A Singapore friend, whose husband is Sri Lankan, told me how good Sri Lankan food is – a major complement coming from a Singaporean. Our high expectations were met beginning with our first lunch of rice and curry. A meal that was repeated often and never disappointed. Typically we were served a plate with a mound of rice and a spoonful of mango chutney then up to 10 small bowls of food appeared: 3-5 vegetables, a coconut sambol, a herb salad, a dhal, a meat or fish curry, and pakora. Rice and curry is similar an Indian thali and Malaysian banana leaf, but using different spices and coconut.
|Rice & curry buffet style|
|Rice & Curry for two|
Fresh vegetables are typically purchased at a produce market. Damith, our driver, asked if we wanted to see a market. We said "yes, we love markets and in KL we buy our vegetables at a night market." The Dambrulla Produce Market (the link talks about the economic features of the market), had nothing in common with our local night market other than the vegetables. The first thing we saw were lorries of all sizes queued up laden with small red onions, a component in all of the curry dishes.
|Onions being traded|
|Ripe cucumbers - great curried|
|Trading pumpkins - a conversation or|
|Produce on its way out - I assume it is headed to a local market|
Doug and I went off with Mama and her daughter, Denisha, to get the ingredients for our lesson. We went to the fish market, to a produce market, and to a food store to see the spices that are essential to rice and curry.
When we got back to the guesthouse a table was set up for the class. On our side we each had a cutting board and knife. On the other side there was a two burner gas stove, a basket of vegetables, another basket with basic ingredients, jars of spices, pitcher of coconut milk, and a pan for washing the vegetables.
|Mama (left) & Denisha preparing potato curry|
|Damith digging in|
|Mahesh happy that we ended in the "right class"|
Sri Lankan curries are quite different from the curries of neighboring countries. Thai curries are all about an explosion of tastes in the mouth: ginger, galangal, garlic, onion, lemon grass, and peppers with herbs on top. South Indian curries have a heavy dose of herbs in their flavour profile, while North Indian curries are dominated by seeds: cumin, ferrengeek, mustards, etc. Malaysian and Indonesian cooking contain curries but they do not predominate the cuisine, and in Vietnam, curries are a delicate addition to the cuisine. In Sri Lanka the techniques are different. The spices (at least in this class) are mixed with the vegetable ingredient and either fried or cooked with a generous amount of coconut milk in small clay pots (or in our demonstration, small metal "claypots") until the vegetables are cooked. It is simple cooking, but the mixture of spices is the important element. Two dishes were distinctive: the ripe cucumber (from the west you forget that we eat cucumber as an immature vegetable from the squash family) is cooked in a mild coconut curry sauce until it melts in your mouth. Contrasted against the light curry, is the "umbrela" curry made from sour mangoes. Here the sauce is thick and sweet as the flavours attack you. It is a freshly cooked chutney.