GRAINS AND PULSES:
Known as “bada iringu” in Sinhalese බඩ ඉරිඟු, corn has been consumed in Sri Lanka for centuries and was a staple for ancient Sri Lankans before rice became popular. Sri Lankan corn is grown in areas such as Mahiyanganaya. In Sri Lanka, corn is usually consumed boiled until cooked, dipped in a saltwater solution and eaten straightway.
Green gram / Mung beans:
Green gram or mung beans (known as “mung ata” මුං ඇට in Sinhalese) is a staple grain in Sri Lanka prepared in a variety of ways; green gram is mixed with rice and coconut milk is a popular savory dish for breakfast (known as “mung ata kiribath” මුං ඇට කිරි බත්). Another breakfast dish is green gram cooked till soft and dry (yet not mushy and the grains are still intact) and eaten with “lunu miris” ලුණු මිරිස් (click here for our authentic Sri Lankan “lunu miris” recipe) . For lunch, it is prepared as a curry (“mung bean curry”) or as a dhal (such as Jaffna style “mung dhal” which is popular among Tamils), which is similar to the Sinhalese “mung bean curry” with slight differences in ingredient combinations - and eaten together with rice. For festive occasions such as Sinhalese New Year, it is used to prepare traditional sweets such as “mung kavum” මුං කැවුම් a fritter of sweetened mung bean paste, dipped in a rice flour batter and fried.
Finger millet, known in Sinhalese as “kurakkan” කුරක්කන්, in Sinhalese is considered to be a highly nutritious grain. It is usually ground into flour known in Sinhalese as "kurakkan piti" කුරක්කන් පිටි ("kurakkan" කුරක්කන් = "finger millet", "piti" පිටි = "flour) which is then used to prepare food such as “kurakkan roti” (a flatbread of kurakkan flour, rice flour and freshly grated coconut) and kurakkan porridge (“kurakkan kenda” කුරක්කන් කැඳ, “kenda” කැඳ = “porridge”) and traditional sweets such as “halapa” (a pancake of kurakkan flour, rice flour and freshly grated coconut, steamed in a “kenda” leaf).
Locally known as “dhal”, it is usually a must have for a Sri Lankan lunch and sometimes dinner. Usually prepared as a curry such as “miris parippu” මිරිස් පරිප්පු (click here for our “miris parippu” recipe) either plain or with additions such as spinach. Sinhalese usually add coconut milk into their dhal curries while some Tamil dal preparations such as “sambhar” சாம்பார் do not.
It is also enjoyed as a soup (with a number of vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, leaks and French beans). “Vadai” வடை, a dhal-fritter of Tamil origin is also popular.
Rice is the staple food in Sri Lanka with almost all ethnicities consuming a meal of rice at least once a day. Brown rice is accepted to be healthier than white. Various varieties of red rice such as “red Nadu” (“rathu naadu” රතු නාඩු in Sinhalese), and white rice such as samba සම්බා, suuduru samba සූදුරු සම්බා and basmati බාස්මතී are some of the commonly consumed rice varieties in the country.
"Kiri bath" කිරි බත් (which means "milk rice", "kiri" කිරි = "milk" and "bath" බත් = "rice") a dish of rice and coconut milk is a staple on New Year's Day. Click here for our Sri Lankan “kiri bath” recipe.
Most Sri Lankan specialties such as hoppers (known as "aappa" ආප්ප in Sinhalese or "appam" ஆப்பம் in Tamil), string hoppers ("indhi aapa" ඉඳියාප්ප in Sinhalese or "indhi appam" இடியப்பம் in Tamil) and "pittu" පිට්ටු are rice-based. Most Sri Lankan sweets (Sinhalese in particular) are rice-based as well and these are considered to be healthier than sweets made with refined wheat flour.
SPICES, SEASONINGS, SWEETENERS AND FLAVORINGS:
Black mustard seeds:
Black mustard seeds (known as “aba ata” අබ ඇට in Sinhalese and “katuku” கடுகு in Tamil) is commonly used in Sri Lankan cuisine for a cooking technique called “tempering” where the mustard seeds are left to crackle in hot oil then aromatics such as onion, ginger, garlic, curry leaves, green chilies are added and sautéed till brown and fragrant.
