Sri Lanka's culinary star is rising, says Michael Bateman, who welcomes the country's spicy mix of curries, dahls and sambals. But it should be approached with a little
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Sri Lanka certainly has its share of problems, but its food is among the tastiest, spiciest and most tempting you could imagine. And given British links with the island (we established its tea industry) it seems surprising we don't know its cooking better. But that's about to change.

Thanks to burgeoning package holiday deals, a new generation of travellers is coming back with reports of hoppers (coconut-flavoured pancakes), red, white and black curries, fish with gamboge (a sour fruit which tastes like tamarind), and buffalo milk curds (yogurt) with jaggery treacle (made from palm sugar). Next Saturday, the island's most distinguished chef, Publis Silva, flies in with his team from the Mount Lavinia Hotel in Colombo for a week-long festival of Sri Lankan food at Le Meridien Hotel in Piccadilly.

There are other little signs which indicate that Sri Lanka's star is rising. A recipe book embracing Sri Lankan dishes by Priya Wickramasinghe, Leith's Indian & Sri Lankan Cookery (Bloomsbury, pounds 16.99) was published only last month, and it is from this that we take the recipes which follow.

There's certainly still room for one more cuisine from this exotic part of the world. Latest research shows that the food of the sub-continent is now the most popular in Britain, and Indian takeaways are outstripping their Chinese counterparts. Over 20 million people eat out every week in Britain's 8,000 Indian restaurants.

In the UK we can enjoy at least a dozen distinct cooking styles, according to Pat Chapman's 1998 Good Curry Guide; including tastes from Burma, Gujarat and Pakistan. Now Sri Lanka has made it into the Guide's Top 100 with London restaurants, Sigiri and Prince of Ceylon (see end for details).

I had the good luck to see Sri Lankan cooking at source. I was even luckier that my snap preview, a few weeks back, just missed a bomb attack in the capital, Colombo. Sri Lanka is a tropical paradise cursed with a civil war which has been raging in the north of the island for more than a dozen years. Sporadic fighting tends to be some way from tourist routes, but it was with trepidation that I flew into the capital the day after a Tamil Tiger bomb exploded in the commercial centre killing 11, shattering the windows of the twin trade towers and four major hotels, and potentially shattering tourist aspirations, too.

It was the first such incident for 18 months, apparently prompted by President Clinton's act in declaring the Tamil Tigers a terrorist organisation. A tremendous security operation was under way, bringing extra chaos to the capital's already chaotic traffic system, further aggravated by flash floods deposited by the seasonal monsoon rains.

Late each afternoon the heavens opened and the rain curtained down, accompanied by deafening thunder and strobic sheet lightning. But the monsoon season is ending and November to March promises clear blue skies and a mirror- smooth, see-through ocean.

So how was it, apart from the bombs, the rain and, what was that, the wind? The wind, ah, that brings us back to the food. Unsuspecting occidental digestions will not be used to this diet; the mass of fibrous vegetable curries (especially dhal, the Indian lentil) whose windiness is often compounded by the ready use of onion and garlic.

Having said that, in four days I didn't have a single meal which wasn't delicious. Most were forms of curry, from hot to mild. The best were chilli- hot, lime-sour and coconut-sweet. But all glowed with warm combinations of fresh spices, peppercorns, cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, coriander, cloves, nutmeg, ginger and curry leaf.

Sri Lanka is a spice island, and it is particularly educational to visit a spice garden and see them growing. Cloves are the pale flower buds of a tree whose leaves are every bit as hot and pungent as the spice itself. Cardamom pods are the seeds of orchid-like flowers; fresh nutmegs are green like walnuts; peppercorns grow on thick-fleshed jungle vines with bead-like clusters of green seeds.

There's a spice garden on the route between Colombo and the spiritual capital, Kandy. The food of the island unfolds along this road, past the rice paddies serviced by buffaloes (two kinds of rice here, white and red). The backdrop is a forest of coconut palms, trees which provide everything from food to hair oil, roofing material to fuel.

