Here, rice is king, and is the basis of the main meal, every day. In Sinhala, one says, “bath kanna?” (“have you eaten?”), literally, have you eaten rice? No matter how the rice is to be prepared, it will be cooked by the absorption method – rinsed three times to extract excess starch, and liquid added to the level of the first joint of the middle finger, brought to the boil and gently simmered, lid on, for about 20 minutes.
Typically, simple steamed rice is the norm – though this aromatic delight can hardly be called simple. The smell of rice cooking is as evocative as the smell of cooking bread, I think, especially with the inclusion of a knot of rampe (pandanus leaf), which does away with the need for salt.
What is exciting, and distinctive, about Sri Lankan cuisine is the variety that has come from waves of immigration, visiting traders and five centuries of colonists. The original Sinhalese and Tamil immigrants adapted their native cooking styles to the produce available on their particular patch of this paradise island. Visiting Arab and Malay traders introduced food stuffs and techniques from their lands, and of course Portuguese, Dutch and English colonists assuaged their cravings by adaptation, or the introduction of luxuries like wheat flour, butter, eggs and sugar, developing recipes which have been lovingly grafted over centuries by Sri Lankan Burghers and embraced as Sri Lankan, by the population at large. Talk of these foods, and their preparation, should be the subject of a book, but for our purposes, will have to come in later posts.
Whether you are from a family who likes rice three times a day, or whose family prefers the variety of delicacies such as appe, iddi appe, idli, rothi, paan, birriani, pittu, or simple starches like manioc, yam or sweet potato – the main meal of the day is Rice and Curry, served at lunchtime.
Our Menu. Rice, of course, red or white – steamed, or perhaps a more elaborate preparation, with onion, cumin, turmeric, ghee, or even koppe bath, (rice moulded in a cup with an egg and pol sambol), or the fragrant and delicious import – birriani.
Considerations of colour and texture go hand in hand with the most intriguing combinations of fire, sour, sweet, and salt – this goes for menu selection, and the proportions of each dish we add to our plate. If we are eating meat, this protein will – as always – be the pivot for vegetable choices – and which style of preparation will be made.
We might consider a sour fish dish like the idiosyncratic ambul thiyal (a peppery dry black curry sharpened by the addition of the pulp of the dried goraka fruit); or a deeply flavourful fish head curry – or beef curry – with a dark, smoky gravy made from about 20 roasted spices (the famed Sri Lanka Curry Powder – though every good cook will have her own secret blend – I know my friend Mo does!). Perhaps you fancy mutton (here, as in India, mutton is really goat), or imported ‘lamb’ – both delicious cooked as dark curries; or the cleaner flavours of a fiery (or mellow – your choice) chicken, prawn or squid curry with chilli, lime and lemongrass; or even the exquisite subtlety of thora malu – sear fish cooked in an aromatic coconut milk curry. On the other hand you might choose to saute your fish (or seafood) – devil it with chilli, or sour it with lime and tamarind.
There are a couple of staples, beloved by all, rich or poor, Sinhalese, Tamil, Burgher, Malay or Moor. I have a friend who says lunch isn’t complete without paripoo, the Sri Lankan dahl. Basically, lentils cooked in coconut milk, paripoo comes in as many subtle variations as there are housewives who prepare it, but count on it being a melting moment of slightly floury lentils that have almost amalgamated into a delicate coconut milk gravy, fragrant with curry leaves, cinnamon, lemon grass and rampe.
No meal would be complete without at least three vegetable preparations. The choice might include a sudu curry – a coconut milk gravy flavoured with a variety of herbs and spices to compliment the vegetable of choice. My favourite is murunga (the long, 12-15 inch seed pods sometimes called drumsticks – a little crunchy from the seeds, a little satiny from their casing), or vatakolu (ridged gourd, which before it matures to become a lufa, is the most delicate of marrows).
Dry curries, and malungs, offer a wealth of taste sensations bursting with nutrients, while pickles and sambols add fire, sour and crunch to every plate, packet or banana leaf.
If you’re lucky, you may taste Mo’s famous crab curry – the best crab curry I have ever eaten. I’m lucky – I get to eat it at almost every special occasion celebrated by my best friend and her family. I will have to beg the recipe before I go home, or as close to as she can recount it – cooking is an organic process for Mo, governed by smell, colour and texture, as well as flavour.
As with all great cooks, Mo insists that sourcing the best ingredients is the bedrock for success. She will call around each of her trusted suppliers to source her crabs (or fish, prawns, squid, …). If we’re going anywhere near Negombo we pack a regifoam box, in the expectation that we will buy something wonderful. Best is to buy from the source, so we’re always on the lookout for those makeshift road-side signs – kakuluwo, malu, isso, dhallo. Otherwise, we’ll pop into the new fish market where, early in the morning, you can watch the catch being unloaded, and auctioned for resale.
You’ll notice I didn’t mention lobster, on my shopping list. We almost never see it at the markets, though you might be lucky and persuade a diver to sell you one – at the going rate, of course. The entire catch is earmarked for sale to the big hotels and the price achieved is such that their supply is never jeopardized by the needs of local consumption.
Back to Mo’s crab curry – it’s poached gently in a gravy of thick coconut milk infused with a variety of spices and aromatics. The pot, when it comes to the table, is redolent of ginger, and lemongrass, with the piquant sting of green chillies and red chilli pieces adding a zing to every mouthful of crabby sweetness. Some have been known to simply drink the gravy, as if it were a laksa, but for me, and other aficionados, the delight is in extracting every morsel of flesh and savouring the complexity of each saucy, delicious, mouthful. Finger licking is infra dig, but is impossible to resist.
That’s an interesting point of etiquette, where the tips of the fingers of the right hand are used to eat. There’s a skill to it – like mastering chop sticks, and although ones hands are of course in need of a wash – both before and afterwards – one should not have accumulated so much gravy on ones fingers so as to require a lick. Only children – and unschooled sudus – are excused such clumsiness (though I’ve noticed everyone looks away, as I do this). When eating crabs, most people do allow the support of their left hand in the cracking process. For me, it’s all hands, including a piece of crab’s claw, to help in extracting those recalcitrant titbits hidden deep in the recesses of the creature’s bony joints.
I have a friend who eats her crab with one hand. She cheats though, only eating from the body, which is fine by me, because she passes the claws my way, and that’s my particular delight! We’ve been known to sit at table, shucking, sucking and savouring for a couple of hours – it’s a very companionable meal, crab curry. For me, a feast of kakuluwo is simply rice, Mo’s crabs, and kangkung briskly sautéed with onion, garlic, chilli and ginger, though I must discipline myself to eat the tasty vegetable early in the piece so as to appease my notions of a balanced meal.
Whichever choice you make – bon appétit!
Ailsa, at Where’s My Backpack, called for posts on the Travel Theme Food.