Black pepper is the most common variety of pepper available and used in Sri Lankan cuisine among all ethnicities. White pepper is rarely used.
Cardamom (green cardamom):
Green cardamom, a fragrant and flavorful spice grown in Sri Lanka, is very popular in Sri Lankan cuisine with most ethnicities using it extensively in their dishes, particularly when making sweets and desserts such as the Sinhalese "sago porridge" ("sau kenda" සව් කැඳ) and the Malay dessert "watalappan". Black cardamoms are rarely used in Sri Lankan cuisine (if at all). Cardamoms lose their flavor and aroma with age and thus taste best when used fresh.
The Sinhalese and the Tamils have a love affair with chilies and most Sri Lankan (Sinhalese and Tamil in particular, while the Eurasians - known locally as the "Burghers" - not so much) dishes use chilies quite extensively. Sri Lankans in the south of Sri Lanka, known as the "southeners" are particularly fond of tongue-searing Sri Lankan fare and food from the southern region tends to have higher doses of chilies compared to food from other regions of the country. Green chilies are commonly used fresh while red chilies are often used either fresh, or dried (known as "viyali miris" වියළි මිරිස් "viyali" වියළි = dried", "miris" මිරිස් = "chili"), or ground to flakes (known as “kaeli miris” කෑලි මිරිස්) or a fine red chili powder (known as “miris kudu” මිරිස් කුඩු). Whole dried chilies lightly fried until crispy are a popular accompaniment for Sri Lankan rice and curry.
Cinnamon (known as “kurundu” කුරුඳු in Sinhalese) is very extensively used in Sri Lankan cuisine in rice dishes such as yellow rice and in meat dishes such as chicken curry.
Only "Ceylon cinnamon" - as Sri Lankan cinnamon is widely known - is used. Worldwide, the more common and cheaper cousin of cinnamon known as "cassia" (which is often sold mis-labeled as "cinnamon") is unheard of in Sri Lanka and is almost never used (if at all). Ceylon cinnamon has a mild, pleasant fragrance, a very pleasant, mildly sweet flavor and a very delicate bark which flakes very easily. Cassia on the other hand has a stronger smell, a stronger flavor and a very hard bark that would have to be banged with a stone in order to break into pieces. Ceylon cinnamon is believed to be considerably healthier than cassia.
Cloves (known as “karaabu” කරාබු in Sinhalese and “karaambu” கிராம்பு in Tamil) are cultivated in Sri Lanka predominantly in the central region of the island, in areas such as Kandy, Matale and Kegalle.
The spice has been used in Sri Lankan cuisine for centuries - Sri Lankan dishes such as yellow rice (“kaha bath” කහ බත්, “kaha” කහ = “yellow”, “rice” = “bath” බත් ) and some curries call for cloves.
Flying above the tropical island of Sri Lanka, perhaps one of the most striking sights is the coastline dotted with an abundance of leafy coconut palm fronds gently swaying to the fresh sea breeze. It is no wonder then that grated coconut is a staple in Sri Lankan cuisine and Sri Lankans of almost all ethnicities use grated coconut fairly extensively (the Chinese and the Eurasians - locally referred to as "Burghers" - would perhaps be among the ethnicities that use grated coconut to a lesser extent). Freshly grated coconut tastes better and is more nutritious than frozen. A "hiramanaya" හිරමනය is the tool traditionally used to grate the coconut and this tool is still used today.
Similar to the cuisine of the Malays in Malaysia and Indonesia, Kerala cuisine in India, and southern Thai cuisine in Thailand, coconut milk is a staple ingredient in Sri Lankan cuisine (particularly the cuisines of the Sinhalese and the Malays particularly. Sri Lankan Tamils also use coconut milk to a certain extent, perhaps more than Southern Indian Tamils). Most Sri Lankan dishes use either coconut milk or grated coconut.
Two main types of coconut milk are widely used in Sri Lankan cuisine: thick coconut milk and thin coconut milk. Fresh is always better than frozen / UHT / powdered. Although regular cow's milk can be used in place of coconut milk in some dishes, it will not produce an authentic outcome. For instance, popular Sinhalese dishes such as "Young jackfruit curry" or Sinhalese sweets such as "kavum" or Malay desserts such as "watalappan" taste best when coconut milk is used.