It's only 72 miles to Kandy but you'll be lucky to make it in under three hours. It's a complicated process of avoiding pedestrians and untethered cows while ducking the oncoming stream of lorries, coaches, cars and "autos" as they call the two-seater taxis mounted on three moped wheels.

Half the country seems to be at the roadside, manning shops and stalls. There are pendulous displays of green and yellow plantains, and mounds of fruit and unusual vegetables such as snake gourds. Each village has its own speciality, whether it's growing fruit - green mangoes, perhaps or orange-coloured king coconuts - or making ceramic cooking pots and cane chairs.

It is startling to be confronted by dozens of glamorous sari-clad sirens, their arms stretched out horizontally, palms turned down, bidding you to stop. But their smiles freeze quickly enough when you decline their freshly harvested cadjus, the new season's cashew crop.

My mission is to meet chef Publis Silva, so the next day I made my way to the Mount Lavinia Hotel in the south of the capital. A former governor's residence, it is still manned with colonial pomp by white-uniformed staff in pith helmets. Publis has, in a career spanning 40 years, cooked for governors and prime ministers alike and written Traditional Sri Lankan Food, the most comprehensive collection of the island's cooking. He started at the hotel as a labourer shifting coal, but devoted every unpaid hour in the day to watching the cooks and helping them out.

Publis has been rehearsing for the London food festival with his sous- chef Kirthi Senevaratne, organising equipment as well as food. He shows me some of the essential tools: granite and wooden mortars, clay chatty pots and clay plates, a kulla (winnowing fan for cleaning rice), a coconut scraper and string hopper moulds.

Hopper is the English approximation of the Tamil word appa or aappam. Two kinds of appa are eaten in Sri Lanka. They bear no resemblance to each other, although both are made with the same ingredients of rice flour and thick coconut milk. This milk is not the liquid from inside the nut, but a cream made from steeping grated coconut in a little boiling water and straining it.

String hoppers (originating in Kerala) are like sturdy vermicelli. These are served, often at breakfast, with sambal (dry spicy mixtures usually made of grated coconut, ginger, onion and chilli) or a little curry sauce.

The non-string hopper is a crispy pancake, cooked in a lidded hopper pan (shaped like a small wok). This, too, is served with sambal or curry, or you can have it with an egg cooked in it - not so different in principle from the North African brik (deep-fried pastry), and just as likely to spill egg yolk down your front.

When I visited Publis, he was busy marshalling ingredients for his journey to London. Meat, fish and chicken may be among the few essential ingredients available in the UK. His list progresses from ash plantain (banana) and Bombay onions (small, mild and red) via rampe (a spicy leaf) and snake gourd to winged beans and wood apple.

Of great importance to Sri Lankan cooking is gamboge (rhyming with foggy) - a dried fruit used as a souring agent - and the savoury Maldive fish (salty dried tuna). Both may be shredded into sambals. Combined, they give a savoury, sour, smoky, dry flavour. A tuna curry cooked with gamboge will keep for days as the acid is a preservative.

In the brief space of half an hour the Magician (as Publis is known in the hotel) conjures up six exquisite curries. Three of them are typically Sri Lankan: white, black and red. The white is prawns with lemongrass; black, tuna with gamboge; and red, spicy hot chicken. The others are vegetable: brinjal (aubergine), pumpkin and jackfruit.

Hardly a dish comes without its cargo of grated coconut or coconut milk, chopped green chillies, garlic and fresh ginger. It is in the judicious use of spices that Publis is a master; measuring quantities, dictating the order in which they must be added, then tempering, concentrating or diluting.

