A mélange of flavours rooted in sublime complexity, Sri Lankan cuisine is an epic blend of Indian, Malay, Arab, Portuguese, English and Dutch cultures. I have often found that a great way to explore a new place is to start from the plate in front of you.
There is so much that a simple plate of food can reveal about the nature of its maker and their belonging. The fragrant foodscape of Sri Lanka is as telling of its essence and history as its cultural landscapes.
From a humbling coconut-milk curry served with the staple rice to a cup of milk tea with cakes at a street-side café, Sri Lanka has layers of stories, emotions and customs to share with its travellers through its scrumptious food-journey.
An ideal start to a food-adventure in Sri Lanka is the Negombo fish market. Every day the fishermen take their oruvas out to the lagoon in search of the freshest catch. Negombo is known for its big crabs, lobsters and prawns.
Strolling through the main market you will find the most glorious shark, barracuda, squid and a local variety of fishes. The bargaining tactics between sellers and buyers offer great insight into the local dealing system. These little ordinaries are far more fascinating than one would imagine!
A seafood-dish in Sri Lanka is incomplete without the generous coconut. As you go on to visit a coconut plantation in the area, you will start to realize how big of a role the coconut plays in Sri Lankan culture. Visit Madampe to learn about the coconut industry and taste the freshest king-coconut water.
One of the most interesting parts of this experience is making conversation with the toddy tappers and watching them climb the tall trees on a tightrope to extract palm wine. With a history of about 5000 years, Chena cultivation is the oldest form of cultivation in Sri Lanka.
A tour of a nearby Chena plot is a lovely view into the country’s agricultural economics, religious faith and astrological beliefs. While you’re at the field, have an authentic farmer’s meal of rice, farm-fresh vegetables, pol sambol – a fresh coconut relish and a turmeric curry made of the starchy root of a tropical tree called Manioc.
The town of Dambulla has a large wholesale-market with supplies of vegetables and fruits freshly harvested from the local villages and farms. The produce is then sold in bigger cities and markets. At an early 3 am when the trucks pull into the market, here is where the essence of Sri Lanka lies.
One of these days, make a trip to a spice garden in Matale. The air here smells of sweet cinnamon, cumin and curry leaves. The wide range of aromatic spices in Sri Lanka is used in the local cuisine, and also in ayurvedic medicine and cosmetic products.
The street-shops in town too are a great opportunity to take in the country’s food culture. On an evening stroll, stop to watch a native chef toss a lump of dough into a glorious thin sheet, and then magically turn it into a vegetable-filled, spicy kotthu roti.
Join a Sinhalese family for a homely cooking class where you try to make the perfect hopper from a fermented-rice and coconut milk batter, chicken curry and share Dutch and Portuguese inspired desserts as you make hearty conversation. Don’t fear the unfamiliar – This is where the magic lies!
When in Mirissa, try Buffalo Curd – a local yogurt served with sweet molasses and meet with a local fisherman to learn more about the history here and share the best crab-curry lunch with the family.
By the end, definitely try the Ministry of Crab in Colombo, and stroll along the Pedro Tea Estate in Nuwara Eliya, learning about the significance of tea in the country and the unconventional use of it in marinating seafood.
For a traveller who loves tropical food, culture and everything in between, Sri Lanka is the perfect place to live out the dream-adventures to your heart’s content. Happy wandering!