With its distinct aroma and flavor, coconut oil is the only oil for authentic Sri Lankan Sinhalese cooking. However, while there is considerable focus on virgin coconut oil worldwide, in Sri Lankan cuisine it is coconut oil extracted from dried coconuts (known as “copra”) that appears to be most widely used. This oil has a more robust aroma and flavor compared to virgin coconut oil which is comparatively delicate and consequently, copra-based coconut oil imparts a distinctively appetizing flavor and aroma to Sri Lankan food that virgin coconut oil may not be able to match. This is particularly the case when enhancing Sri Lankan dishes through the traditional Sri Lankan “tempering” cooking technique (where spices such as black mustard seeds, curry leaves, onion and green chilies are sautéed until browned and aromatic). Here, unlike virgin coconut oil with its delicate flavor and aroma, the more robust copra-based coconut oil is able to withstand the heat involved in browning the aromatics and imparts a stronger flavor and aroma.
Coconut vinegar (known as “pol vinaakiri” පොල් විනාකිරි in Sinhalese, “pol” පොල් = “coconut” and “vinaakiri” විනාකිරි = “vinegar”) is the most popular type of vinegar used for Sri Lankan cooking. Other types of vinegar such as rice vinegar and apple cider vinegar are not used in Sri Lankan cooking.
Dried coriander seeds are usually ground along with other spices to make curry powders, and is rarely used whole in curries. When used whole, dried coriander seeds are usually simmered in water along with other additions such as garlic and ginger and a sweetener such as a local honey to make a tea, most often as a remedy to alleviate colds, flu etc. Sri Lankan Tamils may add a few black peppercorns as well.
Sri Lankan cuisine sees cumin seeds ground along with other spices to make curry powders or used whole to flavor curries.
A staple ingredient among Sri Lankans (Sinhalese and Tamil in particular), fresh curry leaves are added to curries and cooked to impart their flavor and aroma into the curry.
Also known as "five spice powder", curry powder is a must ingredient for most Sri Lankan (Sinhalese and Tamil) dishes. Aromatic and highly flavorful, the quality of a curry powder can make or break a dish. Curry powder is known as "thuna paha" තුන පහ in Sinhalese ("thuna" තුන = "three, "paha" පහ = "five") in reference to the three to five spices used to make a curry powder although some curry powder recipe use more than five spices. Two main types of curry powders are used: raw curry powder and roasted curry powder. Raw curry powder is relatively mild and often used for vegetable dishes while roasted curry powder is often used for meat dishes. Curry powders lose their flavor and aroma with age and is best used quickly.
Sri Lankan Tamils also use curry powders although they are slightly different from the Sinhalese varieties. For instance, the "Jaffna roasted curry powder" includes turmeric root and black pepper, two ingredients that are rarely used in Sri Lankan Sinhalese curry powders.
Fennel seeds are ground to make curry powders or are used whole to lend flavor and aroma to a dish.
Fenugreek seeds are ground to make curry powders or are used whole in curries.
Goraka (Garcinia Gummi-Gutta / Garcinia Cambogia):
An important ingredient in Sri Lankan (Sinhalese) cuisine, this ingredient is known as goraka ගොරකා in Sinhalese and “korukkaippuli” கொறுக்காய்ப்புளி in Tamil.
It is used as a souring agent, particularly for fish dishes. In the English-speaking world, it is also known as brindleberry and gambooge.
Locally produced honey, specifically bee’s honey (“mee pani” මී පැණි in Sinhalese), coconut honey (“pol pani” පොල් පැණි) and kithul honey (“kithul pani” කිතුල් පැණි) are commonly used as sweeteners in Sri Lankan cuisine. Kithul honey is arguably the more popular type of honey among Sri Lankans. Almost all traditional Sri Lankan sweets and desserts use a locally produced honey or jaggery (an unrefined palm sugar) as a sweetener rather than refined sugar.
Jaggery, known as "hakuru" හකුරු in Sinhalese, is an unrefined form of palm sugar and almost all Sri Lankan sweets and desserts use some form of locally produced jaggery - coconut jaggery (“pol hakuru” පොල් හකුරු), kithul jaggery (“kithul hakuru” කිතුල් හකුරු) and palmyrah jaggery (“thal hakuru” තල් හකුරු). Kitul jaggery is arguably the more popular variety of the trio. This variety of jaggery is made from sap extracted from kithul flowers of the kithul tree.