He will also seek to achieve a harmony in accordance with the Ayurvedic philosophy relating to hot and cold foods. Those which heat the blood are red meat, shellfish, acid fruits, pineapple, mango, tomato; those which cool it are white meat, fish, milk curds and most vegetables. Spices have their medicinal properties, too. Turmeric is antiseptic, cloves anaesthetic, fennel digestive and, aha, fenugreek and ginger are anti-flatulent.

Sri Lankan food is essentially home-cooking, though Publis has raised it to an art. I had a chance to compare it with the cooking of chef Rasheed whose Indian restaurant in the luxurious Taj Sumadra hotel is rated the best on the island.

Rasheed comes from Kerala, but trained at the Taj hotel school in Delhi, and features many dishes similar to those of Publis. His hoppers are of the curly kind and for breakfast he offers yet another regional pancake, the thin, crisp dosa, also served with a sambal or curry. This is the sort of tasty combination that could wean you off bacon, sausage and egg for ever.

The main difference in cooking at the Taj centres on the use of the tandoori oven for roasting. Chicken, fish and shellfish were superb, as were pulses and vegetables. I pass on the tough mutton (and not just because I later discover that mutton is Sri Lankan for goat).

When I got back to the UK, I read a restaurant review in which a meal for two for a hundred plus pounds was described as a bargain. I cast my mind back to lunch at the spice garden - five delicious curry dishes, buffalo yogurt, beer, pounds 8.50 for two. A fabulous dinner at Chef Rasheed's in the most luxurious Indian restaurant in Colombo, came to pounds 18 for two, with drinks.

Sigiri, 161 Northfields Avenue, London W13 (0181 579 8000); Prince of Ceylon, 39 Watford Way, London NW4 (0181 202 5967)



Fish is much more popular than meat in Sri Lanka, with fish cooked in a spicy coconut sauce the favourite dish.

Serves 4

12 teaspoon fenugreek seeds

2 tablespoons hot water

2 pieces of gamboge

2 large mackerel, weighing about 1.5kg/314lb

1 lime or lemon

3 cloves garlic, chopped

2 green chillies, chopped

5cm/2in piece fresh root ginger, grated

1 teaspoon ground cumin

2 teaspoons ground coriander

14 teaspoon ground turmeric

5 curry leaves

4 tablespoons coconut milk powder

100ml/312fl oz cold water


Soak the fenugreek seeds in the hot water. Wash the gamboge and set aside.

Cut off the mackerel heads and tails. Make a 3cm (114in) slit along the belly of each fish and remove the entrails and any roe. Cut each fish into four cutlets and, without washing, put into a large bowl. Squeeze the lime or lemon juice over the fish and leave aside in a bowl with the lime or lemon skins. After 15 minutes wash each cutlet quickly under cold running water and pat dry on kitchen paper.

In a wide pan large enough to hold the eight pieces of mackerel in a single layer, combine the fenugreek, garlic, chillies, ginger, cumin, coriander, turmeric and curry leaves. Add the coconut milk powder and water, and mix thoroughly. Now add the mackerel, and carefully spoon over the spicy mixture to ensure that the fish is thoroughly coated. Bring to the boil over a medium heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Turn the pieces of fish over, add salt to taste, and cook for a further seven minutes. Discard the pieces of gamboge and serve.



Orange lentils cooked in coconut milk are eaten almost daily in Sri Lanka and South India.

Serves 4

225g/8oz Mysore dhal (orange lentils)

3 cups water

1 medium onion, roughly chopped

55g/2oz creamed coconut

2 green chillies, chopped

14 teaspoon ground turmeric

12 teaspoon ground cumin

12 teaspoon ground coriander

2 tablespoons oil

12 teaspoon cumin seeds

12 teaspoon black mustard seeds

1 onion, very finely chopped

10 curry leaves


Pick over the lentils and wash them in several changes of cold water. Put them into a medium saucepan, together with the water. Add the roughly chopped onion, creamed coconut, chillies, turmeric, cumin and coriander and bring to the boil. Simmer and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, for about 25 minutes until the lentils are a soft mush. If all the water has evaporated before the lentils are cooked, add a cup of boiling water.

