Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority

Tasty Sri Lankan Cuisine

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In Sri Lanka, the cuisine differs significantly from one region to another region. Rice is the main staple diet of the Sri Lankan cuisine and is generally served either boiled or steamed accompanied by a variety of curries. Despite the presence of fast-food establishments here, the average Sri Lankan still prepares and eats traditional dishes for everyday consumption at home. Being an island as one might expect, fish and seafood features heavily in the everyday diet along with fruits and vegetables which are itself cultivated on the island.

A typical Sri Lankan meal would consist of a main curry of fish, meat or poultry, several other curries made with vegetables and pulses such as lentils. Condiments such as chutneys and sambols are included. These are generally spicy and are made from various ingredients such as coconut, onions, lime juice and chillies. All the dishes are placed on the table at the same time for consumption.

Another ingredient used in Sri Lankan food is Maldive fish (dried fish). It is used as a flavour enhancer. Other common ingredients that are used include coconut and coconut milk, chillies, and onions.

Sri Lankan curries are widely and frequently consumed. There are three main types of curry: White, Red and Black. White curries are, mild, based on coconut milk and very liquid. Red curries contain a large amount of chilli powder or ground red chillies with a few other spices. Black curries are dark in colour which is achieved by the roasting of the spices until they are a deep brown and are the most typical curries eaten in Sri Lanka.

Kiribath is another well known milk rice dish. Served with lunu miris, a fiery hot mix of red onions and spices, and dark fish curry it is a traditional breakfast meal eaten on the first of each month and on other symbolic important occasions.

Hoppers (appa) are another food native to Sri Lanka, served mainly for breakfast or dinner and accompanied by lunu miris. Hoppers are made from a fermented batter of rice flour, coconut milk and yeast. Once the batter rises it is cooked in a hemispherical wok-like pan. There are many types of hoppers including egg hoppers, milk hoppers, and sweeter varieties like vanduappa and paniappa.

Curd and treacle is a common dessert. Curd is made of buffalo milk and the treacle is usually palm syrup from either the kittul or coconut tree.

For special occasions such as New Year, weddings, birth of a child, Sri Lankans serve juicy sweetmeats such as Kavum, Halape and Thalaguli. Kavum is a mushroom-shaped battercake of ground rice and treacle, fried in oil. Halape is a mixture of jaggery and flour, wrapped in a leaf. Thalaguli is a ball of confectionary liberally peppered with sesame. Other sweetmeats include Kaludodol, a rich, dark, confection made from coconut milk, jaggery and cashew nuts, aluva and pumpkin preserve (puhul dosi). Indian sweetmeats are also served. Popular dishes include Panivalalu (honey bangles), Muscat (oily sweet fudge), Gulab (a sort of jam) and Rasagullas (milk balls in sugar syrup).

Two local intoxicating drinks are Toddy and Arrack. Toddy is made out of palm trees while Arrack is a fermented and refined toddy.

Brief history

Sri Lanka is known for its spicy and tasty culinary dishes. Historically, the island was inhabited by the Balangoda people approx. 34,000 years ago. The Veddas (forest-dwellers) lived in Sri Lanka's semi-evergreen dry forest called the Wanni, for at least 16,000 years. The Balangoda are believed to be the original hunter gatherers who lived in caves. Historical records indicate that this community lived in Horton Plains and burnt trees in order to catch game. The discovery of oats and barley on the plains dating to approx. 15,000 BC suggest that the community may have used the land for agricultural purposes. Their diets included deer, wild boar and reptilians as confirmed by the discovery of these bones at various sites. The meat was probably roasted over an open fire. With the nearby sea, the inhabitants would have also eaten plenty of fish including shark.

The Sinhalese migrated to Sri Lanka probably from North India in 5000BC. Settling alongside rivers, records indicate that they enjoyed a similar diet. Excavations reveal the cultivation of wet rice was well practised. The Sinhalese constructed canals, water-storage tanks and reservoirs which made up an elaborate irrigation system as a backup in times of drought. By 900BC the use of iron and advanced forms of farming and livestock breeding were practised. Cinnamon, which is native to Sri Lanka, was in use in Ancient Egypt in about 1,500 BC, suggesting that there were trading links with the island at that time.

The island's location made it a popular stop-off point for foreign traders, especially as it produced many fine spices such as cinnamon and cloves. Examples include the Arabs who introduced the use of saffron and rose water, Portuguese who ruled the island in the 1500’s and introduced the use of Chillies and varied culinary terms such as 'temper' which is derived from the Portuguese word, temperado - to fry and season and the Dutch who ruled the island from 1658 to 1796 who introduced recipes such as Breudher, Christmas cake, Frikkadels (meatballs) and Lamprise. A Malay influence can also be seen in the dish Wattalapam, which is a steamed dessert and the rice dishes pilau and biriani.