Isle of Spice
Hoppers, Kiribath and Watalappan aren’t words commonly heard in Australia, because many of us are yet to uncover the culinary delights of Sri Lanka. That looks set to change though, with an increasing number of food-lovers becoming privy to the country’s rich food culture. Journeys centred around the island’s vibrant epicurean experiences are now being offered by many touring companies such as Abercrombie & Kent, World Expeditions and Intrepid. Nathalie Craig reveals some of the food experiences not to miss when travelling in Sri Lanka.
RICE and Curry
A staple item you will see on menus across the country is ‘rice and curry’. A description which greatly underplays what you’re about to be served. Get ready for a heaped plate of rice with up to 15 accompaniments. These usually include an assortment of intensely flavoured meat, fish and vegetable curries along with dahl, pickles, sambols and pappadums. Sri Lankan curries are largely coconut based, brought to life with fresh curry leaves, coriander, cumin, fennel seeds, fenugreek, cardamom and generous amounts of fiery chilli. Traditionally these dishes are eaten by hand, with locals taking a ball of rice with their fingertips then gently mixing it with the spiced accompaniments. The technique is efficient, clean and looks deceptively easy. When travelling through Sri Lanka I tried it for myself in a local curry house, and my attempt came off rather ungracefully. While I strove to eat by hand throughout my journey, the locals are always more than happy to give foreigners cutlery.
n Where to try: In a buzzing Colombo cafe while watching the life of island’s capital go by.
These bowl-shaped pancakes made from a mixture of fermented rice flour, coconut milk and coconut water are a breakfast staple in Sri Lanka. At each hotel and resort I stayed in throughout the island, my first move at breakfast was to join the ‘hopper line’. It’s fascinating just watching the local chefs expertly ladle the batter into a small purpose-designed wok, swirling it to coat the sides of the pan before a fresh egg is cracked in the centre. The lid is then briefly placed over the top to lightly steam the hopper. Then it emerges, crispy around the edges, thicker at the base with a runny egg yolk in the centre. To tie the whole dish together a sambal of onions, chilies, lemon juice and salt is sprinkled over the top as a flavoursome garnish. They can also be served plain or with a range of different toppings such as dessert hoppers filled with fresh buffalo curd and treacle.
n Where to try: For breakfast by the tropical coastline in Galle.
Spiced Sri Lankan custard pudding known as Watalappan is one of my favourite traditional desserts. The sweet, which I learnt to make during a cooking school at Cinnamon Lodge Habarana, is made by dissolving jaggery – a type of sugar – into water then adding coconut milk, cardamom, mace, cloves, rosewater, cream and eggs. The creamy, spice-rich mixture is then set in ramekins and topped with a handful of cashew nuts for crunch.
n Where to try: Reward yourself with this classic dessert after a day hiking Sigiriya.
Kiribath is deeply seated in Sri Lankan culture. In fact, these creamy, diamond shaped wedges of pressed rice soaked in coconut milk are often one of the first solid foods fed to babies. It is a staple dish at major ceremonial occasions like wedding ceremonies, New Year’s Eve and religious festivals. Kiribath can be eaten any time of the day from breakfast buffets accompanied with sambal and curries to dessert time dished up with jaggery or delicious tropical bananas.
n Where to try: At a traditional Sri Lankan celebration, such as Sinhalese New Year.
Formerly known as Ceylon, Sri Lanka is one of the world’s leading producers of tea. The lush mountains of the central highlands provide the perfect climate for growing the aromatic leaves. Arriving in Nuwara Eliya, one of the island’s top tea growing areas, you will be greeted with incredible sights of the lush, panoramic tea plantations where you can spot workers expertly plucking the leaves by hand. We visited one of the tea processing plants where you can discover the process behind making tea from picking to packaging, and sample some of the country’s finest brews. We learn that the loose-leaf teas contain the highest quality ingredients while lower grade leftovers referred to as the ‘dust’ are put inside tea bags. Sri Lanka’s famous black Ceylon tea with its golden hue and delicate, fragrant flavour is essential to try during a visit to the region; as is the rare white Ceylon tea which is harvested once a year then rolled by hand and dried in the sun.
n Where to try: Sip a cup of Ceylon tea overlooking the vibrant green tea fields of Nuwara Eliya.
Sri Lanka is a true delight for adventurous food lovers who are open to experiencing myriad bold and exciting flavours and textures which will no doubt awaken their senses.