Coconut jaggery, known as "pol hakuru" පොල් හකුරු ("pol" පොල් = "coconut") is made from sap extracted from coconut flowers of the coconut tree. This sap, known as "mee raa" මී රා, is frothy and white color and is used to either produce coconut honey or left to ferment to produce coconut toddy (known as "raa" රා, a type of mild alcoholic drink, popular in Sri Lanka which can be drunk as is, or distilled into arrack, known as "arrakku" අරක්කු in Sinhalese. If producing coconut honey, the coconut sap or "mee raa" is not left to ferment, and instead it is immediately boiled down, poured into cleaned, empty half coconut shells and left to solidify.
Jaggery is the traditional sweetener in Sri Lankan cuisine, and refined sugar is rarely used. Jaggery is considered to be healthier and considerably more flavorful than refined sugar as jaggery contains micro-nutrients that refined sugar loses during the refining process. Jaggery imparts a distinct flavor to Sri Lankan desserts that refined sugar cannot match. For authentic Sri Lankan sweets, a good quality jaggery is critical.
Pandan leaves / Screw pine leaves:
In Sri Lankan cuisine (particularly Sinhalese and Tamil), pandan leaves are often combined with curry leaves to lend aroma and flavor to curries. While the Malays sometimes use pandan leaves to flavor desserts such as watalappan this is rarely the case with Sinhalese and Tamil sweets and desserts where pandan leaves are rarely used, if at all.
Sri Lanka being a tropical, sunny-all-year island has an abundance of quality sea salt, most of which are produced in the coastal areas of the Sri Lanka such as Puttalam. Most, if not all, Sri Lankan salt is produced naturally through the evaporation of sea water, unlike in some countries such as the United States where salt is produced through industrial processes. As a result, Sri Lankan salt tends to be a good source of natural iodine.
Tamarind (known as “siyambala” සියඹලා in Sinhalese and “puli” புளி in Tamil) is cultivated in Sri Lanka and is commonly used for cooking, most especially among Sri Lankan Tamils.
Apart from the common tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica), Sri Lanka also cultivates a unique variety of tamarind known locally as “gal siyamabala” ගල් සියඹලා (“gal” ගල් = “stone/pebble”, “siyamabala” සියඹලා = “tamarind”). “Gal siyambala” is very popular among the locals, and the “gal siyambala” tree (Dialium ovoideum) is endemic to Sri Lanka. Its fruit are pebble-sized with a pleasant dark brown, velvet exterior. It is easily cracked open using fingers, and the fleshy pulp within is consumed as is.
Turmeric is cultivated in Sri Lanka. Tumeric root and powders are used. A pinch of turmeric powder is used for dishes such as dhal, yellow rice, some vegetable curries and traditional sweets such as “mung kavum”. Most often turmeric is added as a complement to enhance the flavor of the dish as a whole or for coloring purposes and the taste of turmeric by itself could hardly be distinguished. Some curry powders such as Jaffna curry powder uses turmeric root.
Known as “kesel muwa” කෙසෙල් මුව in Sinhalese, banana flower is the flower of the banana tree. It is chopped finely, soaked in salt water to remove any traces of bitterness then sautéed along with spices such as mustard seeds, chili powder, turmeric and curry leaves.
Bitter gourd is a popular vegetable among Sri Lankan Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils. Bitter gourd is believed to be a very medicinal vegetable and folks with diabetes turn to bitter gourd to control their blood sugar levels. It is prepared as a curry, fried or fresh salad.
Jackfruit - young, mature:
Jackfruit is believed to be highly nutritious among Sri Lankans. An old Sri Lankan saying says that "with a jackfruit tree and a coconut tree in your backyard, you would never go hungry". So treasured is the tree and its fruit that a permit is required from Sri Lankan authorities to cut a jackfruit tree (known as a “kos gasa” කොස් ගස in Sinhalese).
Curries made with young jackfruit (known as "polos" පොලොස්) and the more mature jackfruit, (known as "kos" කොස්) are firm favorites in Sri Lanka. Once ripened, the jackfruit emanates a sweet fragrance and is no longer suitable for curries. At this point, it is known as "waraka" වරකා and the yellow flesh is eaten as is without cooking.
