This week our kitchens take us to the small, pear-shaped island country called Sri Lanka. She’s just southeast of India, loaded with tropical hills, mountains, and a fresh, dreamy sort of ocean breeze.
She was once known as “Ceylon,” a name which can still be found in the tea that grows abundantly on her slopes.
Between the crocodiles, monkeys, and elephants, her lush forests hide coconut trees, one of the staple ingredients in Sri Lanka.
My friend Ruby’s husband is from Sri Lanka and I got to sample several homemade dishes recently and fell in love with their use of coconut.*
It is no exaggeration to say that coconut is in nearly every recipe. In fact, a fascinating article was just posted about the Sri Lankan coconut and its uses on Splendid Table. From coconut roti (a flatbread also found in India) [Recipe], to yellow rice [Recipe], to dal [Recipe], the creamy milk and flakes give Sri Lankan cooking its characteristic flavor and texture.
Two other ingredients are also worth mentioning. First, Pandan (or rampe), the screwpine leaf… its aroma is sweet and reminiscent of vanilla.
Second, curry leaves. These small green leaves add a toasted, almost smoky flavor to the island’s food. Curries typically include both ingredients, along with a significant amount of hot chilies…
I’ve learned that there isn’t enough water to make these curries go down my throat without burning. Tolerance for such spice is something that must be acquired over a lifetime. This is how locals can eat several mouthfuls without breaking a sweat, while visitors are laid out from the intensity of even a mild curry. If you’re lucky, a few bites of hoppers (rice flour pancakes) take down the heat a notch.
Heck, even at Ruby’s birthday dinner, I soon found that only us westerners thought the food to be spicy.
It’s all about what you’re used to, I suppose.
Among all this talk of coconut, curry, and spice… I find it fun that there’s also a great amount of Dutch influence on the cuisine, as notable with the Frikadeller (or meatballs) we made way back when.
Seems odd but, hey… I’d be happy eating meatballs that good on either (or any) continent.
*This is saying a lot considering I started this adventure without any love for coconut whatsoever.
P.S. I’m curious… How do you use coconut? Do you enjoy the milk, the flesh.. or all of it? Perhaps none of it? Nowadays, I often find myself using the milk, but steering clear of the flakes. I can’t quite pinpoint why, though I’m working on overcoming this aversion.
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