Rice & Curry Food

Island on a plate


I expected to find little joy for vegetarians. But Serendip lived up to its legend

Sri Lanka? What will you eat there?” The responses to my trip to the island nation from friends and family quickly move beyond curiosity to concern and even amusement; I, after all, have resolutely stuck to a vegetarian diet over the years. A friend offers tongue-in-cheek advice: “Make sure you visit the Ministry of Crab in Colombo!”

The mental image of prawns and squid swimming menacingly in coconut curry in front of me make me squirm; should I perhaps toss some ready-to-eat emergency rations into my bags? Images of elephants languorously grazing in tropical forests play in my mind; would leaves and berries be my fate?

At first glance, the country feels like home. From Mumbai, the Sri Lankan Airlines flight takes about as long as a Chennai trip; two hours and you’re in Colombo. And the landscape leading out of the capital city could have been Kerala, minus the backwaters: coconut trees in one row, palm trees in another, paddy fields and bewitching red-tiled houses nestling in between.

Our first stop is the Pinnawala elephant sanctuary, 90 km from the capital. Pinnawala is home to the world’s largest population of captive elephants — 83 of them, either orphaned or lost in the wild — and is a major tourist attraction. The pachyderms are brought out to bathe in the Maha Oya river [Oya means small] and the young ones are bottle-fed, cheered on by entranced visitors.

After watching the elephants bathe and eat, we trudge up to a rooftop restaurant, looking forward to a sumptuous meal of our own. “Chappatis and sambar,” says the waiter to those of us who ask for the vegetarian options. There couldn’t have been a greater let-down. Omelettes and toast it will be, as a compromise.

Our lunch stop, Tropical Village in Dambulla, though, holds a pleasant surprise. Leaves and shoots are aplenty, but dressed in a way that make them look exotic. Praki Bandara, our guide, sees me excitedly toss one leafy salad after another onto my plate.

Kathurumurunga,” he explains, pointing to a long variety, a cross between the touch-me-not and the gulmohur leaf, tossed with onion, garlic, chillies and turmeric, and sautéed till it acquires a deep gloss. “This is different from what you in India call murungakai, or drumstick, in Tamil,” he says, breaking into a gentle smile. Kathurumurunga, he explains, is grown in most homes. The leaves are eaten, and the bark has medicinal properties.

Then there is the gotu kola salad made from a flowering plant, and the mukunuwanna, the Sri Lankan staple that vaguely resembles parsley. The shredded leaves, mixed with coconut, curry leaves, onions and green chillies, have a distinct, sweet fragrance. When it’s all stirred together this way, the Sri Lankans call it the ‘mallum’, literally, ‘mixed up’.

The comfort on the plate, though, comes from the rice, dal, deep-fried red chillies, and pappadoms. “Plain urad dal pappadoms, without the flavouring you have in India,” Bandara says.

Dessert is thick buffalo curd, served with treacle from the Palmyra tree. The curd is set in a mud pot, and while it’s usually served with treacle of a syrupy consistency, what we sample is the hardened jaggery. Curd is not eaten in Sri Lankan homes every day, Bandara explains. “The wealthy consume more of it. Else, it is served at feasts for priests following a death in the family.” The Palmyra tree has more than a hundred uses, he tells us. For the moment, we are content with the jaggery, picking up a few of the “toffees” for the long road journey that lies ahead.

We pass through pretty countryside on our way to Trincomalee, a port city in the east, and cities where Buddhist shrines share space with Hindu temples and Christian churches. The temples closely resemble those in south India: brightly painted, well-endowed figurines adorning the walls. Women dressed in salwar-kameez, riding two-wheelers or bicycles, are everywhere.

Deep in the verdant countryside, we are reminded of the not-so-pretty past the country has tried to shake off: army trucks keep us company on the road; at the Kanniya hot springs, which legend says date back to the mythological king Ravana’s time, tourists share space with soldiers on patrol. The site is claimed by Hindus and Buddhists alike, with a monastery nearby.

Bandara tells us that these areas saw heavy fighting between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan army for years — we are a few 100 km away from Jaffna, the hub of the Tigers — and points to abandoned homes that display scars from the shelling. Today, Sri Lanka is going all out to seduce tourists — the country welcomed a record 1.8 million visitors in 2015, up 17.8 per cent from 2014, according to the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority — but there is still an undercurrent of tension in these places.

Tourists around the world are inured to conflict — in most cases, it comes with the territory they set out to see — and most locals don’t think twice about it either. In Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka, perhaps karma, hardwired into the psyche, helps with acceptance.