Known as “kos ata” කොස් ඇට in Sinhalese, the seeds of the jackfruit are popular as a curry eaten with rice or deep fried with some chili for a spicy snack.
Sri Lankan potatoes are grown in the “up country” regions such as Nuwera Eliya and Badulla.
They are popular as a “white potato curry” (known as “ala hodhi” අල හොදි which is a curry with little or no red chilli powder), or “devilled” (known as “ala thel dhala” අල තෙල් දාලා). It is also added to lentil (“dhal”) soups along with other vegetables such as leeks and French beans.
Known as "rathu luunu" රතු ලූනු in Sinhalese, red onions are the favored onion variety when making Sinhalese dishes as they are believed to pack more flavor and nutrition than the larger onions which are commonly known as "Bombay onions" in Sri Lanka. These unassuming little onions give more "kick" to the heat-craving Sri Lankan tongue whereas "Bombay onions" are more mild and impart a slightly sweet flavor to dishes which results in a less-than-authentic Sri Lankan dish. This is especially important for dishes which call for raw red onions, such as "pol sambola" where the "heat" and the taste (and nutrition) from red onions cannot be matched by regular onions. Moreover the sweet taste from these regular large onions could impart a noticeably un-authentic flavor to the final dish. Click here for Culinary Connoisseur’s authentic and traditional Sri Lankan “pol Sambola” recipe.
Angunakola අගුන කොළ:
Anguna kola අගුන කොළ is a bitter, relatively uncommon, considered-to-be-nutritious leaf, usually prepared as a "sambola".
To reduce the bitterness, the leaves are thinly sliced, as thin as possible, the thinner the better - an opportunity for a display of the cook's knife skills. The leaves should be sliced along the width, never in any other direction as this would increase its bitterness which may end up being extremely unpalatable even for the experienced Sri Lankan palate. Various ingredients are added to prepare the "sambola" and then, it is usually eaten together with rice to minimize the bitter taste. Eating it straight, as would be possible with say a gotukola sambola, is usually not done as the bitterness makes it relatively unappealing to do so.
Commonly available and highly nutritious, gotukola is popular in Sri Lankan cuisine usually eaten raw or semi-cooked, such as "gotukola sambola" or as a "kenda" කැඳ which means “porridge” in Sinhalese.
Fish - fresh:
Sri Lanka, being an island, is surrounded by sea, providing its inhabitants with an abundance of fish. Common types of fresh fish consumed in Sri Lanka include:
Barracudas (known commercially as “jeelawa” ජීලව)
Yellowfin tuna (known commercially as “kelawalla” කෙලවල්ලා)
Goldstripe sardinella (commercially known as “salaya” සාලයා)
Spanish Mackerel (known commercially as “seer” in English or “thora” තෝර in Sinhalese)
Sail fish (known commercially as “thalapath” තලපත්)
Skipjack tuna (known commercially as “balayaa” බලයා)
Flying fish (known commercially as “piyamessa” පියාමැස්සා)
Thresher shark (“kasa moraa” කස මෝරා)
Fish is prepared in several ways - fish curry, fried fish and “devilled” are perhaps the most popular preparations. Steamed fish is not very common however.
Spicy prawn curry is one of the most popular preparations in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is famous for crab, and crab curry is one of the most popular crab preparations.
Known as "umbalakada" උම්බලකඩ in Sinhalese and "masi karuvadu" மாசி கருவடு in Tamil, Maldive fish is tuna fish, sun dried until it hardens to the point it bears resemblance to a solid piece of wood. It is broken down into pieces or flakes and added as a flavor enhancer to vegetable dishes such as beans curry, salads such as bitter gourd salad and relishes such as “pol sambola”.
MEAT AND POULTRY:
With the majority of Sri Lankans being Buddhist or Hindu, meat does not feature heavily in the average Sri Lankan diet.
Chicken is perhaps the most popular type of meat in Sri Lanka, prepared as a curry (chicken curry), roasted, grilled or fried.
