- Bryan Santos
1.26.2021 Dinner in Colombo
In Colombo, no matter if you’re in a park, on a beach, or on a packed train, there will always be a hawker selling “short eats,” their shrill voices and the snack’s incredible aroma a permanent fixture in the city. The history of these hunger-quenching snacks goes back to the various invaders, merchants, and colonizers that have come through the island’s many ports. Rolls came with the Chinese, cutlets from the Portuguese, pastries from the English, and vadai from the Indian Tamils. Like most Sri Lankan food, these influences were all irreversibly blended into a cacophony of flavors. While all short eats are delicious, one of my fondest memories of Colombo was inside a train station cafeteria, wolfing down a warm veggie cutlet with tea. Our version contains potatoes, carrots, peas, peppers, onions and chilis, breaded and fried to crispy perfection. Contains gluten; vegan.
Curries in Sri Lanka are generally not classified by main ingredients, but rather the type of spicing or the color of broth. High level, there are three main Sri Lankan curries, white, red, or black, with infinite sub variations from there. This pumpkin curry is a variant of white curries, which are mild and use coconut milk as the base (it’s really more yellow in color because of the turmeric). As you’ll see, coconut is the backbone of Sri Lankan cuisine, present in almost every dish. In fact, coconut production accounts for the second largest land usage in the entire island, with ~25% of arable land devoted to its production. While the spicing is distinctly Sri Lankan, pumpkins are a relative newcomer to the island, as they’re native to Central America and likely came via the Portuguese. We’ve braised the pumpkin with curry leaves, fenugreek, turmeric, mustard seeds and coconut milk for this incredibly warming stew. Vegan, gluten free.
If you’ve been keeping up with our past menus, you’ll notice that we love beets. Definitely a Top 5 vegetable, with the mighty onion being an unbeatable #1. Beets are originally from the Middle East, cultivated primarily for their greens by the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. But if you’re like us, you probably think of them more as hearty, cold-climate veggies as opposed to growing in the tropics. Turns out, beets grow exceptionally well in the Sri Lankan highlands, a land suited for tea plantations and for British colonists escaping the tropical heat. While we’re not sure how beets got to Sri Lanka or who brought them, feel free to do a side by side comparison with our Dinner in St. Petersburg this week to see just how versatile the beet can be. While this curry is still cooked in coconut milk, it is a variant of a spicy red curry given its use of chili powder (and, well, the beets). Vegan, gluten free.
Despite having a surprisingly large array of meat for an island, there is no denying that fish curries are the staple source of protein for Sri Lankans, especially those living near the coast like in Colombo. Fish in Sri Lanka can assume many varieties of flavors and textures, from the extremely sour black tuna to hot butter cuttlefish, one of the best bar snacks ever invented. With so many options, we’ve decided on sticking with a classic black curry, which is the most typical on the island and based on toasted coriander, cumin, and fennel seeds. Another distinctive feature of Sri Lankan, but also other South Indian fish curries, is the use of tamarind, giving the curry a slight tang that is complemented by the sweetness of the coconut milk. Here we’ve used pomfret, a fish found throughout the Indian Ocean. Gluten free.
A Sri Lankan rice and curry dinner is never complete without the sides, most importantly of which are the pickles and the sambols. Unlike Western pickles that are brined in a vinegar-based pickling sauce, these pickled eggplants are fried until dark and caramelized and then cooked with vinegar, fresh green chilis, and various spices such as black mustard seeds, cinnamon, and tamarind. The result is a combination of the eggplant’s meaty texture, the fiery spice of chili, the pickled tanginess of vinegar, and the caramelized sweetness from frying. Vegan, gluten free.
The recurring theme of this menu is coconut, and this time instead of the milk we’re using the meaty interior. Generally, Sri Lankan meals are served with a bevy of sambols, small relishes that are generally spicy, sour or packed with umami to offer the eater infinite customization. By far though, the most popular is Pol Sambol, which is as ubiquitous as rice in a Sri Lankan meal. This coconut slaw is made with chili powder, lemon juice, and red onions and is a perfect spicy textural addition to any of the curries. Vegan, gluten free.
Spiced Basmati Rice
When asking someone if they’ve eaten, the literal translation in Sinhalese is “Have you eaten rice?” Such is the importance of this starch that it becomes the canvas upon which all other flavors are painted. For a typical meal, everything is put on the table at the same time and everyone’s plate is filled with multiple curries ladled over a heaping portion of rice. Our version is a riff on traditional ghee rice, instead using coconut oil before adding cloves, cardamom, and cinnamon for aromatics. Vegan, gluten free.
Many of the desserts found in Sri Lanka today trace their history back to European colonization, with dairy and egg rich cakes staples of Portuguese, Dutch, and British dessert cultures. The one beloved exception to this is watalappan, a coconut milk and jaggery (unrefined cane sugar) custard that is similar in technique to a Spanish flan, but has a completely different flavor profile. The origin of this dessert is originally from Indonesia and came to Sri Lanka in the 18th century via Islamic Malay immigrants moving between the Dutch colonies. To this day, the dish is still primarily associated with the Islamic community on the island, being a popular dessert for Eid al-Fitr. Ours is made with coconut milk, mace, cloves, rosewater, and topped with roasted cashews. Contains eggs, cashews; vegetarian, gluten free.
