Aoife Carrigy feasts her way through some of Sri Lanka’s most delicious delicacies
It’s my last morning in Sri Lanka and, when I wake in my beachside bedroom
at Amuura Guesthouse, a blood-red moon is sinking into the Indian Ocean. I rise with the sun and follow it as it creeps along the western coastline towards Beruwala fish market. The bigger boats have docked by now and just a few outriggers straggle along the horizon. I dawdle on the beach to watch a team of sarong-clad men and a small squall of boys haul in a night’s worth of nets.
It’s slow work so I mosey on past the historic Kechimalai Mosque to the harbour where rainbow-coloured boats are packed like proverbial sardines. Much of the top-prize tuna has been haggled over and hacked up and schlepped off on the back of mopeds, but the quayside still glistens with small mountains of manta ray, iridescent seer, tangerine-red mullet, yellow-spotted grouper and creamy looking butterfish.
Bare feet side-step battalions of dead-eyed, bloody-mouthed sharks. One sorry crew unpack salted fish stacked deep in every crevice and cranny of their stenching vessel. Housewives, hawkers and restaurateurs queue for the butchers, whose flashing knives despatch marine beasts into curry-sized bites.
It would be easy to imagine that they eat nothing but seafood in this small island nation that is the size of Ireland but with nearly five times the population. And though the once- iconic stilt fishermen of the southern coast are now just well-paid posers for snap-happy tourists, fishing remains an important source of income, sustenance and, indeed, flavour.
Wherever my previous weeks’ travels have taken me, I’ve been met by a tang of the sea – even if just from the ‘Maldive fish’ (dried bonito tuna) that is the local umami-rich equivalent of South East Asia’s dried shrimp or nam plaa fish sauce. This is particularly prized inland where it’s served as a chunky garnish for a spread of mostly vegetable-based curries, or flaked and mixed into various ‘rice pullers’, the broad moniker for Sri Lanka’s magnificent array of pickles, chutneys and sambols (relishes) that garnish the national staple of rice and curry.
In the heart of the country, however, where the population is predominantly Buddhist and the landscape lush and rich in biodiversity, it is vegetables and not seafood that rule. Here it is not unusual to fill a plate with over a dozen tasty dishes, in a style of buffet dining that is a distant cousin of the Dutch-Indonesian rijstaffel.
Even where chicken, pork or goat meat appear – or fresh-water fish from the ancient man-made lakes that irrigate the central drylands – they are outshone by a dazzling array of vegetable dishes: curries of long green beans or winged beans (dambala) tempered with fenugreek and mustard seeds, or with unlikely solo stars such as pineapple or garlic or jackfruit (the dense flesh of which resembles pork or chicken once cooked), or decidedly European vegetables such as cauliflower, carrots and potatoes as well as aubergine and pumpkin. These are supplemented with popular side dishes like mallum, lightly stir-fried greens sprinkled with grated coconut or pungent pickles of okra or bitter gourd or aubergine.
Moving south from the crumbling ancient cities of Polonowurra and Anuradhapura towards the modern mountain hub of Kandy, the land becomes increasingly verdant and the road lined with spice gardens. These make popular pitstops for tourists curious to see the trees, shrubs, roots and vines that spice up Sri Lankan cuisine, to learn about their ayurvedic uses and to pick up over-priced packets of curry powder. A mix of cardamom, cumin and fennel seeds, curry leaves, cloves, cinnamon sticks and chilli powder for a kick, this Sri Lankan essential is better bought at a local market – choose the darker roasted curry powder for meat dishes and the pale one for vegetable dishes.
From Kandy, the railway snakes further south through spectacular tea plantations, planted by the British in the 1870s to replace a collapsing coffee trade and still tended by descendants of the ‘Plantation Tamil’ workers who were shipped in from southern India. Vendors hop on and off the trundling trains to hawk vadai (deep-fried spiced lentil fritters often flavoured with curry leaves, shrimp or sweetcorn), warm spiced peanuts, chilli-and-salt seasoned mango and other on-the-hoof treats. Wherever you disembark, you won’t be far from a rough-and-tumble café serving up delicious sweet tea and ‘short eats’ such as peppery samosas and surprisingly soft bread rolls or roti filled with egg, meat or veg.
Roti became a go-to comfort on my travels. These soft, doughy pancakes come rolled thin and wide and folded into spicy packages, or noisily transformed into a soft noodle as they are simultaneously chopped and stir-fried on a hotplate with vegetables and meat or fish (kottu roti). My favourite was pol roti, made with coconut flour and eaten as a mid-morning snack with some savoury, chilli-hot luna miris sambol.
The various sambols became another daily pleasure: sweet-and-sour fried seeni sambol with its caramelised onion flavours, or the ubiquitous pol sambol, a potent mix of grated coconut, chilli, onion and Maldive fish. The latter is so popular that it even turns up at breakfast, served with curry, lentil dahl and string hoppers, which are bundles of thin fresh vermicelli noodle made from rice flour. These are different to hoppers, a popular breakfast or teatime bowl-shaped pancake of rice flour fermented with toddy tapped from the coconut palm flower.
Back at the beach in Beruwala, the sound of Beethoven’s Fur Elise (the aural calling card of Sri Lankan bread vans) signals it’s breakfast-time at Amuura Guesthouse: a feast of intensely flavoured local fruits, thick toast topped with pol sambol or homemade wood apple jam and buffalo curd sweetened with kithul palm sap. And then there’s just time to visit Amuura Permaculture Cinnamon Farm and pick up some organic, unsulphurred cinnamon to take home. I’m hoping that if I add it to my morning porridge, it might transport me back to these dreamy Sri Lankan days.
How to get there: SriLankan Airlines fly direct from Heathrow
Where to stay: Amuura Guesthouse
A manageable taxi-ride from the main airport, this stunning beachside villa is run by a gorgeous German matriarch and her two daughters, and makes a great first or last stop in any tour of Sri Lanka. Don’t miss their cinnamon farm where you can learn about the production of this key spice.
When to go: Because the north-east and south-west of Sri Lanka have two different monsoon seasons (October to January, and May to July respectively), there’s never a particularly bad time to visit, but the popular west coast is best visited between January and April.
For a real flavour of the region, why not check out this gorgeous recipe from Sri Lanka: Aubergine Pickle