If a Sri Lankan friend sacrifices a cricket match for an afternoon of cooking, you can be certain that he is a friend for life. So, when Nishan invited (and I might have pestered) me to his home to cook with Shashi and their Ammi (mother) that afternoon, I couldn’t refuse.
Traditional are the tools and intricate is the process of Sri Lankan cooking – but it’s the combined brilliance of quality and locally sourced ingredients that defines the cuisine. Down this rabbit hole we went, with the basics of a curry powder: cumin, fennel seeds, cardamom and curry leaves. When dry roasted, these ingredients produce a semi-toasted and nutty flavor, pairing well with seafood (to offset the saltiness) or red meat (to balance the fat). A quintessential element to Sri Lankan cooking is the versatile coconut – milk for curries (and appropriately using coconut milk 1 vs 2), grated flesh for side dishes, husk for fire and more. In western cooking, herbs and spices would typically make their entry into a dish after the meat or vegetables. Here, herbs and spices make their way in first, to “tamper” the oil and release the essence of the spices. One can only imagine the aroma as you prepare a Sri Lankan meal once garlic, onions, curry leaves and chilli are added to the spiced oil… divine!
The product of that afternoon (also the evening’s entertainment) included mutton curry, crab curry, jackfruit curry, brinjal moju and string hoppers. Stringhoppers is a favourite of mine; rice flour, water and salt are combined and hand pressed into a wooden mould, releasing delicate strings of noodles to be steamed and accompanied by a curry and pol sambol – a fresh salad of grated coconut, onions, tomatoes, chilli and lime. Brinjal moju; fried brinjals dressed with a mustard vinaigrette, is a side dish that is unassuming but packs a punch. Nishan’s cooking abilities shined through in the delicious mutton curry cooked in a traditional claypot, skillfully controlling the coconut husk fueled heat. Shashi, Nishan’s sister (who’s also an excellent patissiere), demonstrated how a crab curry should be done to preserve and emphasize the sweetness of the crab flesh. And finally, no Sri Lankan meal is complete without Dhal – there are many variations, but Shashi’s method of tampering the oil first with garlic, chillis, curry leaves and garlic before adding the dhal just before boiling with coconut milk, is a winner for me. Needless to say, everyone left Nishan’s home fully content, myself included.
My first week had passed quickly in Sri Lanka and I was happy, full and hungry for more. Fortunately, the sweltering heat, tropical train rides and highly competitive badminton with Nishan’s friends (Hasa 😊 and Thibo) kept me healthy (2 servings per meal was not to be compromised!).
It was the next week at 3.30 in the morning, as Rachel and I gazed at our star signs in the night sky, that I gained a deeper appreciation of the workings behind Sri Lankan cuisine. Rachel and I had met at Arana eco lodge in Ella, and soon found 2 striking similarities – 1) we had signed up for the same hike at an ungodly hour 2) we were both consultants, trying hard not to break into business jargon whilst on holiday. Akalanka, our well-informed local guide, brought depth into the history of Ella and the surrounding flora and fauna that contributes to the quality of Sri Lankan cooking – the ingredients can be found in your backyard.
By 6am, we understood the meaning behind the monks’ morning chanting, the strategic planting of eucalyptus and pine trees in Ella by the British, the time it took to cultivate a jackfruit and the fascinating story of the mango that caused distress in Shiva’s family (a Hindu mythology) – all in time to admire the day’s beginnings, as the leaves of a mango tree swayed lightly at the peak of Ella rock.
“I am just here to instruct, you do the cooking!!”, came the thundering words of our cooking instructor as we listened with utmost attention. A cooking class in Ella, in what felt like the first week of university all over again (without the alcohol) – a bunch of strangers in a room with eager energies bouncing off each other, exchanging travel stories and laughing at the situation we were in. 8 different curries, coconut roti, a dessert all in the space of 2.5 hours (or so we thought!). What a daunting task, one was to initially think. It is easy to be overwhelmed when life throws you into unchartered territory – so go at it with a sense of curiosity and observe the process to determine if it adds any value or not. And so, time was spent observing the different smells, flavor and texture of the spices and raw ingredients in front of us before we proceeded to cook. Once you know these principles, making a curry is really just about mixing and matching to one’s taste. I was particularly intrigued with the mango curry, wondering why a fresh mango would not be satisfying enough to eat on its own? But roasted curry powder, cinnamon and cloves transforms an unripe mango into a delightful curry with a tinge of sweet and sour combined – perfect with some coconut roti on the side.
After 3 weeks of trains, beaches, mountains and wilderness, I spent my last week in Colombo, making food for people I will stay connected to far into future. Other than Nishan’s family, this included Indira aunty, uncle Romesh and Geetha. Indira aunty welcomed me with a smile into the oasis of her Colombo home, after spending a sleepless night becoming an expert mosquito killer at a different Airbnb. A cup of tea and a few long conversations (or gossip) later, we became good friends. Stories on life were exchanged, badminton was played, lamprais from VOC and Geetha’s amazing food was shared, the heat was blamed for our ice cream runs and Wednesday line dancing was attempted with Indira’s friends. I was also introduced to uncle Romesh, who at 70, is still playing tennis and swimming almost every day. Within a week, I felt like family – and Sri Lanka, another home.
The few dishes inspired from my Sri Lankan travels can be found under the Cook section. For now, these include roasted curry powder essentials, brinjal moju, pol sambol, pork curry, mango curry and dhal. Inspired by my travels, Sri Lankan style Aglio Olio, celebrates the simple but highly impactful ingredients of Sri Lankan cooking; linguine tossed in olive oil tampered with roasted curry powder, garlic, chilli and curry leaves, dressed with brinjal moju and freshly grated coconut. In any cuisine, you will find multiple variations and debates on what an optimum recipe would look like. However, I do believe that the best recipe is the one cooked with good intentions and shared. And thus, my recipes are written more as guidelines. I encourage you to enjoy the process of cooking, test, observe and make it your own best recipe.
On my last day in Colombo, Shashi treated us all to savory pastries and a dreamy lemon curd and blueberry pavlova which was enjoyed with Sri Lankan tea no less. I left Sri Lanka with new found friends, a number of ideas, and a longing to be back in the country very soon.
One thought on “Missed cricket matches, Shiva’s mango, the spice connection – An ode to Sri Lankan cooking”
So wonderful to read. I tried to imagine the smells and tastes, but all I truly felt was the joy of the challenge and the warmth of new friends