Sri Lanka

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

Sri Lanka once known as Ceylon, a very large island situated off the southern tip of india and close to the tropics, exhibits in its food most of the features which its situation would lead one to expect: rice the staple (with breadfruit, jackfruit, and yam as secondary staples), frequent use of coconut in curry-type dishes, with some emphasis on seafood (and relatively little meat-eating, as the population is predominantly Buddhist.) There is discriminating use of many spices, use of jaggery (see palm sugar) and toddy (see coconut), skill in making Indian-type breads and S. Indian specialities such as idli and dosa (here thosai), heavy consumption of mango, banana, plantain, etc. But there are interesting differences and some surprises:

  • Maldive fish, dried and grated tuna fish from the maldives, is used freely as an ingredient and a sort of condiment.

  • Sri Lanka has its own versions of curry powder, often comprising cumin, black cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, coriander, and fenugreek.

  • The hopper (a sort of pancake made out of leavened rice batter, which also comes in the noodle-like string hopper version) is so prominent (along with idli and dosa) as to constitute a distinctive feature of the cuisine.

  • An item which is used extensively for weddings and festivals is kiri bath, which is rice cooked in coconut milk to form a sticky cake. It is served with curries, sambals or jaggery. Pittu is a kind of compressed steamed cake of rice or wheat flour and freshly grated coconut, eaten with coconut milk and other accompaniments as for kiri bath.

  • The wide range of acidulating agents—the various fruits and acids used in the preparation of curries— includes goraka, mango, billing (see belimbing asam), besides limes, tomatoes, and vinegar.

  • Mallums are distinctive vegetable dishes thus described by Chandra Dissanayake (1976): ‘a preparation in which a fruit, edible root, leaf, vegetable or coconut may be finely shredded or grated and cooked until done with coconut.’

  • The Sri Lankan range of chutneys and relishes shows some influence from further east, for example the use of blachan (a shrimp paste; see blacang) and sambol (see sambal).