Sri Lanka is not a place for haute cuisine but if you enjoy fresh and exotic fruits and the complex favours of curries you will be happy with the culinary experience.
Thanks to a homesick Victorian Scottish tea estate manager, there are all the familiar European vegetables grown in the highland area around Nuwara Eliya where the climate, at 5000 feet above sea level is similar to UK.
In addition there are several different varieties of aubergine, gourds, ochre, gram, durian, jack fruit and others yet unfamiliar to me.
Paradise of exotic fruits in Sri Lanka
Globalisation and supermarkets ensure that tropical fruit is available in UK but the joy here is that they are available fresh, perfectly ripe and very cheap.
Enormous avocado, tangy pineapple, small bananas with a citrus flavour, papaya, rambutan, mango, sour sap, wood apple and the ubiquitous coconut are found. Oranges and lemon are rare but juicy limes are plentiful.
Curd and Hoppers – what are they?
You can get real yoghurt here – they call it curd – made from nothing but buffalo milk. No added fruit flavourings, no preservative, emulsifiers, stabilisers nor E numbers. It is sold in porous earthenware dishes so that the whey can seep through, evaporate and keep itself cool.
The dishes find interesting uses when empty.
If you like something sweetened you can add Kithul Treacle made from the sap of the Kithul Palm similar to maple syrup. Kithul sap can also be fermented to make Toddy, boiled down to make a molasses-like sugar or fermented and distilled to produce Arrack, a local fire-water.
If offered hoppers, take one. These are crisp hemispherical shells of part fermented rice flour fried like a thin pancake and usually with a broken egg in the centre.
Meat is a disappointment. Chicken is safest and with luck it will be chicken rather than broiler. Mutton refers to goat as well as sheep. Beef is available if you know where to look and trust the butcher.
Fish is often just fish, unspecified, usually mackerel. There are river fish and sea fish, Thalipa is a river tuna and good to eat. Prawns are common and good and there are sometimes edible crabs.
Bread is awful; full of sugar, soggy does not toast and quickly mildews. We do not use much milk and milk powder is more convenient.
Tea: Sri Lanka is famous for its tea and there are many types. We like teas flavoured with ginger, cardamom or cinnamon. An offer of tea usually comes with milk and more sugar according to how honoured a guest you are. It is difficult to make it understood that you prefer plain tea with no milk and no sugar.
Conversation at a tea factory
“Would you like a cup of tea? Milk and sugar?”
“Just plain, please no milk, no sugar.”
“I would advise milk and sugar, Sir. The tea is strong and bitter, not the best.”
“Would you like a piece of cake with it? I will cut you just a small piece as it is rather dry and not very nice.”
I have never come across such honesty in a waiter. He was quite right on both counts.
In hotels you can get a European breakfast including a full English but what is the point when there are all the exotic dishes of Asia to try?
Restaurants often give you a wet plate; this is so that you know that it has been washed.
How to eat gracefully with the fingers of your right hand?
Locals often use banana leaves as plates and eat with the fingers of the right hand. You understand what the left hand is used for.
To make it work you must have just the right amount of sauce to bind the rice into a ball with the tips of the fingers.
Put your mouth close to the plate and shovel the ball in. Juices should not get beyond the fingers.
Try it at home in private. You will get food half way up your arms not to mention your chin and shirt front. Practice though, makes perfect.
Drink wine with your meal? Yes, it can be done but the choice is red or white and neither rises above ordinary. Beer, on the other hand, is good. Anchor and Lion are two excellent lagers and always comes chilled (unlike the wine) and in decent sized 650 ml bottles.
A kaleidoscope of fruit juices is available and our favourite is lime juice with soda. Just do not let them put too much sugar in it. Often a bottle of water will suffice.
Sri Lankans have not caught up with modern kitchens or pantries as they call them. Clay wood burning stoves are common and a modern kitchen will have a gas ring powered by calor gas.
Hardly anyone has an oven. Kitchen sinks are from times past also. As for dishwashers, toasters, electric kettles and food mixers, they are memories from home. An essential item is a coconut borer.
We are fortunate to have a standard gas cooker, microwave, fridge with freezer and a water filter.
In the interests of economy, our cook tears paper napkins in half and we get half each at our place settings. In the interests of her own economy she cooks so that there is enough left over to feed her and the gardener.
One day we had 6 chicken breasts and 6 people for dinner. The cook was astonished that we asked her to cook all 6 pieces of chicken, as three would have been more than enough.
Gippy tummy? Only once in 2 years of living here and it was short-lived.
Post Series: Dispatches from Sri Lanka, by Mike Sedgwick:
- Dispatches From Sri Lanka
- Kandy Lake vs Chandler’s Ford Lakes
- Self-Employment In Sri Lanka
- Sri Lankan Wedding
- Sri Lankan Food
- There’s Some Corner Of A Foreign Field
- The Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka
- This Is the Record Of John
- Tuk-tuk: My Transport Of Delight
- Life On The Road
- Commonwealth Games In Kandy
- A Temple For A Tooth?
- Dawn Train Down The Mountain To Colombo
- Traditional And Modern Medicine in Sri Lanka
- Ancient Vedda Tribe Becoming Extinct