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Feeding the soul in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan Eats_1

The word “serendipity” comes from Serendib, the old Arabic name for Sri Lanka, but for Bama and I our first few days on the island were quite the opposite. On arrival, I was sleep-deprived and recovering from illness; Bama was also tired from a series of long journeys, not to mention the stress of looking after a sick companion. Our first stop was the beach town of Hikkaduwa on the southwest coast, where an introduction to Sri Lankan cuisine came in a plate of devilled chicken – spicy, glazed with a sweet and sour marinade, and especially delicious when paired with fried rice.

But the ubiquitous coconut sambol was far less satisfying; it struck me as being even saltier than the sea. That overpowering saltiness characterised much of the food we tasted in Hikkaduwa, and I began to wonder if this would be a common problem throughout the next two weeks. “Is this how Sri Lankan food is supposed to taste?” I asked Bama. He’d come on a week-long trip several years before, and raved about a delicious curry he’d eaten in Kandy. “No,” he replied, “what I tried was much, much better.”

It wasn’t just the food in Hikkaduwa that left a bad taste in our mouths. At the urging of my father (which I will forever regret agreeing to), we stayed with his eccentric old friend who had retired there and built a beachfront house. While I remain grateful for his generosity in providing food and lodgings, I abhorred the low-grade, snide remarks he repeatedly levelled at Bama, his angry tirades against using the air conditioner (which meant three nights of fitful sleep and waking in a pool of our own sweat), and the toxic atmosphere that, at one point, even threatened to halt our six-month Spice Odyssey.

Spicy "devilled chicken"

Spicy “devilled chicken”

Sri Lankan-style fried rice

Sri Lankan-style fried rice

A very salty assortment of curries and sambol in Hikkaduwa

A very salty assortment of curries and sambol in Hikkaduwa

Cinnamon rice topped with cassava chips, Galle

Cinnamon rice topped with cassava chips, Galle

A light chicken curry in Galle

A light chicken curry in Galle

Egg hopper - best with a dash of chilli sambol

Egg hopper – best with a dash of chilli sambol

Serendipity only found us once we ventured into Sri Lanka’s central heartland by train. The bulk of that time was spent just outside Kandy, at an intimate rooftop homestay run by Mahesh and Achini, two local P.E. teachers.

While Mahesh went out of his way to guide us around the ancient sites of the Cultural Triangle, multi-tasking Achini introduced us to a variety of Sri Lankan delights from their small but efficient kitchen. We fell in love with her homemade breakfasts of pol roti (coconut flatbread) and onion sambol – the latter infused with turmeric, curry leaves, tamarind, chilli flakes and the savoury richness of umbalakada, cured bonito from the Maldives.

Dinners were an even more elaborate affair, with a generous spread of three or four different curries, salad and red or white rice. The rotating menu had jackfruit, potato and gotukola sambol – a salad of thinly sliced pennywort with red onion and grated coconut. Alongside onion sambol, my favourite was the maroon-tinted beetroot curry, stewed in coconut milk and a delicate spice blend that complemented the vegetable’s natural sweetness. Like all the other curries Achini made, the ingredients were cooked in a walanda, the traditional Sri Lankan earthenware pot.

For dessert, chilled buffalo curd was appetising enough on its own, but it proved even better drizzled with the treacle-like sap of the kithul palm. While resting at the homestay, we revelled in some of its simple pleasures – not least a cup of Sri Lanka’s very own Dilmah tea. Achini expertly brewed hers with whole milk, adding the perfect amount of sugar for a balanced, silky smooth concoction. And how could I forget the unusual fruit juices we tried? Squeezing the stringy, bright orange pulp of a mature palmyra palm fruit (taal) yielded a sweet nectar that was suggestive of jackfruit. Wood apple, known to the Sinhalese as duvul, produced a refreshing juice with notes of tamarind.

Unfortunately, I did not remember to take photos of the string hoppers we enjoyed for breakfast one morning, or the freshly caught lake fish and curried ambarella that Mahesh’s mother cooked us after a long day hot-footing around the temples of Anuradhapura. One of the most memorable episodes took place in a roadside greasy spoon near Dambulla, where Mahesh took us to sample the famous Sri Lankan egg hoppers we’d seen on several food-related travel shows. The batter was paper-thin and brittle at the edges but thick and moist in the centre; with a spoonful of fresh chilli sambol, it made for a perfect pre-dinner snack.

I’d imagined that Bama and I would eventually get around to trying an egg hopper, but Achini’s fabulous home cooking and the overarching kindness of Mahesh were entirely unexpected. After a rough start in Hikkaduwa, their hospitality restored us and breathed the life back into our trip.

