Sri Lanka has been hailed as ‘the pearl
ear of lndia' and ‘the teardrop of India‘. Marco Polo claimed it was
in all the world‘: Michael Ondaatje. in
it ‘The wife of many marriages. courted by invaders’. Muslims called it Serendib. from which the word serendipity is derived. and others knew
ofthe lndian ()cean'. ‘a pendant offthe ‘
Sri Lankan staples. Clockwise from top: egg hoppers. hoppers. roti, string hoppers. pittu (centre)
‘undoubtedly the finest island of its size :
his novel. Running in the Family. called ,
Kakuluwo - that’s crab in coconut milk to you
FOOD & DRINK
Island of gems
An exquisite blend of hot spices, coconut and delicious rice noodles, Sri Lankan food is strz ngely underrated. Hannah Robinson gives her taste buds a treat and discovers lots to write home about.
it as Ratnapida. ‘island of gems'. The Brits called it Ceylon. and in 1948 when it becatne independent it christened itself Sri Lanka. ‘resplendent isle‘.
For some unaccountable reason. its food does not receive the same press. Sri Lankan cookery books are sparse —
Madhur Jaffrey gives recipes for breads '
in her Eastern Vegetarian Cooking. and the only other recipe book I have found
‘ pounded together. and the lighter pol
was published in Hong Kong. The Lonely Planet travel guide to Sri Lanka is most dismissive about the food: ‘Sri Lanka does not have one of the great Asian cuisines . . . Disappointingly. for the amount of rice eaten in Sri Lanka. the rice is not always so special.‘
In reality. this couldn't be further from the truth. Sri Lankan cooking is unusual. exciting and delicious.
Red and white karis are served with mounds of red rice and many different spicy sambals, a form of dry relish. These are eaten by hand with appas or hoppers, which have been described as the marriage of a French crepe to an English crumpet.
Markedly different from mainland food. the island‘s cooking has been influenced by a succession ofcolonists including Indians. Dutch. Malays. Portuguese and English. What has evolved is hot. very rich red and white karis (from which comes the word curry) served with mounds of red rice and many different spicy sambals. a form of dry relish. These are eaten by hand with appas or hoppers. which have been described as the marriage of a French crepe to an English crumpet. Hoppers are made of a yeast-based batter. thinned with coconut milk and fried quickly in a small wok-shaped pan. The result is a thin. crispy. bowl— shaped pancake. An egg can be cracked into the middle while frying to add more flavour. Sri Lankan breakfast. the second largest meal ofthe day. consists of egg hoppers served with a variety of sambals containing pounded chillies and flakes of sun-dried Maldive fish. which gives the food a characteristic chewy saltiness. The most popular are see/ti sum/nil. dark and sticky with a caramelised onion base. kutta sum/nil. simply Maldive fish. chillies and spices
sum/ml. with grated fresh coconut and lime juice.
Coconuts are important to Sri Lankan cooking. Friends who stayed with a famous cook in Sri Lanka. Alagie Mutticumaro. said she would start the day by sitting on a coconut scraping stool (a bit like a milking stool with a
thick spike at the front). and cleave endless coconuts. She would then repeatedly soak their flesh in water. and sqeeze it through muslin to produce coconut cream the more the process is repeated. the thinner the liquid becomes. Nothing was wasted: the coconut juice was served as a refreshing drink. coconut leaves parcclled food for cooking or for lunch packs and the shells were used as matting and wood. l-‘ermenting coconut flowers were drained to produce an alcoholic drink called [)(l/HI_\‘I'(l/I which. according to Michael ()ndaatje. ‘smells of raw rubber and . . . continues to ferment in the stomach.’ Mutticumaro‘s cooking had such a reputation that the world's first woman president. Sri Lanka‘s Mrs Bandaranaika. would come round for breakfast.
Lunch is the main meal ofthe day. consisting of several karis and sambals often served with string hoppers — white noodles used to scoop the food up. The spices for the curries are fried until almost black. and include curry leaves -- bitter green leaves similar to bay leaves -— and often up to 40 chillies. which is why the Ceylon curries served in Indian restaurants in Britain are the hottest on the menu. Meats include goat and lamb. but the island's best curries are the seafood ones. lluge spider crabs and succulent prawns are cooked in spicy coconut milk with fresh tomatoes. lemon grass and lime juice. Sucking the soft aromatic meat from the crab shells is heavenly.
There are no restaurants serving Sri Lankan food in Scotland. but it is quite easy and surprisingly quick to prepare yourself. My favourite recipe is crab cooked in coconut milk and I urge you to try it. You'll need to buy fresh live crabs. or you could use the meat from a dressed crab. You'd miss out on the claw sucking. though.
.S'ri Lon/«in Ingredients will soon be uvariable/root Herbie is, 66 Roe/turn I’loee. lit/itibtttg/i. 332 9888 and Lupe l’intos. 24 [.eren Street. lit/in/ntrg/t. 228 624/. YKI) International Ltd offers mail order .S'ri Lankan protltn‘e. 'l'e/ep/tone 0/8] 424 0236.
(‘oo/x'ery Books: .'i Tits/e of'Sri Lanka by ltIt/t‘tt .luyuseket'u. ()t'ttt‘i’e Book Dis/filmtors. Hong Kong.
[foster/t Vegetarian Cooking by Mud/1111' .lttfft'ey. Arrow: [8. ()9.
Crab cooked in coconut milk
3 medium sized crabs
oz spring onions
3 slices ginger
large pinch each of roasted turmeric. fenugreek.
Chilli powder. coriander. fennel. cumin. papdka
5cm cinnamon stick
sprig of dried curry leaves (or substitute a couple of bay leaves)
207. fresh coriander leaves
lpt thick coconut milk (tinned is best) juice of l lime
2 2 3
Place the crabs in boiling water for five minutes. then clean and remove the feathery gills. Break the crab into segments. crushing the shell so the flesh can be more easily removed. If you are using dressed. cooked crab. scoop out the flesh frotn the shell. Finely chop the spring onions. ginger and garlic. Place the crab in a pan and add the spring onions. chillies and all the herbs and spices. Add the coconut milk and cook gently for about ten minutes or until the crabs are done (two minutes for dressed crab). Season with salt and lime juice and continue cooking gently for another ten minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick before serving.
95 The List 21 Apr-4 May 1995