Every chef I spoke to for this article — and several expats — agreed that it’s time to smother, once and for all, the myth that Sri Lankan food sets the digestive system afire. Blame uneducated palates instead, and those for whom anything more than black pepper is a tad too far.
“Sri Lankan food is often misunderstood,” explains Siripala Pathirana, Sous Chef at the storied Galle Face Hotel in Colombo. “The belief that Sri Lankan cuisine is too spicy may come from Sri Lanka’s reputation as a spice island, but spicy doesn’t have to mean crazily hot. It can mean a deeply complex flavours and blends of fresh spices.”
The belief that Sri Lankan cuisine is too spicy may come from Sri Lanka’s reputation as a spice island, but spicy doesn’t have to mean crazily hot. It can mean a deeply complex flavours and blends of fresh spices.
Multitude of flavours
Spice blends don’t need to include large amounts of chillies, adds Pathirana. “They can be a marvellous mix of coriander, fenugreek, cumin, fennel seeds, curry leaves, turmeric, black pepper, cloves and cinnamon to create a fragrance and balance.”
That’s not to say Sri Lankan food doesn’t use chillies. Official data puts the per capita consumption of dried chillies at 2.84kg per year, but the country trails Turkey, China, Mexico, Indonesia and the US, IndexBox market research shows.
Although Sri Lankan food is a mix of herbs and spices, it can always be catered to one’s palate and spice tolerance.
It does top the world charts in the amount of black pepper eaten — but that’s an entirely different hot topic. In fact, the chilli is often served as part of an accompanying sambol, or dry chutney, which allows diners to customise the meal to their own personal preferences.
Over at Jetwing Hotels, a chain of more than 30 properties across the island, Sous Chef Rohan Fernando, author of an upcoming book of Ayurvedic vegan and vegetarian recipes, says that what people don’t realise is just how well his country’s food can be customised to different palates. “Although Sri Lankan food is a mix of herbs and spices, it can always be catered to one’s palate and spice tolerance,” he says. “There are [also] multiple flavourful coconut milk-based curries and dishes that are not spicy at all, such as potato curry and dal.”
If the cuisine needs an image makeover, then, Peter Kuruvita is the right man to lead the charge. The Sydney-based celebrity chef, who learned how to cook from his grandmother and his aunties, will present a contemporary approach to the cuisine at the Expo 2020 Dubai, which hopes to attract 25 million visitors over its six-month duration.
“When you come to Expo 2020 Dubai please visit the Sri Lankan stand and try my snapper curry,” he says. “Bringing the amazing flavours of Sri Lanka into the modern restaurant is about using the traditional flavours that are rooted in Ayurveda, while plating the dish in a modern way. When it is mixed and placed in your mouth it should taste like it came from your grandmother’s kitchen. My bestselling snapper curry with tamarind chutney is that dish, comprising more than half of all main courses consumed in our restaurant. ”
Hopefully, the snapper curry, which uses a dozen different spices and aromatics, including two kinds of chillies, will help change the way people view Sri Lankan food. “Sri Lankan food has finally emerged from under the umbrella of India,” Kuruvita says, bemoaning how different types of curries have long been lumped together, with Sri Lankan dishes often dismissed as variants of their South Indian counterparts.
“Sri Lankan food is not like Indian. They have their similarities, but both are unique cuisines, wrapped in traditional methods and regional flavours.”
The island is about the size of the UAE, but Sri Lanka’s ethnic diversity and its location on the major historical trade routes have contributed to its culinary variety. “As one of the biggest strategically located island nations in the Indian ocean, Sri Lanka was visited by many spice and gem traders from biblical times,” says Tushara S., Director of Thushanis Restaurant & Café, which has branches in Dubai and Sharjah. “There were invasions by the Cholas and Pandyas, as well as more recently, the Portuguese, Dutch and English. Then there were the Malays, who were brought to Sri Lanka by the British, and Arab descendants who settled down in the country. Each brought different kinds of cuisines, all of which have enriched our food culture.”
As Fernando says, a crab dish in northern Jaffna will be cooked in an entirely different way from one in Galle in the South-West.
A typical Sri Lankan lunch consists of boiled rice, one green salad, one (non-spicy) vegetable cooked with coconut milk, a spicy fish or meat item with no coconut milk, something tempered and a range of other condiments. It’s considered a balanced diet.
If you must be reductionist and identify this multidimensional cuisine with a couple of attributes, think about balance. “Sri Lankan food in general is freshly prepared,” says Tushara.
“A typical Sri Lankan lunch consists of boiled rice, one green salad, one (non-spicy) vegetable cooked with coconut milk, a spicy fish or meat item with no coconut milk, something tempered and a range of other condiments. It’s considered a balanced diet.”
The gluten-free bowl-shaped crepes are made from rice flour and coconut milk, and served with a chicken or fish curry, and a freshly made chutney of chilli, onions and tomatoes.
As an entry-level dish, Ruwani Williams, Director, Thushanis Restaurant & Café, suggests ordering some Sri Lankan hoppers. “The gluten-free bowl-shaped crepes are made from rice flour and coconut milk, and served with a chicken or fish curry, and a freshly made chutney of chilli, onions and tomatoes.”