– Archana Singh
Sometimes the universe conspires to bring you closer to things you subconsciously wished for but never deliberately looked for. Visiting Sri Lanka was one such serendipitous experience.
Until I landed, I had no clue that the English word serendipity (meaning pleasant surprise) came from Serendib, an old name given by Arab Traders to Sri Lanka. Even Marco Polo couldn’t shy away from showing his love for the teardrop-shaped island when he famously said, “undoubtedly the finest island of its size in the world”. Though the lush, tropical island paradise has sported many identity cards over centuries, for me, it will always be the Serendipity island. Truth is, when I boarded the Sri Lankan Airlines for my maiden trip to the pearl of the Indian Ocean, I had no expectations. In fact, due to its proximity to India, I was hoping for it to be like India. However, I was amazed how unique it was: a stellar combination of imposing World Heritage sites, unrivalled history, abundant wildlife, pristine beaches, lush tea estates, luxuriant spice gardens, mist-wrapped mountains, rich 2,500-year-old culture, spic and span streets, friendly people, and most importantly an extraordinary cuisine that could start a riot of flavours with your first bite.
The best way to understand the culture of a place is to taste it. However, when you taste the Sri Lankan cuisine you get to savor not just one culture but a melting pot of culinary heritage that emanated from myriad historical, cultural, geographical and other elements. Over the centuries, the island has been visited, colonized, traded with and inhabited by different nationalities like Indians, Arabs, Malays, Dutch Portuguese, and English. All of them left their indelible influence on the local cuisine that, in course of time, evolved into one of its kind. A unique medley of local produce with recipes and spices brought to the island by visitors. Rice, coconut and spices (staples of the Sri Lankan cuisine) will cue in the Indian influence, lamprais will bring back the Dutch Burgher community memories, Wattalappam will strongly connote the Malay influence and chilies will remind you of the Portuguese colonization.
After reading so much about the famed cuisine, 38 km away from the Colombo Airport I got the real taste of authentic Sri Lankan Cuisine at the Jetwing Beach Resort, Negombo. The cool breeze of the Indian Ocean revived my fatigued body and soul. My eyes gleamed with elation when I saw the unending exquisite buffet spread of the Sri Lankan, American, and Continental cuisines along with the innovative health corner featuring never heard before specials like Kola Kanda (Herbal Soup).
The highlight for me was the Sri Lankan cuisine. The freshest seafood and vegetarian food were elegantly served in walang (traditional clay pot) and coconut shell spoons. It was here, the modest wonder food of Sri Lanka, Hopper, battered its way into my heart. Meet the hopper – the love child of crêpe and a crumpet, a crispy, bowl-shaped pancake made with rice flour. Golden and crispy at the edges and doughy in the center. A favorite way to eat one is with a whole egg baked into the base, then topped with spicy chutney or sambol. Along with the traditional Hopper, I tried String Hoppers, Dhal Curry, Kiri Hodi, Milk Rice, Polos curry, Red Rice and Sambol of different varieties.
While having my breakfast I bumped into Saminda Perera, the General Manager Marketing, SriLankan Airlines. Answering my question of the secret behind the rich flavors of Serendip Island, he said,
“For us, our cuisine reflects our culture and traditions. Our culinary culture is such that it has preserved the old ways of preparing food whilst being flexible enough to adopt methods from other culinary traditions. This is the secret behind the rich variety of food that one may find in Sri Lanka; some of which originated right here whilst others have been brought into the island and evolved into something that became Sri Lankan over a period. We are also a country which is privileged to have a plentiful supply of spices and fresh produce, which has inspired us to be creative with what we put on the plate.”
I wasn’t surprised to hear why Sri Lankan food was his favorite food in the world,
“Having experienced and liked many global cuisines, my favorite is still the Sri Lankan cuisine. I just can’t have enough of the string hoppers, spicy coconut sambol and Sri Lankan crab curry, a combination that I would recommend to anyone who tries Sri Lankan food for the first time as it epitomizes beautifully the culinary legacy that we have been preserving as a country.” said Saminda beaming with pride.
This brief interaction instilled an unflinching desire in me to experience the centuries-old way of making the Sri Lankan food.
Experiencing the ancient cooking
After traveling four hours from Negombo, I reached Hiriwadunna. A tiny timeless village of 2500 people, where they produce their own food, barter their crops with neighbors and have remained uncorrupted by modernization. When the whole area was basked in the golden dust of the sun, I crossed a little jungle rivulet by catamaran to reach a farmer’s simple “wattle and daub” house where the breakfast was made from everything that was grown in the farm itself – right from the freshly plucked tender coconut to crispy fresh veggies. Neither electricity nor gas stove has reached this house, therefore the food was still prepared on the traditional wood-fired cooking stove. A twenty-something lady served me an herbal drink, Konda kavum (a deep-fried wheat flour sweet), grated coconut sambol, Coconut Pol Roti (Flat solid bread infused with little pieces of coconut served with a very spicy dip made of chili, onion, salt and finely blended) and Pol Sambola (a spicy mixture of shredded coconut, chili powder or dried chilies, lime juice, red onions).