Achini's gotukola sambol - pennywort salad with red onion and grated coconut

Achini’s gotukola sambol – pennywort salad with red onion and grated coconut

Chicken cooked with pepper, clove, curry leaves, red onion and garlic - also by Achini

Chicken cooked with pepper, clove, curry leaves, red onion and garlic – also by Achini

Wood apple, encased in a hard husk

Wood apple, encased in a hard husk

Achini's fabulous onion sambol

Achini’s fabulous onion sambol

Homemade Sri Lankan pol roti (coconut flatbread)

Homemade Sri Lankan pol roti (coconut flatbread)

Aromatic beetroot curry by Achini

Aromatic beetroot curry by Achini

Buffalo curd, served with kithul palm treacle

Buffalo curd, served with kithul palm treacle

A vendor at Anuradhapura inspects a palmyra fruit

A vendor at Anuradhapura inspects a palmyra fruit

Palmyra fruit, known locally as "Taal", and a glass of sweet palmyra juice

Palmyra fruit, known locally as “Taal”, and a glass of sweet palmyra juice

44 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’m happy to read that your Sri Lanka trip was salvaged by your kindly second hosts, and I’m sorry you had such an inauspicious beginning. I swear I have never heard of a great percentage of these foods! Many look and sound delicious; a few seem a tad frightening (wood apple – eeeek!) 🙂

    August 20, 2016
    • Hey lexklein,

      Wood apple is one of the nicest fruits and is one of my favourites, despite its frightening looks 😉

      Never seen it outside of Sri Lanka but surely you can find the wood apple juice

      August 20, 2016
    • Lex, I’m surprised that Sri Lankan food doesn’t get more recognition abroad – particularly in North America’s cosmopolitan cities where people would appreciate all those wonderful flavours. When it comes to South Asian cuisines, North Indian food tends to hog the limelight!

      The wood apple wasn’t frightening at all, though I wondered how our hosts could easily crack such a thick, hard husk. The juice was sublime – imagine something halfway between tamarind and apple and that’s pretty much how it tastes. 🙂

      August 20, 2016
  2. Looks delicious!

    August 20, 2016
  3. reading this article made me hungry

    August 20, 2016
  4. Meskipun, kalian sempat ada masalah dengan salah seorang host kalian, kesedapan masakan Sri Lanka ini pasti menjadi pengalaman tersendiri yang menyenangkan yaaa 🙂

    Btw, aku penasaran sama rasa Wood Apple, awalnya aku pikir itu semacam es krim dalam tempurung kelapa 😀

    August 20, 2016
    • Kalo kata ibuku di Jawa wood apple itu namanya buah kawis. Aku cek di Google nama buah itu di Bahasa Indonesia adalah kawista. Aku malah belum pernah nyobain buah itu di Jawa.

      August 20, 2016
      • Ooo ternyata buah kawis. Aku sering nyobain tapi versi sirup nya aja, alias cuma essence nya aja. Belum pernah nyobain buah aslinya 😀

        August 20, 2016
      • Kalo kamu ke Sri Lanka musti coba ya Bart. Dan harus jus dari buah asli, bukan yang udah dijual botolan.

        August 20, 2016
      • Siaaap! Harus banget 😉

        August 20, 2016
  5. Mouth watering and I am craving for some now! Thanks for sharing and glad you liked them.

    Did you manage to try some Kottu?

    August 20, 2016
    • In hindsight I think we missed out on quite a few dishes – we left Sri Lanka without trying Kottu, and our limited time on the coast (not to mention my poor appetite at the time) meant very little seafood like shrimp and curried crab. There is always a next time though!

      August 20, 2016
      • Yep, there is always a next time 😉

        August 21, 2016
  6. I should have read this on a full stomach. 😀 Not only I miss Achini’s cooking, but also her superb milk tea and refreshing wood apple juice. And the amazing thing is those delicious food she cooked for us was not expensive at all! Enak, banyak, murah. 🙂

    August 20, 2016
    • That is true – we could easily have spent a few more days in Kandy if only we’d budgeted more time! Those breakfasts were some of the best we had on our six-month trip. 😀

      August 20, 2016
  7. What a wonderful tale of fabulous food. I think we should travel with you to ensure we get the best of the local food – except when you stay with your father’s friend. What was his problem? He sounds very unhappy. Most of this food looks delicious, but the wood apple looks like it’s trying to give birth to something 🙂
    Alison

    August 20, 2016
    • I don’t know – it did feel like he was bipolar because he’d often vacillate between treating us with genuine hospitality and being very mean-spirited. I don’t know how we put up with that for three nights instead of leaving after one!