Do you know how Sri Lankans make alcohol? You guessed it, with coconut. Coconut Arrack is the island’s claim to fame in this regard, but is unfortunately hard to find in the US. So in lieu of that, check out our Featured Recipe section to get a simple and delicious recipe for a coconut G&T.
Like many other Asian countries, beer is the go to beverage to pair with the spicy, rich food and Sri Lanka is no different. The beer scene in Colombo is dominated by Lion Lager. It was founded in 1849, mainly serving the British, and has since grown into the iconic beer of both Sri Lanka and the Maldives. We couldn’t find it here in Ann Arbor, so any Asian-style lager works just as well.
Colombo, Sri Lanka
Over the course of its storied history, the island of Sri Lanka has had many names: Taprobane to the Greeks, Sielen to the Romans, Serendib to the Persians, and Ceylon to the British. More poetically, it’s been called the “resplendent island” in the local Sinhalese, “the pearl of the Indian ocean” by the British, and “the land without sorrow” by the Chinese. Suffice to say, no matter who came to trade or invade, people throughout history have been captivated by Sri Lanka and its abundance in all forms: abundance of beauty, of resources, of spices. While tourists focus on the first and colonialists on the second, we’re going to focus on the last. Sri Lanka’s history is a history of spices throughout the world.
Even before European arrival, Sri Lanka was already firmly established in the Indian Ocean’s version of the Silk Road, trading spices with Arabs, Indians, Chinese, and Malays. Beginning in 1505, the Portuguese and Dutch each ruled over the island for ~150 years each, before Sri Lanka got usurped into the British Empire for another 130 years until the end of WWII. What united all the colonialists was the desire for spices including cinnamon, black pepper, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, mace, chili peppers, curry leaves and later coffee, tea, and rubber. Colombo was the center of trade and grew into a strategically located port, linking Europe with territories even further east. From there, these spices went far and wide. Extractive colonialism at its best, these foreign powers built infrastructure throughout the island to facilitate production for the growing demand for these products. Even today, most of the world’s cinnamon and a large portion of tea and rubber still comes from Sri Lanka.
What’s not usually mentioned in this history is the fact that while European powers controlled most of the island’s coasts, the independent Kingdom of Kandy was still in power in the central highlands, preserving much of the indigenous culinary traditions and fusing them with new ingredients or techniques brought from abroad. Modern Sri Lankan cuisine is a rich tapestry of influences, but all have been adapted to the local palate and not the other way around.
It is impossible to speak about Sri Lankan history without mentioning the tragic 26 year Civil War between Sinhalese and Tamil factions, the scars of which are still very visible. Over 100,000 people were killed or disappeared, mostly the ethnic Tamil minority, and there were multiple atrocities committed by both sides before the war ended in 2009. While the island has an ancient history, it’s also a nation trying to rebuild, especially in the north and east. We mention this not because it’s related to food, but because most blogs, forums, and tours fail to acknowledge this very important part of the nation’s recent history. This is amplified by the fact that the world only interacts with the more prosperous, ethnically Singhalese people of Colombo. If you’re interested in finding out more, check out our Additional Resources.
Of all the epithets for Sri Lanka, my personal favorite is Serendib, the etymological origin for “serendipity.” I visited Sri Lanka and left in awe of its racial, linguistic, and religious diversity, with the green of its tea plantations emblazoned on my mind. And yet, the best thing for me (can you tell I love food?) was in the truly spectacular meals that I serendipitously lucked into, day after day.
Featured Recipe: Coconut G&T
Makes 1 servings
2 ounces Bombay gin
2 ounces coconut water
2 ounces tonic water
1/2 medium lime
Add everything to a tumbler and mix. Add fresh mint for garnish
Featured Recipe: Fragrant Basmati Rice
2 cups basmati rice
2.5 tbsp coconut oil
1 large onion (200g), thinly sliced
4 whole cloves
6 cardamom pods, bruised
1 cinnamon stick
4 cups vegetable stock (you can also use chicken, beef, or mutton stock as well)
2 tsp salt
Wash the rice and drain in a colander for 30 minutes
Heat the coconut oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until golden. Add the spices, salt, and the vegetable stock and bring to a boil
Add the rice and bring back to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook for 15-20 minutes without lifting the lid
Remove from heat, uncover and let rest for 5 minutes, then fluff the rice
When transferring, use a slotted metal spoon to avoid crushing the grains of rice
Note: you can also make this in an instant pot, just use the saute feature for Step 2 and use only 2 cups of stock instead of 4. Cook on high pressure for 4 minutes and then let it naturally release steam for 10 minutes.
Recipes Inspired By:
Charmaine Solomon’s masterful encyclopedia of Asian cuisine; her section on Sri Lanka is particularly amazing given she was born there
A trove of amazing Sri Lankan recipes
One of Youtube’s most followed Sri Lankan aunties
A great primer on Sri Lankan food by Mark Weins
Two of my favorite Sri Lankan restaurants, Sigiri in NYC and Upali’s in Colombo
A wonderful travelogue by the talented Dur e Aziz Amna
For anyone interested in Arrack (and if you find any let us know!)
Michael Ondaatje’s memoir about his Sri Lankan family
Anthony Bourdain has done a few shows on Sri Lanka, but his latest one focuses on the Civil War and visiting the Tamil North
A few articles to learn more about the Sri Lankan Civil War