A typical traditional Sri Lankan plate offers a good balance of food groups, with a lot of plant-based dishes and a serving of fish Image Credit: Courtesy of Ayubowan

In December, Michelle Silva returned to Sri Lanka to further her understanding of the country’s cuisine. The Dubai-based Indian expat took a shine to the country’s food when she first visited several years ago. “With the multitude of greens, vegetables, lentils, cashew nuts and coconut milk, Sri Lankan food is convenient for vegetarians and vegans, particularly as you go inland from the coast,” she tells GN Focus. “I’ve cooked Sri Lankan food before, but I find myself turning to it much more often now — everything is so wholesome and tasty, and it fits the way I eat!”

As a flexitarian, Silva has been ahead of the trend for a while now, building her meals around vegetables and whole grains, with the occasional piece of fish or seafood, and only rarely a meat curry. Last month, the EAT-Lancet Commission, a group of 37 world-leading scientists from 16 countries, endorsed this plant-forward approach to eating, recommending it as the best way to stay healthy while contributing to sustainable food production practices.

Nutritionists in the UAE say that elements of the Sri Lankan diet correspond with contemporary approaches to healthy eating. “With the ideal balance of food groups on one’s plate, Sri Lankan cuisine is promising for a healthy lifestyle,” says clinical dietitian Dr Remy Shanker, Wellness and Corporate Health Manager at Dubai-based catering company Right Bite.

"A typical traditional Sri Lankan plate is pescatarian based with a predominant plant-based approach. These coupled with good fats derived from coconuts and 100 per cent grass-fed cow/buffalo ghee are key to reducing inflammatory processes in the body and arriving at the ideal body fat percentage. What takes the cuisine to the next level is the conscious incorporation of their superlative spices.

“However, due to rice and wheat products being used heavily across the cuisine today, following established cuisine combinations blindly could lead to an unnecessary introduction of carbs in the system, inadvertently building towards increased cholesterol levels and type 2 diabetes over the long term.”

Rayan Saleh, Clinical Dietician, Department of Clinical Nutrition at Dubai’s Burjeel Hospital for Advanced Surgery, advises the health-conscious to look to traditional elements of the cuisine and avoid the worst contemporary offenders. She highlights traditional Sri Lankan ingredients such as kathuru murunga, the leaves of the hummingbird tree as a source of vitamins and minerals, pulses such as horse gram for proteins and calcium, tamarind and spices such as turmeric for their antioxidant properties and fermented milk or yoghurt, which is rich in healthy gut bacteria.

But she cautioned against embracing everything about Sri Lankan food. “Despite all the health benefits the Sri Lankan cuisine offers, we can still find Sri Lankans susceptible to diet-related chronic diseases and micronutrient deficiencies because of the changes in traditional diets towards a more Western diet high in fat and sugar content.”

Whether it’s the rice (Sri Lanka is home to nearly a dozen strains of high-fibre red rice) or the vegetables, like Silva, it appears that UAE residents have already cottoned on to the rising appeal of Sri Lankan food. At Ayubowan, the Sri Lankan hideaway in Dubai’s Jumeirah Lakes Towers, owner Udena Attygale reports an uptick in business.

“We are attracting a lot more vegan and gluten-free customers to our restaurant as some of our dishes are plant based, we do not use dairy products like yoghurt or cheese and most of our food is cooked in coconut oil,” he tells GN Focus.

The restaurant was last year named one of the city’s top ten hidden gems by Dubai Food Festival, and if all goes to plan, Attygale expects to have a stand at one of the DFF locations this year. “It is a shame that Sri Lankan food is not as publicised as much as other cuisines outside Sri Lanka. We have quite a few dishes that are popular for their health benefits.”

— With input from Patricia Tellis

Top dishes to try

Udena Attygale, owner of Dubai’s Ayubowan restaurant, recommends the following dishes for their health benefits:

  1. Curry leaf soup is popular with diabetics and people struggling to keep their cholesterol in check.
  2. Gotu kola sambal Favoured by Ayurvedic doctors, this condiment is made from the Asiatic pennywort, a medicinal herb whose leaves are considered helpful in treating depression, improving blood circulation and protecting the heart.
  3. Polos curry, or curried tender jackfruit, is rich in fibre and vitamins A and C and is a vegan favourite.
  4. Brinjal moju is a spicy pickle made from eggplants, which are packed with potassium and antioxidants and have been shown to lower the risk of heart disease.