      I guess the wood apple does resemble something alien in a sci-fi movie… not that it put us off trying the juice (which was sublime). 🙂
      James

      August 21, 2016
  8. Enjoyed your post. The wood apple I’ve had has a husk which looks green and the inside is more of a bright orange. I wonder whether the one which your photo shows also tastes different. I guess I’ll have to travel to find out.

    August 20, 2016
    • That’s very interesting – I would never have known about this other variety of wood apple if it weren’t for your comment. I’ll keep an eye out for it the next time I’m in India’s southern states.

      August 21, 2016
      • That would be an interesting forage. I’ve only had wood apple in northern India. Maybe the Sri Lanka variety is similar to the south Indian one.

        August 21, 2016
  9. Glad your uncomfortable start had a fabulous finish! Love the egg hoppers… we get them here too and yum!! Never came across a wood apple before though… tamarind apple, eh?

    August 20, 2016
    • I wonder if they have wood apples in Mumbai… apparently the fruits are also found here in Indonesia, although Bama was not aware of that until he sent a picture to his parents!

      August 21, 2016
      • Just because I haven’t yet come across doesn’t mean they don’t exist. 🙂

        August 21, 2016
  10. Even if it was a bit too salty, the pics look phenomenal! I just finished breakfast, but I think it’s time for lunch hehe

    August 20, 2016
    • It was really only the food in touristy Hikkaduwa that was over-salted. I loved the local dishes everywhere else!

      August 21, 2016
  11. I spent six weeks in Hikkaduwa once and loved the hoppers but have to confess, I wasn’t impressed with Lankan food either. I ate mostly South Indian because in those days, there were way more Tamils than I believe there are today.

    August 21, 2016
    • Hikkaduwa must have been such a different place back then – though it sounds like the quality of food was more or less the same. I managed to try some fabulous home-cooked Tamil food on my last night in Colombo… it was so different to what we had in Kandy.

      August 21, 2016
  12. The food looks delicious. I have a friend who was born in Sri Lanka and she sometimes cooks for us. I think I need to visit.

    August 21, 2016
    • You would love it there, Debra. And not just because of the food – the historic sites are stunning and I was really not expecting the cosmopolitan flair of Colombo.

      August 21, 2016
  13. Still like Indonesian food. How about the taste? I believe you are familiar with Indonesian cuisine 🙂

    August 21, 2016
    • I think a lot of Indonesians would enjoy Sri Lankan food – it uses similar spices (except for mustard seed) and also coconut milk. String hoppers are the same as putu mayang, while most meals are served with rice. All in all, it was delicious! 🙂

      August 21, 2016
  14. WHAT is a wood apple?! Does it grow or did someone make that? It is sweet or savoury? (or salty!)

    August 21, 2016
    • It’s a natural fruit – sweet but also with a subtle sourness to it, hence the comparison to tamarind.

      August 23, 2016
  15. Wow, everything looks delicious! Great photos!

    August 27, 2016
    • Thanks for dropping by!

      August 28, 2016
  16. James, I remember how upset you both were over your Hikkaduwa host’s weird behaviour when you arrived in Chennai. Glad that didn’t spoil the rest of your trip.

    Can’t tell you how much this post makes me nostalgic for Mangalore! I find it strange that despite the significant Tamil influence on Sri Lankan culture, their cuisine is so similar to our West coast. Hoppers were a staple growing up, eaten more often with chicken curry rather than fish. As was the palmyra fruit. Not so sure about the wood apple though. Have never tasted it. Drooling over that Pol Roti…..I might consider staying in Mahesh and Acini’s homestay just for that 🙂

    September 17, 2016
    • That is fascinating, Madhu. I wouldn’t have known about the strong similarities between Sri Lankan food and your home cuisine if you hadn’t mentioned them here. I loved the natural sweetness of palmyra juice – it was like sipping on some kind of nectar. As for Achini’s fabulous pol roti with onion sambol… she did end up giving me both recipes. 🙂

      September 19, 2016
  17. Looks very enticing! I would love to go to Sri Lanka some day for a food journey! 😀 Is there anything else besides food that you would recommend (unique architecture or culture wise)?

    October 13, 2016
    • Absolutely. The food is just one aspect – I haven’t gotten around to posting about all the ancient sites (think Buddhist temples, ruined cities, and rock fortresses) I visited in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle, plus the island has an intriguing blend of cultures from the Sinhalese, Tamils, and other communities.

      October 22, 2016
  18. I loved three food Sri Lanka. Came back last week and loved it all. Do check out my blog.

    May 12, 2017
    • Yes, I would say that Sri Lankan food – considering how delicious it is – remains strangely underrated.

      June 10, 2017

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  1. Feeding the soul in Sri Lanka – Itchy Feet

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