In recent times, Sri Lanka has played host to a motley pack of Celebrity Chefs. The last illustrious visitor to the island – Marco Pierre White is a veritable colossus in the world of food. His sincere and affectionate nod to the island’s cuisine must unquestionably serve as a testament cast in stone. Marco Pierre White commented that everywhere I went in Sri Lanka, I ate really well. Can a statement extolling the virtues of our little island’s cuisine be more profound or more credible?
Sri Lankan cuisine has been influenced by many historical, cultural, and other factors. While many colonised nations rejected those influences, with typical Sri Lankan tolerance, we incorporated those methods into our own food. What resulted was a heady mix of West and East so unique to the island
I am a firm believer that Sri Lankan cuisine is under-appreciated and underrated. Our large neighbour India, whose cuisine is most definitely not akin to ours, has for too long, overshadowed us. Because we have ‘curries’, it is easy for one to associate them with the Indian ones. Another item common to our cuisine is the ubiquitous Roti – but again, they are so dissimilar.
Stuck below the culinary behemoth of India, many assume Sri Lanka is more of the same. But a ‘rice and curry’ meal here is definitely, more South-East Asian in style and can incorporate anything from tuna to beetroot, all served with rice. Coconut milk, dried fish, lemon grass and cashew nuts can all feature in one meal. For too long, people have assumed that we are Indian food’s understudy on the world cuisine stage; but now, thanks to a wave of exposure, Sri Lankan cuisine finally takes a long-overdue bow.
More and more people are learning that it is a stand-apart cuisine and not India’s poor relative. One programme that elevated Sri Lankan cuisine to stellar status was Master Chef Australia. In almost every series, there was at least one Sri Lankan-Australian participant. That forum was used to showcase to the world, our unique, vibrant cuisine – the delicate curries, the piquant sambols and the wonderful cooking styles for fresh vegetables. It served to show the differences in our cooking methods – Sri Lankan cuisine has a faster style of cooking than Indian food; there is a healthy respect for vegetables, cooking them dry rather than floating them in gravy and the use of lots of green leaves and raw vegetables. The textures in a Sri Lankan meal are effervescent. From vegetables cooked in coconut milk, to crunchy sambols and malluns, the colours speak of the fresh produce grown on our fertile plains blessed with abundant rain and sunshine and above all, fresh, clean air.
There’s another strange component to many dishes: Maldive Fish. This is bonito tuna that’s been boiled, dried in intense sun until rock-hard, and shredded. While it’s used to add savouriness, it is not as pungent as the fish sauce or dried or fermented fish or shrimp of Asian cuisines further East. Care is taken not to allow the Maldive fish flavour to predominate over other flavours. Meat and fish curries are generally left to develop their own strong flavours, but nearly every vegetable dish gets the fish’s umami injection. It is nearly indiscernible, other than an underlying boost to the flavour, much like that of MSG – the ‘fishy’ flavour is unapparent.
Sri Lankan cuisine has been influenced by many historical, cultural, and other factors. While many colonised nations rejected those influences, with typical Sri Lankan tolerance, we incorporated those methods into our own food. What resulted was a heady mix of West and East so unique to the island.
Take our ‘short eats’ for example. These morsels of deliciousness always fascinate visitors to the island. Readily available on any corner, snack bars serving a large array of short eats are an established part of the urban landscape. ‘Short Eats’ are derived from the tidbits Europeans on the island served with sherry at six in the evening, a sort of cocktail party nosh. Now they’re ubiquitous snacks, served from midday onward and encompassing far more than tea sandwiches.
Sri Lankan food evolves according to the time of day. Mornings would have the traditional breakfast items of Kiribath, delicate String hoppers, Pittu or Roti all served with a delicious curry. In the afternoon the all-time favourite ‘Buth Packet’ takes centre stage. These Buth packets can range in price and quality. From those packaged in a newspaper to more fancy boxes, they all will contain rice, vegetables, mallun and some form of protein. And yet again, at night, the humble hopper is a staple. Hopper stalls have hopper cooks, swirling and twirling the fermented rice-coconut milk batter deftly; almost theatrically, to release a work of art – a crisp, bowl-shaped hopper. Just as common will be the clack-clacking of the kottu roti instruments – banging on the hot griddle as the cook tosses vegetables, meat or seafood, eggs and chopped roti. The aromas wafting from these kades, are comforting and familiar.
With the younger generation being more exposed to international influences, hybrids of the kotthu roti have emerged such as the ‘cheese kottu’. The recent interest in food and all things related has many entrepreneurs setting up restaurants with impressive offerings. Yet, there is no doubt in every Sri Lankan’s mind, that no matter what cuisine takes our fancy for that brief moment, we would always return longingly to our own unique island fare so irreplaceable on our tastebuds.