As the darkness enveloped the village and crickets started singing in unison, my ever-smiling-never-saying-no guide, Mr. Ranesinghe asked me to leave before it became difficult to return to the hotel. With a stomach full of delish food and heart swelled with love, I bid adieu to my generous hosts.
Taking a crash course in Spices
The sensory pleasure sparked a desire to explore the world-renowned spices at their source – Spice plantations. A trip to Matale Spice Gardens was planned to see the different types of spices and spice plantations of Sri Lanka is famous for. Sri Lanka was once described by a renowned botanist as simply one big botanical garden. Just 25 km from the hill capital of Kandy, the Matale spice gardens are among the best on the island. We started our tour with a sumptuous organic meal made from all fresh and fragrant ingredients sourced from the garden.
After satiating our hunger pangs, an experienced Botanist introduced me to different spices and revealed how some of these spices are grown and processed. Strolling in the fragrant greenery I learnt about red pineapple (grown for medicinal purpose to burn fat), pepper (all three peppers, red, white and black pepper, grow on the same vine), nutmeg, clove trees and curry, aloe vera, vanilla, sandal, cinnamon, and the precious cardamom. While I was getting a crash course in spices, dark clouds registered their presence and brought heavy downpour making our visit even more enchanting. I utilized the time to buy some locally produced products from the Garden’s cooperative store.
Enjoying the Sensational food everywhere
I am not a foodie but it’s impossible to not become a diehard fan of Sri Lankan food. Good food is everywhere – from roadside cafes to five-star hotels and everywhere in between. My guide, Mr. Rane, gave great insight into their national dish – ‘Rice and Curry’,
“You’ll find rice and curry everywhere but don’t mistake it for being just one dish. Behind a humble face lies a feast of small, spiced dishes made from vegetables, fish or meat (mostly chicken), and served with poppadum, chutneys and sambol. And, the side dishes come in a great variety too like sweet-and-sour eggplant, velvety dahl, marinated snake beans, curried beetroot, banana blossom, jackfruit or okra among many others.”
Listening to Mr. Rane speak so passionately about Sri Lankan food I was reminded what Komal Seth, Director, Outbound Konnections said before I left for Sri Lanka,
“My fight to detest food defies in Sri Lanka. Unlike many other countries, I love eating breakfast at the coffee shop of any hotel in Colombo. The aromatic soft fragrance of egg hoppers with Chilli sambal is an every day calling for me! The marriage of carbs with eggs topped by Chilli is a perfect breakfast for an Indian like me! I look extremely modern but my stomach is purely desi! The typical Sri Lankan lunch is a blessing. Steamed beans and not very popular leafy vegetables with flavored basic lentil accompanied with perfect jelly-like curd and several kinds of poppadum. Not to forget that there are no oil rivers and the taste of spice is more noticeable than the vegetable. Rice which helps me go to the gym every day is eaten like an appetizing salad with the yummy offerings!”
Sri Lankan cuisine is great for vegetarians like me. A sentiment echoed by a fellow travel writer, Abhinav Singh,
“I particularly liked their curry Kiri Hodi which I could pair with string hoppers or rice. I also learned how to make different types of sambols. The polos curry made with jackfruit was also unique.”
Having food in Sri Lanka was always an experience to cherish. Whether it was having brunch at Pedlar’s Inn, the first coffee shop inside the UNESCO Heritage Site, Galle Fort or enjoying an alfresco dinner by the riverside under star-strewn skies and being serenaded by the sounds of the river at Mahaweli Reach Hotel in the famed hill station of Kandy. Not even once did I have a bad meal in Sri Lanka. The best thing about Sri Lankan food is that it is spicy, not chilly. Every spice that they use has a purpose in a dish. It is not a potpourri of randomly mixed spices. It is a masterpiece created by master chefs who exist in each and every home, restaurant or hotel in Sri Lanka.
10 must visit restaurants
- Pedlar’s Inn, Galle
- Ministry of Crab, Dutch Hospital, Colombo
- Semondu, Dutch Hospital, Colombo
- Barefoot Cafe, Colombo
- Lagoon, Colombo
- The Nuga Gama, Colombo
- The Sands, Negombo
- The Empire Café, Kandy
- Samara, Aamaya Lake, Dambulla
- The Seafood Cove, Mount Lavinia
10 must-try dishes
- Hoppers (appa or appam) and string hoppers (Indi appa or idiyappam)
- Pol Sambol (coconut relish) and Gotu kola sambol (pennywort salad)
- Parippu (dhal curry)
- Polos (green jackfruit curry)
- Kottu roti (a flat, crispy bread)
- Wambatu moju (eggplant/brinjals pickle)
- Kiribath with lunu miris (a special type of rice, cooked with thick coconut milk
- Fish ambul thiyal (sour fish curry)
- Kukul mas curry (chicken curry)
- Lamprais (a combination of meat, rice and sambol chili sauce, wrapped into a banana leaf packet and steamed.)
Archana Singh is a Brand Strategist turned Travel Writer. An award-winning Writer and a Public Speaker who likes to visit offbeat places in search of untold human stories. She publishes her travel experiences on Travel See Write.