• Sri Lankan food is complex and full of fresh flavours. (Flickr / Mag)Source: Flickr / Mag
Recipes from across Sri Lanka come together in the first cookbook co-authored by a Sinhalese and a Tamil.
Rachel Bartholomeusz

13 Jul 2017 - 10:58 AM  UPDATED 13 Jul 2017 - 11:02 AM

At the heart of Sri Lanka: The Cookbook, is a love story.

It’s written by husband and wife duo, Prakash Sivanathan and Niranjala Ellawala. He is a Tamil, from the arid north of Sri Lanka, and she is Sinhalese, from the lush tea plantations further south. Their relationship was uncommon even before Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war, but particularly so once it began.

After meeting in Sri Lanka, the couple moved to London for university in the 1970s, and yearned for the food of their island home. Cooking Sri Lankan food together became a necessity, then a hobby, and finally, a career. Sivanathan and Ellawala owned a Sri Lankan restaurant, Elephant Walk, in London’s Hampstead for eight years, and they now run Coconut Kitchens, a cooking school (they are not, however, the usual sort of celebrity chef - you won't find images of the couple plastered across social media, and there are no portraits in the book). 

Sri Lankan cooks are famously reluctant to measure anything in the kitchen.

This is something my Australian mother learned when she married my Sri Lankan father.

Her education in Sri Lankan cuisine began in the Concord West kitchen of my grandmother, who would lean her weight against the bench, adding spices not to measure, but by look and feel and taste. Mum would scramble to count curry leaves as they were tossed into the pan, catch and measure sprinklings of salt, and quantify ‘just enough’ water.

These family recipes are often recorded only in memories and practiced hands, passed down orally to children who have moved far from home and are desperate for rice and curry. And some recipes, like my grandfather’s beautiful, handkerchief-like roti, can pass with the people we love because we think we have all the time in the world left to learn.

The first book to include both Sinhalese and Tamil recipes, Sri Lanka: The Cookbook serves up delicious meals such as the Sinhalese lamb curry


And that’s where a cookbook, like this one, can step in. 

Its pages contain many of the classics in my family’s repertoire, and other unfamiliar dishes too. This is the first cookbook to be co-authored by a Tamil and a Sinhalese, making it automatically one of the most inclusive works on Sri Lankan cuisine. While other Sri Lankan cookbooks are predominantly written from one standpoint, Sri Lanka: The Cookbook strives towards its ambitious title.

Sri Lankan food is riding a wave of popularity in the aftermath of the war, as foreign tourist numbers surge. But while the world has discovered the delight of hoppers, it has yet to grasp the complexities of this cuisine.

Rice and curry is the staple across Sri Lanka. This describes not one dish, but many: a colourful array of curries that make use of Sri Lanka’s tropical produce, wealth of spices, and abundance of coconuts. Curries are served with dhal, sambols, pickles, salads, and other accompaniments. There are hoppers, as you know, but also string hoppers, a lacy nest of steamed rice noodles, various breads, and a whole world of spicy snacks, called ‘short eats’. 

Sri Lanka’s two key ethnic groups, Sinhalese and Tamils, share much of this in common, but each have their own culinary traditions and their own dishes, with Sri Lankan Tamil food heavily influenced by southern-Indian cuisine. Centuries of trade and conquest also make for a fascinating patchwork of cultural influences on Sri Lanka’s food. Arab traders, as well as Portuguese, Dutch and British colonisers all brought their own contributions to the cuisine. All of this, in an island roughly the size of Tasmania.

Sinhalese and Tamil recipes are not divided into chapters in this cookbook, but are woven together.

Sri Lankan flatbread

Veechu roti makes the perfect side to any Sri Lankan curry


In fact, there are no chapters dividing the recipes at all. While beautifully symbolic, newcomers to Sri Lankan cuisine might find this overwhelming, and a little more guidance on which dishes traditionally pair together, and how to eat Sri Lankan food, could be helpful.

The glossary sets out the key ingredients you’ll need, most of which can be found in spice shops without too much difficulty. Ingredients are referred to by both their Tamil and Sinhalese names – bittergourd for example, is karawila to Ellawalla, but pavakkai to her husband. Recipes for curry powders, the building blocks for all the curries in the book, hold some of the key differences between the flavours of Sinhalese and Tamil food.

Tamil bread staples such as steamed idli and fermented, spongy thosai are interspersed with Sinhalese counterparts like pol roti, the simplest, most delicious flatbread made with coconut and cooked over a griddle.

Prawns are cooked Sinhalese style in isso kiri hodi, a curry with a rich coconut curry base flavoured with spices such as cinnamon, while the Tamil take on fish curry, meen kulambu, is soured with tamarind, common to many Tamil dishes.

Tamil mutton curry, aatturatchi kari, is only slightly different in method and ingredient to Sinhalese lamb curry, elumas, and yet they are remarkably different in taste.

Sri Lankan fish patties

Influenced by Portuguese traders, Sri Lankan fish patties resemble an empanada 


And then there’s Sri Lanka’s take on biryani, borrowed from the local Muslim community, ‘devilled’ bar snacks brought by the British from the east, Portuguese-influenced fish patties, essentially an empanada, Malay influenced pickles and the Dutch Burgher specialty of lamprais (or ‘lump of rice’), a special occasion meal of various intricate elements wrapped in a banana leaf.  This European influence continues in Sri Lankan desserts, with sweets such as ‘pineapple fluff’, bibikkan (coconut cake), and love cake, flavoured with rose water and spices.

The two Sri Lankan cookbooks my grandmother gifted my parents became bibles in our house. They supplemented her recipes, filled the gaps in our repertoire, and gave the precise instructions a student craves.

One in particular morphed as the years passed, notes were written in margins, and random sheets of paper were stuck inside with hand-written recipes. It has long lost its cover, and the broken spine barely holds the stained pages together.

I predict a similar fate for Sri Lanka: The Cookbook. It will be even more beautiful once it’s missing that striking cloth cover, when the binding has come loose and the pages are splashed with curries unnumbered. Telling not one love story, but many. 

Lead image by mags via Flickr 

Cook the book

Sri Lankan semolina pudding

It's not all savoury curries and rice in Sri Lanka. Indulge your sweet tooth with this semolina pudding (kesari)

Sri Lankan curry powder - thuna paha

Make your own curry powders with recipes for both roasted and unroasted powder (thuna paha)

Put your homemade curry powders to the test with this Sinhalese lamb curry (elumas)


Recipes from Sri Lanka the Cookbook by Prakash K Sivanathan and Niranjala M Ellawala (Murdoch Books, pb, 39.99). Photography © Kim Lightbody.