About the food of Sri Lanka

Ambewela, Sri Lanka. Photo by Anuradha Ratnaweera.

Ambewela, Sri Lanka. Photo by Anuradha Ratnaweera.

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.

Tea plantation in Sri Lanka. Photo by Anjadora.

Tea plantation in Sri Lanka. Photo by Anjadora.

Between the crocodiles, monkeys, and elephants, her lush forests hide coconut trees, one of the staple ingredients in Sri Lanka.

[dropshadowbox align=”right” effect=”lifted-both” width=”600px” height=”” background_color=”#ffffff” border_width=”1″ border_color=”#dddddd” ]Fun Fact: Did you know the elephant is the national animal of Sri Lanka?[/dropshadowbox]

So beautiful…

Sri Lankan elephants roaming in the Kaudulla National Park. Photo by Christophe Meneboeuf ( http://www.pixinn.net)

Sri Lankan elephants roaming in the Kaudulla National Park. Photo by Christophe Meneboeuf ( http://www.pixinn.net)

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.

Photo by dekoelie.

Photo by dekoelie.

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…

Curry Leaves. Photo by Sonja Pauen - Stanhopea.

Curry Leaves. Photo by Sonja Pauen – Stanhopea.

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.

The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. This temple is one of the most holy sites in Sri Lanka reputed to contain an actual tooth of the Buddha on his 2nd visit to the Island over 2000 years ago. Photo by McKay Savage.

The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. This temple is one of the most holy sites in Sri Lanka reputed to contain an actual tooth of the Buddha on his 2nd visit to the Island over 2000 years ago. Photo by McKay Savage.

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. 

Maps and flag of Sri Lanka, courtesy of CIA World Factbook.

Maps and flag of Sri Lanka, courtesy of CIA World Factbook.


  1. Bridget H. says

    I love coconut oil. I use it o make popcorn at least once a week for my kids. I also use it when I make pancakes. I love the flavor, and it has a higher smoke point than butter.

  2. Amber says

    I only really use coconut milk for curries, though I do love the flakes and the flesh as well. All this reminds me of how delicious it is — I am excited then to see what you will treat us with this week. 🙂

  3. Megan says

    Not a fan of coconut in generally, however I cannot live without coconut oil! It is my go to moisturizer!

  4. Loved all the photos, gorgeous!

    I’ve been away in Brazil and behind on reading your blog – I’ll jump into it this weekend, I see you got Spain covered, I bet it was an amazing week!

    Sri Lanka, so exotic – it will be nice to learn more about the country through your articles

    • Sasha Martin says

      Welcome back! Spain was fantastic and we’ll definitely be repeating some of those recipes in our mealtime rotation!

  5. Ruby says

    Yippee, Sri Lanka it’s here, been waiting! Can t wait to come sample some today. Just wanted to mention that the long terrible civil war only ended ended in 2009 and since then it has been on the too list of travel destinations from Lonely Planet, NY Times, National Geographic, Cinde Nast etc. It has a lot on that small island from history, culture, wildlife, beaches, and those gorgeous green manicured hills if tea bushes. Their motto an island like no other.

    • Sasha Martin says

      The photos were stunning. How long does it take to tour the whole island? It seems fairly large.

    • aunty eileen says

      me too! and coconut macaroons are to live for also! I loved watching my Mom prepare a coconut for getting the milk and meat out…

  6. Monique says

    Love coconut in all forms.
    coconut milk in curries and in coconut rice pudding
    coconut milk and the flesh in coconut layer cake with toasted coconut
    samoas (mmm)
    walking down a beach in Hawaii with a just purchased coconut that the top has been cracked into and sipping the water out with a straw – ah memories
    I’ve been wanting to try kale and coconut salad – I’ve been seeing various versions around the internet

  7. Allene says

    As much as I love coconut, I don’t get to use it much. Just like fish, it’s hard to justify the cost here in the landlocked midwest. 🙁

    Have you ever tried pouring a glass of milk to go with spicy dishes? Capsaicin is an oil, so water can often make the burn worse, but milk usually does the trick for me. (Lesson learned as a child, when my aunt’s boyfriend insisted I try a chili made with habaneros.)

