It speaks to the creativity and imagination of a people that utilizing the natural bounty around them—the seeds, nuts, fruits, roots, leaves and bark of plants and trees–they could create a cuisine as pleasing to the palate as it is healthy and satisfying to the soul. Popularly known as ‘rice and curry’ among Sri Lankans everywhere, this cuisine actually comprises a variety of preparations, from pungent to pacifying, served together and mixed and eaten with the fingers to create a complex tapestry of sights, smells, flavors and textures. Whereas a typical western menu is meted out in courses, one by one, a rice and curry meal involves a medley of dishes served simultaneously—including at least one meat or seafood, several vegetables, plenty of rice, salad, and a sweet chutney or sour pickle—covering the whole spectrum of flavor.
The key to rice and curry is in the infinite combinations and, of course, just the right proportions when it comes to spicing. For curry, itself, is not a single spice but a very sophisticated blend of coriander, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, clove, fenugreek, black pepper, mustard seeds and the indispensable curry leaf. All of these spices have applications in the ancient Ayurvedic system of holistic health, and were probably used just as much for their digestive and preservative properties as for flavor-enhancement—especially in the days before refrigeration. There are also as many recipes for curry as there are cooks making it, and, chili, despite popular notions to the contrary, is not an ingredient (except in Jaffna curry powder) though it is usually added in the cooking process. Sri Lankans, in fact, tend to lace their curries with major doses of chili powder (known in the west as cayenne pepper). This fiery nature is one of the hallmarks of the cuisine and one that distinguishes it from tamer North Indian fare, to which it is often compared. Another major difference in the cuisines of these two Asian neighbors lies in Indian food’s reliance on ghee (clarified butter) and yoghurt, while Sri Lankans favor coconut oil and coconut milk. The addition of animal fat makes Indian food much heavier in comparison, though not necessarily tastier, because coconut, too, contains its own flavor-enhancing fat—and one that researchers are now discovering contains many beneficial properties.
Just as curry is not a single spice, so, too, are there a variety of curries. Red curries are usually the hottest, deriving their name from the large amount of chili used. Black curries require a roasting of spices prior to use, releasing added flavor, while in brown curries, these same spices are used unroasted, most often in the preparation of vegetables. Finally, white curries, which are actually yellow-tinged from the addition of turmeric, derive their name from their main ingredient, coconut milk, and are usually the mildest in taste.
In preparing curries, a good curry powder is only part of the equation. Seasoning food is often a three step process that involves marinating (especially meat dishes), slow cooking, and finally “tempering,” a practice unique to Sri Lankan cooking. This process involves frying onions; curry leaves and sometimes mustard seeds or even curry powder in oil or ghee and adding this to the completed dish prior to serving. Tempering a curry is especially good for boosting the flavor of a dish that has been frozen or cooked a couple of days in advance.
To the uninitiated, the preparation of Sri Lankan food may seem complex and time consuming. Of course, in the traditional Sri Lankan kitchen, usually located at the back of a house and equipped with an open hearth, clay pots, and such utensils as a mortar and pestle or grinding stone to powder spices, it probably was. But the purpose of this book is to take away the mystery and show that it is really not so difficult but rather very doable. In our modern era of food processors and coffee grinders and readily available ingredients like canned coconut milk, much of the preparation time has been cut in half.
Once you have made a batch of curry powder, for example, by roasting and grinding all the spices, this mixture will last for some time in a sealed glass jar in the fridge. Other ingredients, such as curry leaves or lemon grass, are best used fresh and not in their dried or powdered form. In keeping with authentic flavor, unrefined coconut oil is the oil of choice used in most of these recipes, but olive oil is a perfectly acceptable alternative. Sri Lankans also tend to use Bombay or red onions, which lack the sweetness of their white cousins popular in the west, but either kind is acceptable. Finally, while ingredients like pandanus (rampe), gamboge (goraka) and Maldive fish may be hard to find in the west, it is well worth a look for them in the quest for authentic flavor.
Speaking of authenticity, all of the recipes in my book come from regular people like you and me. After all, Sri Lankan food is folk cooking best prepared at home. While I have enjoyed plenty of meals at fancy restaurants and little roadside “hotels,” popular for Sri Lankan fast food, the best food I have eaten was at peoples’ homes. Sri Lankan chefs are famous for not measuring ingredients, but rather adding a dash of this or a handful of that. My challenge was to take their approximations and try them out until I was able to sufficiently reproduce what can only be described as “that authentic taste.” Unlike cookbooks that offer flawed recipes that do not taste right—some by well-known chefs—all of the recipes in this book have been tried, tested, and tasted by yours truly and many members of my family in Sri Lanka. I am not a professional chef, simply someone who loves food—especially rice and curry—and if I can make these dishes, so can you. I invite you to discover a new galaxy of flavors in Rice & Curry: Sri Lankan Home Cooking.