Sri Lankan Rice and Curry

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.

Rice is king – here cumin rice, first tempered with onion and cumin seed, then cooked by the usual absorption method.

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.

Cooks believe the flavour is enhanced when cooked in a terracotta chatti. A red chicken curry on the stove.

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).

Murunga sudu curry

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.

Mo’s famous crab curry, with kathuramurunga leaves

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.

47 thoughts on “Sri Lankan Rice and Curry

  1. omigod you could food blog your way into fame and fortune… and I haven’t had dinner, not that it’s going to be anything like all the wonderful words and photos you assembled to showcase this wonderful cuisine, and your friends 🙂

  2. It’s not even lunchtime, and I’m salivating! All of that, all of it, looks divine. Wish I could pop on over to your house and suck on some crab legs. ; )

  3. These dishes look like works of art. I love the colour and texture and can only dream of the aroma.

    • The smell does it for you too, Ad? If I close my eyes, I can imagine the smell of rice cooking, and visualise what might go with it … It’s time for breakfast, I must go and see what Kumari feels like making for us! Yum:)

  4. I can almost smell the aroma of cumin, curry etc. I don’t eat crab but the red chicken curry and the vegetables look delicious! Thanks for making my mouth water! 🙂

  5. Ooh, I’m in heaven, Wanderlust Gene, you tease – you know how much I love spicy food. Can I come stay with you? And when you get your hands on Mo’s recipe, I’m hoping you’ll be sharing it with your fellow spice-lovers! Deliciously succulent post, my mouth is watering.

    • Yes and no, Odyssey. The texture is different – coconut is always in the form of milk (even in the mallung, the scraped coconut hat tis added to the quickly sautéed vegetables is added after cooking, to absorb any remaining liquids and is thus fresh and succulent still.) – and the proportions of spice are different. Here coriander, cumin and fennel form the base of the curry mixture, which is most often made from deeply roasted seeds..

  6. what a wonderful succulent post, it is early morning here but i am already imagining coconut lentils for dinner! those flavours and photos are all so beautiful, mouth-watering!!!! we have used charmain solomon’s cookbook all our lives together so it will come in handy tonight as we pour over the Sri Lankan section with fresh inspiration 🙂 in fact our book was so tattered and splattered that we were glad to find a newer one in my mother’s library after Don died, so it needs a bit more use ….

    • Ohhh – paripoo for breakfast with pol rotis, very nice!

      Glad you found a fresh copy of Charmaine. She has a good Sri Lankan section, a little Burgher-centric, and sometimes a little low on vitality, but a base that became more Bible-like the longer I was away and not eating, and cooking Sri Lankan recipes every day.

    • Very … ! But I guess you don’t have much trouble replicating things in New York – they have such a great selection of fresh and preserved foods from around the world you can choose from.

  7. Thank you for the sharing how creative we can be with rice. I’ve been looking for some ideas to do more with rice since I love it so!

  8. Wonderful description of your local fare! A native Sri Lankan couldn’t have written this better! Parippoo or Parippu is the Tamil word for Dhal/ Lentil as is Murunga for drumstick (vegetable not chicken). The seafood dishes sound divine! Hope you are able to get hold of Mo’s recipe and share it with us 🙂

    • Madhu, you’re so kind! Thank you for your endorsement. I’m aiming for a farewell gift pack of recipes to take into exile with me, so fingers crossed. Watch this space.

      It’s interesting that Parippoo and Murunga are the Tamil names (Murunga, of course is also the botanical name, which makes life easy for once!) – because I’m vaguely aware that I’ve never heard them called anything else but paripoo and murunga here, no matter who’s talking.

      • Perhaps the Tamils brought them to SL with them? The Non vegetarian here, apart from Chettinad cuisine is pathetic. That in the West coast as in Kerala, Mangalore and especially Goa is fabulous. The fish curry you describe sounds and looks more like what you would get there.

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