On our way to the next stop, Bandara takes a philosophical detour. “Apart from the material, we need to live the spiritual life. Today, the boson particle has found that we are all energy, something the Buddha spoke about thousands of years ago. When we give up our desires, we put an end to suffering.” We, the unenlightened, opt for the material; a good meal and a comfortable bed to sink into is too much to renounce.

The restaurant at Trinco Blu by Cinnamon, where we were staying, does not disappoint. There is an array of aromas and flavours that could have woken up Kumbhakarna. Rice, the mallums, curried jackfruit, beetroot, sweet caramelised onion, or the seeni sambol, dal, sweet and spicy lemon and mango pickles, pappadoms, plus a surprise package from the chef: a spicy Andhra-style curry, and a dry okra curry. But what takes the cake — and our hearts away — is the wattalappan, a Sri Lankan dessert made with coconut palm jaggery and nuts. All this is washed down with some traditional arrack, distilled from palm syrup, mixed with coconut water.

The next morning, we set out to get up close with dolphins. The ‘fathomless coast’, as Trincomalee is called, stretched stretches ahead of us and after over an hour of watching the aquatic mammals tossing, turning and swimming, we were are ready for yet another meal. On the menu, more Sri Lankan wonders: rice pancakes and string hoppers.

The pancakes, cooked in a rounded pan, are made from fermented rice flour, sometimes with an egg fried at the bottom. String hoppers, on the other hand, are thin, rice-flour noodles, set into a circle and steamed, served with coconut curry. Then there’s pittu, made of roasted rice flour, mixed with shredded coconut and steamed in a bamboo stem; typically it is served with a spiced-up kiri hodi, a coconut milk curry stirred together with onion, chillies, turmeric, cinnamon, pandan leaf and the karapincha or curry leaf.

Sri Lankans round these off with the incredible variety of fruits grown in the country: rambutans, wood apples, pineapples, guavas, papayas, melons, bananas, to name only a few. “We have over 80 varieties of fruits and vegetables growing in Sri Lanka, but increasingly, people prefer to shop for imported apples and oranges,” says Bandara. To wash all this down, there’s the extra-sweet king coconut water and faluda, which is the falooda we know in India, spelt differently.

Sri Lankan spices make you never want to stop eating; the aromas are designed to stay with you through the day. Unfortunately, all the carbs you consume in the form of rice, morning and night add up, and I had have extra inches around the waist after just five days as evidence.

Coconut is an integral part of the Sri Lankan meal: from the curries to the mallum and even the desserts. And the pol sambol is the piece de resistance. The relish is a combination of shredded coconut, onion, chilli powder, green chilli, and chilli flakes, and can set your palate on fire, if not softened with lime.

As I watch sous chef Ranjith Bandara at the Cinnamon Lodge, Habarana — our subsequent stop — whip up a mean pol sambol, I ask if the four dark, thinly-sliced green chillies, which he casually tosses into the dish, is the standard measure for two people. He gives a quiet, knowing smile, which I have by now come to associate with Sri Lankans. “This is nothing. We use double the quantity in our homes.”

It somehow doesn’t fit. The Sri Lankan temperament, to us tourists, appeared guileless and sugary-sweet. People on the street, even attendants in public toilets, flash ready smiles, which extend to courtesy and a gentle demeanour. Vendors at street-side stalls patiently let us sample their eats, without once hinting at business. All they would ask was, “India? Where?” Tour guides would ask us the same question, and quickly follow that up with, “I want to visit your country.”

Maybe it’s all the treacle and jaggery they put down.

There’s much that binds our two countries: a history of colonialism, the sari, and a mix of cultures and religions. And for a Bombay person, there’s the prohibitive price of real estate: in the tony Colombo 2 neighbourhood, we were told, 1,000 sq.ft. apartments sell for upwards of Rs. 40 million.

And of course, the love for Bollywood and cricket. As we pass by a school ground in Dambulla, Bandara makes another of his cutting observations. “Volleyball is the national game. No one plays that. Everyone plays cricket”. Even the music we heard in restaurants and street corners was Bollywood retro, with Sinhalese lyrics.

Vegetarian food, as we discovered to our — my — delight, was no rarity either. On more than one street in the districts we passed through, I spotted restaurants displaying a ‘pure vegetarian’ board. On offer: hoppers, the kottu rotti — a “chop” made from a flat bread, mixed with spicy gravy and vegetables — and even vadas, idlis and dosas.

