Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka

By
Charmaine Solomon
Contains
90 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742701448
Photographer
Alan Benson

Sri Lanka

I was born and lived most of my unmarried life in this small, beautiful tropical island, shaped like a tear-drop and situated at the southernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent so that it has been romantically called ‘the pearl in the ear of India’.

It has been known by many names at different times, for it is an ancient land and its recorded history goes back to 483 BC, when Vijaya, a prince of the lion race (Sinhalas) set foot on the island. Some of the names by which it has been called during its 2500 years of recorded history are Taprobane, Simundu, Salike, Sila-diva, Serendib, Zeilan and Ceylon.

Roloff Beny, in his delightful book, Island: Ceylon, writes, ‘ln Sinhala, the language of the majority of the inhabitants, it is reverently known as Sri Lanka, or “Resplendent Island”, but I myself prefer the name given to it by the first travellers from China, which in translation is, “The Land Without Sorrow”.’

I had been away for a number of years when I revisited Sri Lanka for the purpose of writing this book. It was with a small shock that I realised all over again just how beautiful a land it is. Driving along the coast road one is surrounded by greens and blues and golden hues; languid, swaying coconut palms, the Indian Ocean incredibly blue and green and even purple in patches; sandy beaches that go on for mile after smooth, golden mile. Both sea and air are so warm that there is no chill either entering the water or leaving it. And there are no sharks because the island is surrounded by protective coral reefs, so it is a skin-diver’s paradise.

Within less than a hundred miles you can travel from the coast to the central hills where 2000 metres above sea level, the air is cool and crisp and the natural vegetation includes conifers and pines; here, English and Scottish planters grew the best tea in the world and felt at home in the cool, misty climate. On the coastal plains there is a year-round temperature of 32°C and city dwellers seek the comfort of air-conditioned buildings.

In spite of its tiny size, Sri Lanka boasts an amazing variety of food and styles of cooking. The island has a rich heritage of indigenous dishes and its regional cooking is strongly individual and varied. For example, Kandyan Sinhalese cooking, with its emphasis on hill country vegetables and fruits; coastal cooking, making the best of the seafood with which the land is blessed; Tamil cooking, closely linked to that of southern lndia, which is especially prevalent in Jaffna, in the north.

ln Sri Lanka, as in any other country, the most typical food is cooked in the villages — getting precise recipes is almost impossible. They don’t cook by a book. A pinch of this, a handful of that, a good swirl of salty water; taste, consider, adjust seasoning. That’s the way Sinhalese women cook, and no two women cook exactly alike. Even using the same ingredients, the interpretation of a recipe is completely individual. Ask a cook how much of a certain ingredient she uses and she’ll say, ‘This much,’ showing you with her hand. Spoon measures would be looked upon as an affectation. You watch, make notes and try to achieve the same results by trial and error. And when you arrive at the correct formula, write it down for posterity.

In addition to regional characteristics, some of the most popular dishes reflect influences from other lands. After a hundred years or so it does not matter that this or that style of cooking was introduced by foreigners who came and stayed, either as traders or conquerors — Indians, Arabs, Malays, Moors, Portuguese, Dutch and British. The dishes they contributed have been adapted to local ingredients, but retain their original character. They are not presented as Sinhalese dishes but accepted and enjoyed as part of the richly varied cuisine. The influence of the Muslims and Malays is responsible for the use of certain flavourings such as saffron and rosewater and the spicy korma, pilau and biriani which are Sri Lankan only by adoption.

When the Portuguese ruled Sri Lanka for 150 years in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they left behind words which have worked their way into the language and customs which are very much a part of rural and urban life. Many recipes end with an instruction to ‘temper’ the dish. This comes from the Portuguese word, temperado, which means to fry and season. The Portuguese also contributed a number of sweetmeats that remain popular. These are served at celebrations (Sri Lankans are enthusiastic about celebrating every happy occasion) and people take enormous pride in old family recipes, which they guard with jealous care.

Then came the Dutch, and though their rule ended after a mere 138 years, their descendants stayed on in this prosperous land. They too brought with them recipes laden with butter and eggs in true Dutch tradition, but in the spice-rich land of their adoption they took on new flavours of cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace. The traditional Christmas cake is a fine example of this, a fruit cake which stands above all others for flavour and richness.

My father’s family trace their ancestry back to the Dutch settlers. One early memory is of my paternal grandmother making preserves in an enormous brass pan that shone like gold. She was famous for her preserves, chutneys and jellies, and regularly won gold medals at the annual show. I have never seen anyone so meticulous about cooking.

Then I remember preparations for Christmas, always a time of much cooking and tasting. Eggs were bought by the hundred, not the dozen. And why not? The Christmas cake would require fifty egg yolks and a breudher (Dutch yeast cake) twenty more. When the egg vendor appeared it was the signal for the servants of the household to bring large basins of water to the verandah where grandmother sat to make her purchases. Into these the egg seller would put the eggs. Any that floated or bobbed about uncertainly were disqualified and only those that sank sedately to the bottom, signifying freshness, were considered worthy. The cooking of traditional foods was a family affair, and everyone had their part.

