Picked from a tree related to the citrus family, curry leaves are often fried in oil before using in curries and chutneys. Although also available in dried or powdered form, they are at their aromatic best when fresh.
Most Sri Lankan households grow the pandanus plant whose long green leaves are used to perfume curries and rice. Pandan is often referred to as the ‘vanilla of Asia’, such is its beautiful aroma.
A long, ridged dark green pod with a slightly bitter flavour that are a popular ingredient in vegetable curries, particularly kiri hodi or white curry. Discard the outer skin before scooping out the pulp in the soft centre.
Green chillies are renowned for their heat. Sri Lankan food uses several types of chillies for blisteringly hot curries and zingy sambals.
A clarified butter made by simmering butter to remove the milk solids. It has a distinctive flavour, heats to temperatures well above butter without burning and keeps for extended periods of time unrefrigerated.
For a partially vegetarian population, pulses are a key element in the Sri Lankan diet. Dhal is eaten with most meals and always with curry and rice.
The coconut palm is referred to in Sinhalese as a gift of the gods. Every part of the tree is used – in building, for utensils, right down to the milk, the oil and of course the flesh. Finely grated in sambols and mallungs, added to curries and baked into sweet delights, it is the quintessential Sri Lankan ingredient.
Spiced, dried, smoked and finely shaved bonito, Maldive fish is the shrimp paste or fish sauce equivalent for Sri Lankan cuisine. It is a key ingredient in the essential pol (coconut) and seeni sambols and is also sparingly used as a thickening agent in curries. Store Maldive fish in a screw top glass jar as it’s quite pungent!
A rice native to Sri Lanka, the samba rice grain is approximately 1/3 the size of basmati and has a distinctive flavour and aroma deemed by locals to be an acquired taste. Nutritionally, it's hard texture results in a denser and more filling meal than most other varieties. The addition of a pandan leaf when cooking is said to dissipate the strong smell.
Chutneys, pickles and sambols
It would be unthinkable to have a meal in Sri Lanka without any accompaniments. These serve to enhance the flavours of curries and awaken the tastebuds. They range from savoury eggplant and tomato pickles, tangy lime and date chutneys to fiery sambols based on salt, lime, Maldive fish, chilli and onion.
Coconut oil is a fragrant cooking oil to be used sparingly due to its high saturated fat content.
A souring and thickening agent unique to Sri Lanka, goraka is a fluted orange fruit whose segments are dried, turning black. It can be soaked in hot water and ground to a paste or added whole and removed after cooking. It is most commonly used in fish curries such as ambul thiyal.
No Sri Lankan curry is complete without these small, brown square-shaped seeds, which add a slight bitterness and have a thickening effect on sauces. They must be heated slowly to prevent bitterness.
Ceylon curry powder gets its colour, aroma and distinctive flavour from dark roasting of its spice components, including coriander, cumin, fennel seeds, fenugreek and cardamom. Sri Lankan curries are generally classified as white: mild and rich in coconut milk; red: rich in chilli powder or ground chillies; or black, in which powered spice mixtures are given a deeper, richer flavour by pan toasting them until they are blackened.