Eggs are widely consumed in Sri Lanka, prepared as a Sri Lankan style omelette (which includes a sprinkling of curry leaves), or boiled, or as an egg curry. Most eggs produced and consumed in Sri Lanka are chicken eggs.
Mutton is a common ingredient in biryani, which is a popular rice dish, particularly among the Muslim community in Sri Lanka.
FRUITS AND NUTS:
Bananas are an important fruit in Sri Lanka, extensively grown in commercial plantations as well as in the backyards of a number of households. It is a must-have on the "avurudu" අවුරුදු table. A number of varieties are grown and consumed in Sri Lanka, to name a few: "ambul" ඇඹුල්, "seeni" සීනි, "kolikuttu" කෝලිකුට්ටු, "aanamaalu" ආනමාළු, "ambun" ඇම්බුන්.
Cashew nuts are the most popular type of nut cultivated and consumed in Sri Lanka. They are prepared as a curry (known as “cashew curry” or “kadju curry”, “kadju” කජු = “cashew”) or eaten as a snack lightly roasted plain, or roasted with red chili powder and salt which are popular snacks when entertaining guests. A sprinkling of cashews are added to local delights such as “watalappan” (an egg and coconut milk custard) and “bibikkan” (Sri Lankan coconut cake).
Jackfuit - ripe:
Enjoyed without cooking, some Sri Lankans eat it with a pinch of freshly ground black pepper.
Mangoes, a highly popular fruit in Sri Lanka are seasonal (with mango trees bearing fruit during the “mango season”) and grown throughout the country.
The fruits are enjoyed fresh, as a juice, chutney, jam, fruit salad or curry depending on the mango variety. It is not uncommon for houses with garden space to have a mango tree.
Green mangoes are usually prepared as a curry or eaten fresh with a side relish of red chili powder, salt and sometimes a dash of vinegar - a popular snack for school kids.
Several local varieties of mango are grown throughout Sri Lanka such as “betti amba” බෙටි අඹ, “giraa amba” ගිරා අඹ, “mee amba” මී අඹ, “rata amba” රට අඹ and “kohu amba” කොහු අඹ. Among all of them however, the “Kartha kolomban”, a Jaffna variety mango, reigns supreme as the mango of choice for Sri Lankans, its vibrant orange flesh valued for its rich, luscious sweetness, juiciness and fragrance. It is usually enjoyed plain or sometimes made into a juice.
Papayas are grown extensively in Sri Lanka, with plenty of houses having their own papaya trees as well. Papayas are eaten fresh while papaya juices are also common.
Watermelons (known as “pani komadu” පැණි කොමඩු in Sinhalese and “tapoorsani” தர்பூசணி in Tamil) are enjoyed in Sri Lanka either fresh or as a juice.
A popular fruit in Sri Lanka, the name “wood apple” is a fitting name for the fruit given its exterior shell, which is so tough that it is usually slammed on the floor to break open or cracked using a hammer or knife.
The pulpy flesh inside is scooped out and prepared as a refreshing beverage (known as “divul kiri” දිවුල් කිරි in Sinhalese, “divul” දිවුල් = “woodapple”, “kiri” කිරි = “milk”) or preserved through wood apple chutney and wood apple jam.
Curd is very popular among the Sinhalese and Tamils. It is usually made with buffalo milk which is thick and rich with dairy fat (curd made with cow’s milk is catching up). The buffalo curd is set in un-glazed earthen pots. The southern regions of Sri Lanka such as Matara and Hambatota are famed for producing the country’s best curd.
While the Sinhalese usually consume curd as a dessert with a local variety of honey (together the treat is known as “kiri pani” කිරි පැණි, “kiri” කිරි = “milk”, “pani” පැණි = “honey”) some Tamils consume curd with rice with usually no sweeteners added.
Like their Indian neighbors in the north of Sri Lanka, Sri Lankans are fairly heavy milk drinkers. It is often drunk with their morning cup of tea, a habit taken up from the English who colonized Sri Lanka until 1948. Cow's milk is the most popular type of milk, while goat's milk is also consumed. Buffalo milk is rarely drunk as is and is usually made into curd, a very popular fermented milk product among Sinhalese and Tamils. Milk is rarely used in Sri Lankan Sinhalese cuisine as an ingredient, but it is quite common among Sri Lankan Tamils who use it especially when making sweets.