In Sri Lanka, the day is not complete if the focus is not on the menu for the day,” chef Clifford Perera says, when we meet at The Leela Kempinski, Mumbai. The Sri Lankan chef from the Cinnamon Lakeside hotel in Colombo was in Mumbai to present his country’s cuisine. The coconut milk base and the spices of the curries make them similar to Indian and Thai meals. According to the chef, the combination of spices gives Sri Lankan food its uniqueness. Edited excerpts from an interview:
What are the three meals of the day in Sri Lanka?
Breakfast is usually hoppers, which is a pancake made with rice flour and coconut milk. It can also be topped with an egg. Lunch is either a chicken or mutton curry or devilled chicken eaten with rice or string hoppers. The meal includes vegetables and accompaniments such as Lunu Miris, that is a mix of dried Maldive fish, onion and spices. Dinner could be red rice with fish ambulthiyal, which is a sour black fish curry, eaten with poppadum and coconut sambol, that is a combination of grated coconut, chilli and spices.
Taste twister: Chef Perera./Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
What are the similarities and differences between Sri Lankan and south Indian food?
We also use coconut and make dishes such as string hoppers that are called idiappams here, but most of our food tastes different. It is much more spicy. Like the Indian garam masala, we have our own curry powder. We also use Thai ingredients such as pandan leaves and lemon grass. Cooking styles differ. The pan we use for making appams is different. The batter consists of ingredients such as palm sugar and yeast that are not part of the south Indian appam.
What are the kinds of curries eaten in Sri Lanka?
There are so many types of curries in different colours with different flavours. Cashew curry will be different in colour and flavour from carrot and green pea curry, then there’s devilled chicken which is different because it does not use coconut milk. There’s a black curry called fish ambulthiyal that gets its colour from gamboge paste, something like the kokum used in India. A red curry will have red chillies and coconut milk and green curry will be made using green pea.
How do food preferences change in different parts of the country?
In the northern part of Sri Lanka, Jaffna, the Tamil community is predominant. They eat a lot of vegetables and their main carb components are dishes made with ulundu flour for thosai, idli, vadai, etc. Since there are many ethnic races in Sri Lanka, the preparations are varied. Muslims eat biryani made with mutton or chicken along with chicken korma, raita, mint sambol, pineapple salad and fried-onion sambol. In Galle, the southern part of the island, Muslims eat Kattu Shoru, plain rice eaten with about 30 accompaniments. The Christians opt for Western dishes, but will always have rice, and the accompanying curries and vegetables.
Which are the most popular desserts?
Wattalappan is a custard made with coconut milk, eggs, jaggery and cardamom and is widely eaten. Kalu Dodol is a traditional dessert made with rice flour and coconut milk and is usually prepared on special occasions.
Sri Lankan prawn curry
500g shelled and deveined prawns
1 small onion, sliced
5 cloves of garlic and 1 piece of ginger ground together
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp chilli powder
2 tsp unroasted curry powder—grind together 3 tbsp of cumin seeds and 6 tbsp of coriander seeds, 1 tsp of whole black peppercorns and K tsp of dill
1 tsp fenugreek seeds
2 green chillies, cut diagonally into three slices
1 cup of coconut milk
150g ripe tomatoes, cut into quarters
6 curry leaves
2-inch piece of pandan leaves
2-inch stalk of lemon grass
2 tbsp vegetable oil
Wash the prawns and drain. Marinate with lime juice, turmeric, salt, chilli powder and curry powder and leave aside for 20 minutes. Heat oil in a saucepan. Sauté the onion till transparent. Add the curry leaves, fenugreek seeds, garlic and ginger paste and simmer for 40 seconds. Toss in the prawns, tomatoes, green chillies, pandan leaves and lemon grass. Stir for 1 minute, add thick coconut milk and cook quickly on very hot flame for 5-8 minutes till the prawns are ready. Add salt to taste. Serve with hot rice or roti, coconut sambol and mango chutney.