Serving and eating a Sri Lankan meal

Rice is the staple food of the people of Sri Lanka and has been adopted by all the communities (except, perhaps, the die-hard British). When enquiring whether one has had a meal, the literal translation of the question as asked in the Sinhalese language is, ‘Have you eaten rice?’ And all over the island the midday meal is rice and curry, Sinhalese-style.

For such a meal everything is put on the table at once — rice, fish and meat curries, soup, vegetables and accompaniments. It is perfectly correct to have a serving of everything on your plate at one time. Soup may be ladled over the rice or sipped from a cup between mouthfuls, but it is not the first course. The meal can be eaten with the fingers as the people of the country do, or use a spoon and fork, which is widely accepted now except on special occasions such as the Sinhalese New Year, when everybody goes traditional and eats with their fingers.

Desserts are unknown except on festive occasions, and the meal usually ends with some of the luscious fruit so plentiful on the island: mangoes of at least a dozen different varieties; papayas so sweet they seem to have been macerated in honey; bananas in even greater variety than mangoes; mangosteens and rambutan in season; avocados which are served with cream and sugar; and the huge, ungainly jackfruit, spiky green outside and the size of a large watermelon, with large, golden, fleshy seed pods of overwhelming sweetness and distinctive flavour.

Curries are not necessarily classified according to the main ingredients, but according to the type of spicing, the method of cooking, or the colour which, to the initiate, conveys a whole lot more than just whether a curry is white, red or black. White curries are based on coconut milk and are usually mild and have a lot of liquid so they double as soups. Red curries are based on few spices and a large amount of chilli powder or ground chillies that give the curry its vivid colour and red hot flavour. (In Sri Lanka it is quite commonplace to have as many as thirty large dried red chillies to spice a dish for six to eight people. Unless you are accustomed to spices on a grand scale, tread warily. Use some chilli for flavour and paprika to achieve the desired colour. Discretion is by far the better part of valour!) Black curries are the most typical curries in Sri Lanka. They get their dark colour because the coriander, cumin and fennel are roasted until a rich coffee brown. This dark-roasting brings out nuances of flavour in a subtle and wholly pleasant way, making the cooking of this little island strongly individual. If buying curry powder for use in Sri Lankan recipes, look for a label that says ‘Ceylon Curry Powder’ and if this is not obtainable, use the recipe on page 136 if you wish to duplicate the true flavour. Or, if using individual spices, always toast the coriander, cumin and fennel separately in a dry frying pan until dark brown before using.

Utensils

Cooking in true native style is always done on stone or brick hearths over wood fires. I remember Josie, a genial, round-faced, motherly woman who was the family cook for so many years that she addressed me as ‘baby’ (as the youngest member of the family is called) even when I was married and with babies of my own. Josie presided over the ‘big kitchen’ with its huge fireplaces, blowing through a piece of hollow metal tubing to get more heat out of the fire, stirring her clay chatties (cooking pots) with coconut shell spoons, and producing some of the best meals I have ever eaten. She had no time for the ‘small kitchen’ where the mistress of the house cooked on a gas range or baked cakes in the oven. Everything Josie wanted to cook could be made to her satisfaction in the time-honoured way, using the most primitive equipment. Like every other cook in the land she awoke before dawn to make the breakfast specialities, and each day, before she started to cook, she would grind her spices. This is done on an oblong grinding stone the size of a pillow, using another stone shaped like a bolster. In Western kitchens, a powerful food processor does this job.

While a stone mortar and pestle can be used for grinding whole spices for curries, an electric spice grinder is far quicker. Having one means you can always have freshly ground spices which have a better flavour. There is something about food cooked in clay chatties, especially curries, that is rather special. It is as though the clay absorbs and then gives out again the character of the food cooked in it. So though a chatty costs a mere few cents, when a cook gets used to a certain pot she is not easily parted from it. Most cooks keep special chatties for meat, others for fish and yet others for vegetables. However, a set of heavy-based saucepans is very suitable for curry cooking, and one with a well-fitting lid for cooking rice.

In place of the coconut shell spoons used for stirring, use wooden spoons. In curry cooking, metal spoons are not recommended. And keep these special curry spoons only for curries, or they may transmit the strong flavours they absorb to other dishes. There is no special equipment you need for the recipes in this chapter, except if you wish to try the appe (hoppers) and even then you can make do with an omelette pan if you cannot find the proper curved iron pan used to make these rice pancakes. A wok is not suitable, as the metal is too thin and gets too hot.

Your Sri Lankan shelf

—black mustard seeds

—cardamom, pods and ground

—cinnamon, sticks and ground

—chilli, powder and whole dried red chillies

—cloves, whole and ground

—coconut milk

—coriander, seeds and ground

—cumin, seeds and ground

—curry leaves, fresh or dried

—dried prawn powder

—dried shrimp

—fennel, seeds and ground

—fenugreek, seeds

—ghee

—kencur (aromatic ginger) powder

—lemongrass

—Maldive fish (smoked dried tuna)

—palm sugar (jaggery)

—paprika

—pandanus leaf

—peppercorns, whole black

—Ceylon curry powder

—tamarind pulp

—turmeric, ground

—vegetable oil or coconut oil

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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