Not for nothing is Sri Lanka sometimes called the Spice Island. I can’t count the number of times I was told that a dish was “not too spicy” only to feel as though my mouth was on fire as chilli appears to be a staple ingredient in Sri Lankan cooking! The little “Spice Shack” in Galle proudly displayed its write-up in the Guardian newspaper and had all sorts of interesting looking spices in jars and baskets, and I wish I’d had room in my luggage to bring back a tonne of their spicy cashews.
As Sri Lanka is an island, it should not have come as a surprise to me to find fish frequently on the menu, with a local fish called Seer fish rapidly becoming my favourite.
For the second week of my holiday in Sri Lanka I was staying at a yoga retreat that was right on the Indian Ocean, where we could watch the fishermen skilfully rowing what looked like very precarious catamarans through the strong waves to land the boats, and where our evening yoga sessions were punctuated with the cries of fishermen calling out their wares for sale direct from the beach. You could also buy fresh fish direct from the fishermen’s stalls next to the sea in Galle, or from fish markets teeming with all sorts of fish, from giant tuna to king-sized prawns. It was a shame though when I came across three picturesque stilt fishermen to find that they were only posing for tourists, and that they could make a better living from the tip-money that tourists gave them than from fishing from stilts as they would have done for centuries.
As well as fish, there was an abundance of vegetables, including many I had not seen or eaten before like jack fruit which was often made into curries, and red bananas that were not as sweet as the yellow variety. It must be a vegetarian’s paradise – as well as a photographer’s paradise as in every town there were markets with colourful displays of fruit and veg piled high on tables, as well as on roadside stalls. And at a roadside stall I first tried coconut water drunk straight from the coconut with a straw – I think it must be an acquired taste though, and one that I’m not that anxious to acquire!
One of the best meals I had in Sri Lanka was a lunch in a village in Habarana, where huge lotus leaves were used as plates – they didn’t absorb liquid and it was amazing to pour drops of water on the leaf and watch them roll off!
One of my favourite dishes was a coconut sambal that was a bit like Russian roulette – some mouthfuls were cool, light and sharp but others again set my mouth on fire. On my return to the UK I looked up recipes for coconut sambal; there are plenty around including a Delia Smith recipe, and they seem to be very simple to make mostly being just grated coconut with lemon/lime juice, chilli and salt, although some also have coriander and tomatoes stirred through. Another sambal that was delicious was aubergine sambal, that was crispy and also sweet – I haven’t yet found a recipe that replicates the delicious sweet aubergine sambal I had in Sri Lana though.
One of my favourite dishes though was one of the simplest and also a staple dish in Sri Lanka – dhal. Whilst on the yoga retreat we had the chance to go to a Sri Lankan cookery class, but I regret that I didn’t take up the opportunity. I am grateful to one of the yogis who not only went to the cookery class but wrote down the recipes – thanks Steve Pearce!
DHAL (for three people)
6 small red shallots, thinly sliced
150g red lentils
2 lge garlic cloves, thinly slice
1 tsp curry powder
1 tsp turmeric
Lge pinch of salt
1.5-2 inch stick of cinnamon (splintered, not whole)
Half a coconut (desiccated)
7 curry leaves (torn)
Add one cup of water to the desiccated coconut and really mix it in well until the liquid has been absorbed. Squeeze the coconut mixture through a sieve, over a bowl. This is the “reserved” first extraction. Repeat this step twice but this time, the extracted liquid is poured straight into the pan containing all of the other ingredients.
Cook everything for around ten minutes before adding the reserved first extraction of the coconut liquid.
NB1 I’ve since read that the reason that the first extraction cannot go into the pan, is that it is more concentrated, and would likely break down if cooked for the ten minutes.
NB2 Don’t worry too much if it looks as though there is too much liquid in the pan when you first start cooking it – the lentils are very absorbent.