Crisp snacks and hot fragrant sambols are the liveliest elements in Sri Lankan food
Having done with “meals” in Sri Lanka, now I can focus on the more interesting frills: the sambols and the snacks. In Colombo one evening my daughter and I walked along the sea wall, full of lunch and unhurried contentment. We had ambled around the beautiful old Dutch hospital, and apart from craft and clothes shops, checked out restaurants in the interests of research. In one we discovered Brezel, described as salted bread, which turned out to be pretzel in German. Now on the sea wall, away from the strictures of the pater familias, we tasted all the street food we could. All over the world street food is usually much more interesting than full meals, and, in Sri Lanka as in India, some things are more often bought than cooked at home. A favourite is isso vadai (prawn vada), which they serve with a thin hot and sour sauce. This looked quite unlike anything I’d ever seen, and tasted… interesting. Slightly chewy, smelling of dried prawns, I’m glad we tried it, but I’m not sure whether I’d go out of my way for it. There were also balls of some fried batter, with no taste. And the next stall had what I can only call fruit chaat. Large slivers of raw mango, slightly sweet and slightly sour, they were sprinkled with red chilli powder and salt. In another plastic trough there were pineapple wedges, very sweet, tossed in salt and red chillies, and possibly some other spices too. And wood apple. Shredded, mixed with spices, this was a sweet and sour mixture that tasted — I should have anticipated this — of wood. Novel, but not, to my untutored palate, a delicious fruit. The next container had what looked like pickled olives: plump green fruit, gleaming with oil and yes, red chilli flecks. I asked what they were. “Ollie,” weralu. I ate one, it was quite unfamiliar. I was sceptical, but found that Sri Lanka does indeed grow olives (as do we not only in Himachal but in Rajasthan!) But then olives from the West are treated before pickling and eating, so this could well have been the real Olea europaea.
On the scenic route to Bentota, which gave us frequent views of the coast and sea and of the small towns we passed through, we stopped for a drink: “temboli”, the bright golden orange King coconut. And we went into a café for a snack. Sri Lanka has quite a tradition of baking: there were cakes and biscuits everywhere. I didn’t try them, but was told they were passable. And “rolls”. They’re as common as vadai in the South or samosas and bread pakoras in the North. Plump oval baked bread rolls filled with chicken or fish; and a different, fried kind. About four inches long, golden brown and crisp, they seemed to be spring rolls filled with shredded chicken, fish or vegetables, coated with breadcrumbs and deep fried. The masala inside was salty and spicy, the meat soft and fresh, and the outside crisp and firm. The woman in the shop knew which was which from the shape. The best, though, was the rectangular pillow, the egg roll. It had the same cover: crisp crumb-coated spring roll, and the filling was thickly sliced hardboiled eggs layered with a very peppery brown masala paste. It was possibly the most delicious street-side snack I’ve ever had. There was no need for ketchup or chutney, but they offered lunu miris, flavoured with dried Maldivian fish.
In Sri Lanka, Maldivian fish means tuna, and I found it in some sambols. Sambol, like sambal, is a chutney, usually very chilli hot. Some are sweetened with caramelised onions, like seeni sambol; some, like pol sambol, are sour with a hint of lime juice; some are green and flavoured with mint or curry leaves; and then there’s lunu miris, salt and chillies with, occasionally, dried tuna. In my part of the world, salt is noon or loon, and chilli is mirch, and locals said that that was what the words meant, so this name I can remember without difficulty. Pol means coconut and seeni sugar, so there we have it: coconuts and chillies ground with salt and aromatics for fresh, piquant condiments.
(Caramelised onion with dried fish and spices)
Makes about 2 cups
1/3 cup vegetable oil
10 curry leaves
3 green cardamoms, bruised
1 cinnamon stick
10 cm rampe (pandanus) leaf
5 cm lemon grass, bruised (only the white part)
2-3 tbsp dried Maldive tuna, crushed
500g onions, sliced
3 tsp chilli powder
2 tsp sugar
3 tbsp tamarind, soaked
Heat oil and, on low heat, sauté curry leaves, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, rampe leaf and lemon grass for 10 minutes, until browned. Add Maldive fish and then onions, salt and sugar. Cook till light brown. Stir in liquid from soaked and strained tamarind. Simmer for 2-3 minutes. Discard lemon grass and rampe and serve hot or at room temperature.
2 onions, chopped
2 green chillies, chopped
1 clove garlic
1 tsp red chilli powder
5 curry leaves
3 tsp dried Maldive (tuna) fish flakes
1 coconut, grated
Juice from half a lime
Blend together until bound. Stir in lime juice.
(Dried chilli, onion and fish sambol)
100g dry red chillies
1-2 tbsp dried Maldive (tuna) fish flakes
1 onion, chopped
With a mortar and pestle, or in an electric food processor, process chillies, fish and onion until coarsely ground. Mix in salt and juice of one lime. Dried fish is an acquired taste, so its use is optional.