Sri Lanka, the beautiful spice island once known as Ceylon, is a rich melting pot of cuisines. It seems every nationality that has visited and traded over the years has left its mark – the Dutch, Portuguese, English, Arabs, Malays, Moors and Indians.
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1 Jul 2008 - 9:00 AM  UPDATED 31 Mar 2021 - 10:53 AM

Thanks to Sri Lanka’s tropical climate, fresh fruit, vegetables and spices are in abundance and all are used in many ways. Freshness is key, with households regularly shopping more than once a day for produce.

Many families have a curry leaf tree and grow vegetables – some of which are virtually unknown outside Sri Lanka, such as murunga (drumsticks), which are used in curries and accompaniments, their leaves a popular addition to the favourite crab curry.

Every meal comes with rice – one Sinhalese greeting translates as "Have you eaten rice?". A simple meal may consist of rice, sambol made with chilli, pickles or chutney (to liven the flavour and wake up the taste buds), and at least one vegetable curry or dhal. Then there may also be a huge range of meat-based, vegetable and seafood dishes. Sri Lankan banquets are incredibly colourful, with curries that range from yellow to deep brown, the vibrant greens of the vegetables, and the bright colours of sambol. Besides being a daily staple, rice also features in celebratory dishes such as kiribath, or milk rice, which is traditionally the first solid food given to a baby, as well at weddings and on New Year’s Day.

Sri Lankan food is a labour intensive cuisine as many dishes are intricate and time consuming. Hoppers are an example – these are the bowl shaped rice flour pancakes that are used to scoop up curry and rice. Even more labour intensive are stringhoppers, which are fine rice flour strings that have been squeezed through a sieve and are curled into a little circular mat and steamed – these are a feature of banquets for special occasions.

Fresh coconut is grated every day and used in sambols, vegetable dishes and desserts. Often coconut is dry toasted and added towards the end of the cooking of a curry to thicken it and add a lovely toasty flavour.

Desserts are rich and sweet and reflect the many influences on the cuisine – from elaborate cakes to rich custards flavoured with spices, such as wattalappam. Many expats mourn the inability to find a simple but exquisite favourite – curd and treacle.

 

View our Sri Lankan recipe collection here.

Sri Lankan Food Safari recipes
Food Safari's chicken curry

A classic Sri Lankan chicken curry that’s full of flavour and best made with chicken on the bone. Charmaine Solomon has made this recipe for decades – it’s always a marvellous meal. Serve with stringhoppers if you can (or otherwise rice).

Food Safari's coconut sambol (pol sambol)

Sambols are fresh or cooked relishes that enliven Sri Lankan meals of rice and curry. This recipe, using chilli, maldive fish and fresh coconut, will give your tastebuds a warm but mellow tingle.

Wattalappam

This beautiful, spiced Sri Lankan custard makes a perfect finish to a meal. It can be served warm or chilled, in which case you could make the recipe a day in advance. Make a little extra syrup to spoon over the top if desired.

Leafy vegetable mallung (or mallum)

The word mallung means literally "to mix up" and this delightful Sri Lankan dish can feature any number of different vegetables. In this recipe it is a combination of shredded leafy greens, maldive fish, green chilli and coconut. For the greens, Paul says you could use almost anything: spinach, silverbeet, chicory, chrysanthemum leaves, beetroot or turnip leaves or mustard greens. Mix a few kinds together if you like – say, mild spinach with peppery turnip leaves.

Food Safari's prawn curry

Peter Kuruvita's prawn curry is a creamy, velvety dish with delicious depth of flavour. This is achieved by including prawn pieces in the curry sauce (to be strained out with the aromatics later) and pureeing and straining a few heads just like in a French bisque. The recipe includes Peter's impressive serving suggestion of nestling pairs of prawns into each other to create a seafood version of the yin–yang symbol, all stacked up and served in a moat of sauce. It’s a perfect dinner party dish as you can make the sauce in advance then cook the prawns in it very quickly just before serving.

Frikadells

Frikadells are a traditional part of the great Sri Lankan dish lumprais. They are also great spread on bread, or served as canapes with a mint chutney or yoghurt mixed with a little cumin seed.

Pumpkin curry (wattaka kalu pol)

A simple but delicious vegetable curry recipe that uses Sri Lanka’s dark roasted curry powder and is thickened and flavoured with toasted rice and desiccated coconut. A truly glorious dish to serve as part of a shared meal.

Sri Lankan essentials
Featured businesses: Sri Lankan
Contact the businesses featured in this episode of Food Safari.
Tips: Sri Lankan
These expert tips will help you achieve the perfect balance of flavours.
Utensils: Sri Lankan
Find out which special utensils you’ll need on hand during cooking.
Key ingredients: Sri Lankan
Make sure your kitchen is stocked with these essential ingredients.