-like concoction of coconut milk, palm sugar and spice) are old school British — bread pudding, jelly trifles and chocolate biscuit pudding. An edible trip down memory lane to the days when puddings were made at home, and necessarily contained, at least, one can of cloying condensed milk.

However, what's fascinating about Sri Lankan food is not how similar it is to generic Indian, and specifically Tamil Nadu and Kerala, cooking, but, where it deviates. For a country that's so close to us geographically, sharing practically the same climate and vegetation of South India, it's intriguing that the cuisine is distinct.

Chef Channa Dassanayaka in his book “Sri Lankan Flavours: A journey through the island's food and culture” lists dried shrimp, lemon grass and pandanus (a stiff, bright green leaf used for its unusual grassy, nutty flavour and colour in curries and rice) as essential to Sri Lankan cooking. The other unusual ingredient is ‘Maldive fish', actually dried bonito fish caught in the South China Sea. It's processed in the Maldive islands, hence the name.

The vegetarians among us learn to be very suspicious at the buffet table once they discover these flakes in the raw banana fry. Chef Channa says some dishes are enhanced by sprinkling of this dried fish while others, such as sambols, are carried by the flavour. Here's another deviation from traditional Indian cooking which rarely mixes fish into a vegetable dish (unless, of course, you're Bengali!).

Chicago-based food historian Colleen Taylor Sen, the author of “Curry: A Global History” says that food is as much a product of history, identity and religion as it is of geography. “My theory is that the use of ingredients such as Maldive fish (perhaps, a substitute for fish sauces used in South East Asia), blachan (a fish or shrimp paste) and Rampe (screwpine or pandanus) are all a result of Sri Lanka's connections with South East Asia and Indonesia via the Dutch,” she says.

In her book, she talks of how Sri Lanka is now home to “a society with a rich colonial past and a cuisine that is a mosaic of Sinhalese, Tamil, Indian, Dutch, Portuguese, Malay and British influence”. Since it was a producer of spices, the island became a stopover for ships drawing merchants from the Middle East, Persia and South East Asia.

Colleen says the Portuguese arrived in 1505, and were expelled by the Dutch in 1653. They, in turn, lost the island to the British in 1792. Ten years later, Sri Lanka became a British colony, which is when cinnamon, rubber, sugar, coffee and indigo plantations were established on the island. This is also when they brought in thousands of indentured labourers from India to work for them.

Each country that colonised the island left a palpable influence on both food and culture. The result's delicious, sure.

But, when in Sri Lanka, to really appreciate its nuances, it helps to understand that thousands of years of history designed that simple curry on your plate.


Shimmering sun, azure sea: NegomboAugust 7, 2010

Going tropicalAugust 31, 2009

The big, fat Greek platterSeptember 16, 2010

Cooking it rightSeptember 30, 2010