While the lentils are simmering, heat the oil in a small pan. Add the cumin and mustard seeds, cover and allow the seeds to pop over a low heat. Add the finely chopped onion and curry leaves, and fry over a low heat until the onion is golden-brown.

Pour the onion mixture into the lentil mixture. Season to taste with salt and cook for a further five minutes. Serve hot with rice.



In Sri Lanka, large orange pumpkins are a popular vegetable. This traditional dish is delicious.

Serves 4

450g/1lb pumpkin

2 tablespoons desiccated coconut

5 cloves garlic, chopped

12 medium onion, chopped

2 tablespoons cold water

1 teaspoon oil

14 teaspoon black mustard seeds

a few curry leaves

1 teaspoon ground coriander

12 teaspoon ground cumin

14 teaspoon ground turmeric

30g/1oz creamed coconut

1 cup hot water


Wash the pumpkin, peel off the skin and remove the seeds and the fibrous flesh around the seeds. Cut the pumpkin into 2.5cm (1in) cubes.

Dry-roast the coconut in a heavy-based frying pan over a low heat until dark brown, stirring constantly to prevent from burning. In a food processor, combine the garlic, onion and roasted coconut. Add the cold water and grind to a smooth paste.

Heat the oil in a medium pan. Add the mustard seeds, cover and allow to pop over a low heat. Add the curry leaves, coriander, cumin and turmeric and fry for 30 seconds.

Dissolve the creamed coconut in the hot water and add it to the pan together with salt to taste. Add the coconut mixture to the pan and lastly add the pumpkin. Bring to the boil, then simmer, covered, for 12 to 15 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the pumpkin pierces it easily.



This is a popular Sri Lankan accompaniment.

Serves 4

225g/8oz shallots or small red onions (available in Chinese supermarkets)

1 teaspoon coarsely ground chilli powder

1 teaspoon lime or lemon juice

salt, to taste

12 tablespoon Maldive fish

Peel the shallots and wash them thoroughly. Combine the shallots, chilli powder, lime or lemon juice and salt in a food processor. Blend until the onions are ground. Add the Maldive fish. Mix and serve.



This dish takes time to prepare but is well worth it.

Serves 2

400g/14oz raw shell-on prawns

juice of 12 lime

2 tablespoons fine desiccated coconut

2 ripe plum tomatoes (if fresh tomatoes are not available use canned tomatoes)

3 cloves garlic

2.5cm/1in piece of fresh root ginger, peeled

12 medium onion

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

112 teaspoons ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground cumin

18 teaspoon fenugreek seeds

1 teaspoon chilli powder

14 teaspoon ground turmeric

2 tablespoons oil

10 curry leaves

100ml/3.5fl oz water


coriander leaves, to garnish

Shell and de-vein the prawns. Put them into a bowl, add the lime juice and leave for about five minutes. Wash each prawn under cold running water and then pat dry with kitchen paper.

In a food processor, blend the coconut, tomatoes, garlic, ginger and onion to a puree. Grind the fennel seeds, ground coriander, ground cumin, fenugreek seeds, chilli powder and ground turmeric to a fine powder.

Heat the two tablespoons of oil in a medium saucepan. Put the curry leaves and the combined ground spices into the pan and fry over a low heat for a couple of seconds. Add the blended ingredients and fry for a further two to three minutes. Pour in the water and bring slowly to the boil and then simmer for two minutes. Add the prawns, salt to taste and bring back to the boil. Simmer for a further six to eight minutes, or until the prawns are cooked through. Garnish with coriander leaves and serve.



This dish forms an integral part of a Sri Lankan rice-and-curry meal (see left served with spicy prawns). A green leafy vegetable is shredded so finely that identification is difficult.

