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Sri Lankan Cuisine and Recipes

Sri Lankan Recipes, Food and Cooking

Cooking by Country - July 2006


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Formerly known as Ceylon, Sri Lanka is an island situated in the Indian Ocean just south of India.  It has a coastline of 1,340 km and a terrain made up of  central highlands, lowland plains and coastal belt. There are dense evergreen rain forests in the south-west and although there are a few deep-water bays and many rivers, there are no natural lakes.  The climate is warm subtropical with high humidity in the lowlands. Monsoonal rainfall is generally sufficient for agriculture except in the north of the island.



Ancient times, History and Influences on Sri Lankan Cooking


The island is estimated to have been colonised by the Balangoda people about 34,000 years ago. The people called the Veddas (forest-dwellers) are believed to have inhabited Sri Lanka's semi-evergreen dry forest called the Wanni, for at least 16,000. Although the Balangoda are originally believed to have been hunter gatherers who generally lived in caves and having been responsible for creating Horton Plains situated in the central hills, by burning the trees in order to catch game, the discovery of oats and barley on the plains dating to c15,000 BC suggest they may also have used the land for agricultural purposes. Their diets included deer, wild boar and reptilians as confirmed by the discovery of these bones at various sites. The meat was probably roasted over an open. With such a large coastline, not surprisingly  plenty of fish including shark was also part of their daily diet.

The Sinhalese migrated to Sri Lanka probably from North India in the 5000BC first settling along rivers. They also enjoyed a similar diet and evidence found suggests that the cultivation of wet rice was well practised. They constructed canals, water-storage tanks and reservoirs which made up an elaborate irrigation system as a backup in times of drought. By 900BC and the use of iron, advanced forms of farming and livestock breeding were practised. Cinnamon, which is native to Sri Lanka, was in use in Ancient Egypt in about 1,500 BC, suggesting that there were trading links with the island.

The island's location made it a popular stop-off point for foreign traders, especially as it produced many fine spices such as cinnamon and cloves. Examples include Arabs who introduced the the use of saffron and rose water, Portuguese who ruled the island in the 1500ís and who not only introduced Chillies to the island but also culinary terms such as 'temper' which is derived from the Portuguese word, temperado - to fry and season and the Dutch who ruled the island from 1658 to1796 who introduced recipes rich in eggs and butter such as Breudher, a Dutch Christmas cake, plus savoury recipes such as Frikkadels (meatballs). There are also Malay influences as can be seen in the dish Wattalapam, which a steamed dessert and the rice dishes pilau and biriani.


Current Day Sri Lankan Cuisine


Although the cuisine can differ quite a lot from region to region, as in past times, rice is still the staple of Sri Lankan cuisine and is generally served either boiled or steamed accompanied by a variety of curries. Despite the presence of fast-food establishments  the average Sri Lankan still prepares and eats traditional dishes for everyday consumption at home. Being an island as one might expect,  fish and seafood feature heavily in the everyday diet as do the wide variety of fruit and vegetables which are cultivated on the island.

Today, a typical Sri Lankan meal would consist of a main curry of fish, meat or poultry, several other curries made with vegetables and /or pulses such as lentils plus condiments such as chutneys and sambols which are generally extremely (spicy) hot and made from various ingredients such as coconut, onions, lime juice and chillies. All the dishes are placed on the table at the same time and diners help themselves to a little of everything using a dessertspoon and fork or their fingers.

Perhaps the most distinctive nature of Sri Lankan food is the use of Maldive fish (dried fish) which is added as a flavour enhancer to vegetable dishes. Coconut and chilli also form an integral part of most Sri Lankan dishes.

Common ingredients used include coconuts and coconut milk (see the featured ingredient), chillies, onions, Maldives fish which is a little like Shrimp Paste and curry powder mixes.

Sri Lankan curries are widely and frequently consumed. There are 3 main types of curry: White, Red and Black. White curries are, mild, based on coconut milk and very liquid. Red curries contain a large amount of chilli powder or ground red chillies with a few other spices. Black curries are dark in colour which is achieved by the roasting of the spices until they are a deep brown and are the most typical curries eaten in Sri Lanka.


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