Five months later, the taste of that meal is still fresh in my memory. It was the day after I moved to Colombo. The realization that I was now officially in a new country loomed over me, and I coped in the only way I knew—by paying full attention to what was on my plate.

I scooped up some of the brick-red curry and plunged my fingers into what seemed like a fruit. The firm flesh had the puckering acidity of a half-ripe mango and the gentle sweetness of pineapple. A few thorny pits were also thrown into the mix. It was utterly unfamiliar, yet I loved it instantly.

I spent the afternoon feverishly looking for information on this exotic new find (searching for “umbrella" + fruit on Google) and eventually unearthed a nugget: It was called ambarella, otherwise known as the hog plum.

In time, I would find out that this tropical fruit is as ubiquitous in Sri Lanka as crowds on a Mumbai local. But back then, unveiling the identity of the ambarella felt like cracking the first clue to a crossword. Its flavour was not necessarily one of home, yet I found comfort in its newness.

In the months since, food has been the lodestar in my explorations of Sri Lanka. My knowledge of roads may still be dodgy and I’ve picked up only a couple of words in Sinhalese, but I’ve found a new way of seeing this country: by tasting my way through it.

To begin with, I have tried ambarella in every imaginable form: juiced, pickled, as flavouring in fruity cocktails, and simply sliced, sprinkled with salt and red chilli powder. Although a close cousin of the ambarella is also cultivated along the Konkan coast and in some parts of south India (it is ambado in Konkani and ambazham in Malayalam), it is rarely found in local markets, perhaps because the plant is valued more for its shade than for its fruit. But in the jathika polas (neighbourhood markets) in Colombo, ambarella occupies pride of place, along with passion fruit, avocados, wood apples and soursop.

Having arrived in Colombo shortly after the mango season, I became privy to another tropical phenomenon: the mangosteen season. In June and July, when vendors selling carts of the purplish-black fruit appear at street corners, pedestrians and motorists regularly decamp to the sides to inspect each fruit for minor flaws before purchase. Initially, I was bemused by the unhurried pace of this ritual—I call it island standard time—but eventually, I bought into it too. When chosen right, each pearly-white clove of this delicate fruit has an addictive sweet-sourness that can be compared to few other fruits. What’s a few moments spent in pursuit of the perfect one?

Once I had acquired this understanding, it was easy to enthuse about another leisurely pastime: stopping by at one of the many dairy booths for a cup of dip-dip tea or, better still, a satisfying dessert of curd and treacle. When I first tried the island staple of thick buffalo curd topped with viscous, caramel-like treacle a few years ago, I was instantly hooked. Now a bona-fide Sri Lankan resident, I had to find out more.

Locally known as kitul syrup, treacle is derived from the sap of the kitul palm (otherwise known as the fishtail palm), a species distinct from the coconut palm or wild date palm, source of the Bengali nolen gur (date-palm jaggery).

The tree and its products have a ceremonial place in Sri Lankan culture. “Kitul extraction is a 2,000-year-old Sri Lankan tradition," says the website of the international non-profit, Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity. “For the people of Sri Lanka, tapping the flower to obtain the sap is an art and technique that must be learned. These secret techniques have been handed down from generation to generation throughout the centuries."

There is good reason for this fanfare: Deeper in flavour than honey and more toffee-like than maple syrup, kitul is utterly unlike any other sweetener. Now that I know how valuable it is to Sri Lankans, I treat my bottle of kitul treacle with reverence. For my first Diwali in Colombo, I decorated my home-made kheer with swirls of treacle—my way of paying homage to a Sri Lankan dessert for the ages.

The bitter gourd, coconut and lunu miris sambols.

Far gentler yet as integral to Sri Lankan cuisine are mallung (literally, “to mix up" in Sinhalese): fresh, coconut-flecked salads made with the vast variety of local green leafy vegetables. When I first tasted a mallung made of a sour, fan-shaped leaf called gotu kola—also known as the Indian pennywort (Brahmi)—I marvelled at the fact that I could actually taste its mild, herbaceous flavour. After being stir-fried at high heat for just a few seconds and embellished with finely chopped onions, green chillies and freshly grated coconut, the greens remain vibrant but acquire a mellow roundedness. Through mallungs, I have become acquainted with mukunuwenna (sessile joyweed), an aquatic plant with mild, serrated leaves, moringa (tart drumstick leaves) and sarana (watercress). It’s a friendship I never thought possible.

It’s not as if my culinary explorations of Colombo have hastened the process of settling in. I still need to learn to drive and some Sinhalese would certainly help. But now I feel right at home at the jathika pola, among clay pots, coconut scrapers and vats of buffalo curd. It’s only a small leap from accepting a country to embracing it as your own—and I have already come halfway.

Eat the keepsake

Food finds from Sri Lanka:

u ‘Kitul’ treacle

Made from the sap of the ‘Caryota urens’, this is one of Sri Lanka’s most versatile natural sweeteners. Delicious with pancakes or buffalo curd, it would also make for a great addition to your baking larder.

Available at the Good Market shop, Lakpahana Grounds, 14, Reid Avenue, Colombo (tel. +94-770208642).

u Cinnamon

‘Cinnamomum zeylanicum’, or Ceylon cinnamon, enjoys superstar status in the spice world for its deep aroma and sweet, nutty flavour, very different from the sharpness of the more common Cassia cinnamon.

Available at Paradise Road, 213, Dharmapala Mawatha, Colombo (tel. +94-11-2686043). Also at the Good Market shop and at Odel, 5, Alexandra Place, Colombo (tel. +94-11-4625800).

u ‘Sambols’

Bring a bit of Sri Lankan spice to your meals with ‘sambols’, available in as many varieties as pickle in Indian stores. Apart from ‘seeni sambol’ and ‘katta sambol’, others worth trying include jackfruit-seed ‘sambol’, ‘karapincha’ (curry leaf) ‘sambol’, ‘kohila sambol’ (made from the leaves of a close cousin of the lotus plant) and ‘gotu kola sambol’.

Available at most major supermarkets and at Odel outlets.

u Lamprais

A legacy of the Dutch colonialists who once ruled Sri Lanka, ‘lamprais’ is a complex and flavourful combination of rice, a mixed meat curry and several condiments, which are tightly wrapped together in a banana leaf and baked. When kept in the freezer, ‘lamprais’ packets last for up to six months.

Order from The Dutch Grocer, No.112, Kirula Road, Colombo (tel. +94-770173062) or the Dutch Burgher Union, 114, Reid Avenue, Colombo (tel. +94-11-2584511).

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