Serves 2

225/8oz spring greens or cabbage

12 medium onion, chopped

12 teaspoon ground cumin

12 teaspoon ground black mustard

12 teaspoon ground coriander

14 teaspoon ground turmeric


2 tablespoons desiccated coconut

2 green chillies, finely chopped

1 tablespoon water

Wash and shred the greens or cabbage as finely as possible, a food processor can be used for this. In a large bowl combine the shredded greens or cabbage with all the remaining ingredients.

Stir-fry this mixture in a heavy-based frying pan or wok over a low heat for about four minutes. This dish should be barely cooked and should retain its green colour.



Traditional Sri Lankan curries are usually referred to as black when the spices used are dry-roasted before being ground.

Serves 4-6

900g/2lb leg of pork

3 tablespoons oil

2 tablespoons coriander seeds

3 teaspoons cumin seeds

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

12 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 teaspoon chilli powder

55g/2oz tamarind

290ml/12 pint water

2 medium onions, finely chopped

5 cloves

5 cardamom pods

5cm/2in stick cinnamon

4 cloves garlic, chopped

5cm/2in piece of fresh root ginger, peeled and grated

10 curry leaves

2 pieces of gamboge

4 tablespoons coconut milk powder


Trim any excess fat from the pork and cut the meat into 2.5cm (1in) cubes. Reserve any bones. Heat the three tablespoons of oil in a frying pan and fry a few pieces of pork at a time, reheating the oil after each addition.

In a heavy-based frying pan, dry-roast the coriander seeds, cumin and fennel over a low heat, until dark brown. Grind together with the tur-meric and chilli powder.

Bring the tamarind and 100ml (312fl oz) of the water to the boil in a small saucepan. Simmer for three minutes. Put the tamarind into a fine strainer and, using the back of a metal spoon, press down to extract the pulp and juice. Reserve the water and the strained pulp and discard the fibres.

Reheat the oil in the pan, adding more if necessary to make up to about four tablespoons. Put in the onions, cloves, cardamom and cinnamon, and fry until the onions are golden brown. Add the garlic, ginger, curry leaves and ground spices to the pan and fry for a couple of seconds. Then add the pork, including any bones, and the gamboge, and stir until well mixed. Lastly, add the tamarind, coconut milk powder, remaining water, and salt to taste, and bring slowly to the boil. Cover and simmer for about one hour, or until the meat is tender



This hot chutney combines the grated kernel of the coconut with hot chilli powder.

Serves 4

110g/4oz freshly grated coconut

1 teaspoon coarse chilli powder


14 teaspoon ground black pepper

3 small red onions, or 2 shallots

3 cloves of garlic

juice of 1 lime

Combine all the ingredients in a food processor and blend together until well mixed.

Unsweetened desiccated coconut can be substituted for freshly grated coconut. Finely chopped spring onions can be added to make an interesting variation.



In Sri Lanka curries are distinguished by their colour - red, black and white. This red chicken is fiery and hot. The hotness can be reduced by substituting paprika for the chilli powder in the recipe.

Serves 4

8 chicken thighs, skinned not boned

12 teaspoon ground black pepper

salt, to taste

500ml/18fl oz cold water

3-4 tablespoons oil

2 medium onions, finely chopped

20 curry leaves

8 cloves garlic, finely chopped

5cm/2in-piece of fresh root ginger, peeled and grated

3 teaspoons chilli powder

1 teaspoon paprika

2 teaspoons granulated sugar

Put the chicken, pepper and salt into a pan with the water, bring to the boil. Cover, lower heat and simmer for an hour. Remove the chicken to a plate. Bring this stock rapidly to the boil and boil until reduced to about 150ml (14 pint). Set aside.

Heat the oil in a medium pan. Put the onion, curry leaves, garlic and ginger into the pan and fry until the onions are golden-brown. Add the chicken and fry for a further two to three minutes. Then add the chilli powder, paprika, sugar and stock and bring to the boil. Cover and simmer for five to seven minutes, stirring occasionally.