    • Sasha Martin says

      Yes, I’ve heard of this… although nothing seems to help better than time 😉

  8. annaclarice says

    I could eat coconut in one form or another in almost anything. I love, love, love it!

    • Sasha Martin says

      Never heard of coconut deodorant! Learn something new every day 🙂

  9. Ruby Libertus says

    Since it seems there is a lot of discussion would add that like Thailand and South India, Sri Lanka uses a lot of coconut milk in their food. But the other way that people consume a lot of coconut is the coconut water-it is deliciious and freshing but also good for you. The kind you get in the markets here is not the exact taste of the kind you get in SL though. Very good for your system though.

    • Sasha Martin says

      Interesting… Does it go in recipes, or mostly drunk by itself?

  10. Brian S. says

    Sri Lanka is so beautiful! I’ve been there. First, some music. About 55 years ago, the craze in Ceylon was Jamaican music and a local Sri Lankan singer recorded this…

    Once in New York the Times said there was an incredible illegal (no license) Sri Lankan restaurant in an office building near Times Square. They wouldn’t give the address so I visited every office building in the area — and there are a LOT of them! — but I got lucky quickly and a handyman told me where to go. So I found this office converted into a Sri Lankan space and had wonderful food there.

      • Brian S. says

        I put in the wrong song, a song from Senegal! The Sri Lanka song is

        By the way, I guess you know but your readers may not, curry leaves have no relation to Indian (or Sri Lankan) curry powder. Curry was a name given by the British and just by coincidence it sounded exactly like the local name for those totally unrelated curry leaves.

  11. Rick Scott says

    I have a curry tree growing in my yard here in Southern California. I clipped a branch and compared it to your photo. It seems to be the same plant. I’ve never known how to use the leaves in cooking. Can you explain the process? Many thanks from a loyal follower.

    • amanda says

      Be SUPER SUPER cautious- I would not trust my own opinion on a tree species based on a picture. Lots of things can look very similar. I don’t know if you have an agriculture extension office in your area that you could take it to and see, or maybe a horticulturist or something like that, but I would be very hesitant to eat something without a rock-solid identification.

      • Rick Scott says

        I will take your advice and avoid adding it to food without further identification. Thanks for the warning.

        • Sasha Martin says

          But definitely find out – there’s a good chance it’s the right plant. If so, you can add it to curries … I’ll be using it in 2 recipes this week, to give you something to work with 🙂

  12. Oh, I am really excited for these recipes! I love coconut in all forms. The milk for curries, baking, and turning into non dairy yogurt. I finally made your green papaya curry with last week, and it was divine. The water, of course, is refreshing, and the flesh of young coconuts pureed in desserts is amazing. The dried flakes go in my granola 🙂

    Did you find curry leaves for your recipes? I had a little curry tree until we moved from overseas last year and I really wished I could have brought it with me, but plants were not allowed. I miss the unique flavor they brought!

  13. meganleiann says

    I don’t LOVE coconut per se, but I use it quite a bit. We make a lot of curries. I use the oil on popcorn and for moisturizer- even sunscreen. I use the flakes in granola. I also just made my first real German’s Chocolate Cake using fresh flakes. I had never actually split apart a coconut to use fresh before. My kids loved cracking the coconut and drinking the coconut water (which tasted little like the bitter garbage sold in shops). We dried it in the oven until the meat separated, peeled off the skin and then shredded it in the food processor. It was a bit of work, but a lot of fun for the kids.

  14. All I can suggest is never drinking water with spicy food: in India and Sri Lanka it is all about the yogurt, the rice or the naan to subdue the heat!

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