“Every meal does not comprise fish or meat,” Vishmith Weerasinghe (21), a marketing student in Colombo, tells me when I ask what a typical Sri Lankan meal is like. “In our home, we eat meat once in three days. The Sinhalese are mostly vegetarian, but the Muslims and Christians eat a lot of meat.” The green jackfruit curry, or polos, a green bean bonchi curry, breadfruit curry, dal, pol sambol and rice are must-haves. And the rice is typically the “healthier” red variety, he tells me. Dal, especially, is a must in Jaffna, Trincomalee, Hambantota and Kandy. “In the same household, recipes can differ, depending on whether the grandmother or the daughter-in-law is cooking. And if it’s a household with mixed Buddhist-Muslim parentage, the food reflects both cultures. Further, if the food is cooked on a wood-fire and served on a banana leaf, it tastes different.” Dessert isn’t a must. The kolikuttu, or small bananas, will do just fine.

We’re not sure of the last part though. If the food is as fiery as we know it to be by now, we might need the curd and treacle close at hand. And does GenNext eat all of what he has just described? Weerasinghe flashes that Sri Lankan smile again. “Well, in the cities, pasta and pizza are more popular.” This certainly feels like home.

The mixing pot

Sri Lankan cuisine is a mix of influences – Dutch, Portuguese, who left a colonial impression; Indonesian, and of course, Indian. While dal is common to India and Sri Lanka, their ‘dhal curry’ has some fundamental differences with our dal. For one, the pulses are not cooked to a squishy consistency, and maintain their firmness. Plus, Sri Lankans use coconut milk, pandan leaves and tamarind paste in addition to ingredients like onion and garlic, all of which are cooked together [see recipe]. “Tempering too, is not a must,” says chef Bandara.

The Dutch influence on Sri Lankan cuisine is seen in the kokis -- rice flour and coconut milk batter, deep fried in a flower-shaped mould; the pickles and smore stew, lumprais – flavoured rice with curries; and frikkadels wrapped in banana leaves.

The Portuguese, on the other hand, left behind a legacy of baked products, in the variety of cakes, pastries and puddings. They also introduced chillies and tomatoes to local cuisine.

The hoppers, pittu, wadas and parota came from India. The hoppers are more popular as appam and idiyappam in the south of India, and the influence has remained.

Tomato onion sambol (10 portions)


250 gm fresh tomato

250 gm sliced onion

100 gm red onion (sliced)

30 gm green chilli, sliced

03 gm mustard seeds

05 gm salt

02 gm pepper

20 ml lime juice


Mix all ingredients, drizzle lime juice, and mix again.


Beetroot Curry


400 gm beetroot

20 ml coconut oil

100 gm onion (sliced)

30 gm garlic (sliced)

03 gm mustard seeds

10 gm green chili (sliced)

01 small cinnamon stick

05 gm curry powder

03 gm turmeric powder

05 gm chili powder

150 ml coconut milk

05 sprigs, curry leaves

Salt to taste


Remove skin, wash and cut each beetroot. Keep aside. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a saucepan over medium high heat for about 1 minute. When the oil is hot, add mustard seeds, onion, garlic curry leaves, fry for about two minutes while stirring regularly. Add cinnamon stick, beetroot and fry about two minutes while stirring regularly.

Now add curry powder, turmeric powder, chili powder, green chilli. Mix well; let it cook for about two minutes. Then add coconut milk into the pan and give it a stir, add salt and cook about 10 minutes until beetroot is tender. Add salt, cook for another two minutes. If the curry starts to stick to the bottom of the pan, add a little water.


Dhal Curry


450 gm Dhal (lentils of your choice – tur or moong)

10 gm Green chillies (sliced)

10 gm Sliced garlic

100 ml Coconut milk (1st extract)

450 ml Coconut milk (2nd extract)

35 gm Sliced onion

03 gm Turmeric powder

05 gm Chilli powder

02 sprigs curry leaves, pabdan leaves

05 gm Tamarind paste

Salt to taste


Clean and wash the lentils. Add green chilli, onions, garlic, curry leaves, turmeric powder, chilli powder, pandan leaves and 2nd extract of coconut milk and cook together until dal is done (don’t mash it). Then add tamarind paste and stir for one minute. Thereafter add 1st extract of coconut milk allow to boil. Correct the seasoning and remove from the fire.


30 ml Coconut oil

05 gm Mustard seeds

5-6 Roughly-cut cinnamon, cardamom and cloves

01 Sprig of curry leaves

Heat the oil till very hot. Add mustard seeds, curry leaves and stir. Add chillies and onion and stir until onions are golden brown. Add on top of the dhal curry.

Shubha Sharma was in Sri Lanka at the invitation of the Cinnamon Group of hotels.


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Printable version | Jan 25, 2020 11:04:09 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/Island-on-a-plate/article16700987.ece

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