Having just finished Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, in which he rightly trashes the standard Western diet of highly processed foods, saturated fats, and refined sugars (like the notorious high fructose corn syrup), a few thoughts came to mind regarding Sri Lankan cuisine. During my year on the island, when I researched my cookbook and ate a diet consisting primarily of rice and curry, I noticed an overall improvement in my health. Even with the preponderance of coconut products—as in coconut milk and oil, which are not well regarded in the West, but used in most Sri Lankan dishes—my cholesterol actually went down. Now I generally consider myself a healthy eater, but with the added benefit of food that was fresh, local, and mainly vegetarian, I can now appreciate the reasons behind my extra-healthy turn.
It was almost easy to eat nutritious food in Sri Lanka because although there are American-style supermarkets, street vendors selling all types of fruits and produce as well as meat and fish abound. After paying $6 for a Costa Rican pineapple at Whole Foods (most of whose cost is probably due to transport), it was a real treat to visit my local vendor down the street and get an assortment of pineapple, papayas, mangoes and other exotic fruit, which I consumed on a daily basis, for only a couple of bucks. The same goes for seafood, which, for me with my U.S. dollars, was dirt-cheap. I simply love seafood and took full advantage of all the Indian Ocean had to offer—all of it wild; none of it farm-raised.
Another healthy factor involves the staple food, rice, as opposed to more bread-based (i.e. white flour) diets. Like everyone around me, I consumed rice every day—usually for lunch, the big meal of the day. Of the many varieties of rice, red rice ranks as one of the most popular in Sri Lanka. It is the equivalent of brown rice here, in which the husk is intact (making it an even healthier alternative to regular white rice). Rice is the centerpiece of any meal in Sri Lanka, usually eaten with several vegetable curries, while meat is just an afterthought. Just buy a “lunch packet” from the one of the ubiquitous street vendors and you’ll see that it’s probably 75% rice while the rest is simply “condiments.”
Unlike our idea of condiments such as ketchup and mustard, however, for a Sri Lankan condiments include coconut sambol and dhal (lentils). These are practically indispensable items at any meal because they can be eaten with anything. In fact, the combination of rice and lentils forms a perfect protein in the same way as rice and beans, taking meat out of the equation. One could argue that in a poor country like Sri Lanka, where most people cannot afford to eat meat or fish everyday, or choose not to do so because of the restrictions of the two most popular faiths here, Buddhism and Hinduism, that the shift away from meat actually keeps the populace fit and healthy. For whatever reason you do not see streets crowded with obese people as you do in this country.
Obviously a combination of factors—involving lifestyle issues as well—contributes to the whole notion of better health through eating a certain type of cuisine, but I find that Asian food in general and Sri Lankan food in particular has never done me wrong. I am including several recipes for some popular “sides” in Sri Lanka, which, when eaten together with some rice (preferably brown), provide all you need for something truly healthy, delicious and inexpensive.
Sri Lankan Lentils (Paripoo)
No Sri Lankan meal would be complete without these high-protein legumes, which soak up the flavors of coconut milk, lemongrass and cinnamon. You can vary the consistency from thick as oatmeal to watery as soup, depending on how much water you add.
1/2 lb. (225 g) lentils
2 cups (500 ml) water
1/2 onion, chopped
2-3 green chilies, sliced
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 in (2.5 cm) piece pandanus (optional)
1 in (2.5 cm) stalk lemongrass
1 in (2.5 cm) piece cinnamon
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1/2 cup (125 ml) coconut milk
salt to taste
tempering: 2 tbsp. oil
1/2 onion, sliced
1 sprig curry leaves
1 tsp. black mustard seeds
2 dry red chilies
1.) Wash and drain lentils (removing any stones or chaff).
2.) Boil water in a medium-sized pot. Add lentils, onion, green chilies, garlic, pandanus, lemon grass, cinnamon, cardamom, clove, and turmeric. Cover and simmer until lentils are soft (about 20 minutes).
3.) Add coconut milk and salt, stirring occasionally. Cook for an additional 5 minutes.
4.) In another pan, heat oil. Sauté onions and curry leaves until onions are translucent. Add mustard seeds and dry chilies. Fry for 2 minutes, until mustard seeds start to pop. Pour over lentils and mix well.
Sautéed Greens (Mallung)
This is a quick and simple way to prepare tasty greens. You may use kale, kohlrabi, mustard greens, turnip greens or whatever else you like. I prefer kale, myself.
1 bunch greens, finely chopped
1 tbsp. oil
1 onion, sliced
1/2 tsp. black mustard seeds
2-3 tbsp. desiccated coconut (unsweetened)
1/4 tsp. turmeric
salt to taste
juice of lime
1.) Wash and dry greens. Finely chop or shred.
2.) Heat oil in pan and sauté onions until translucent. Add mustard seeds for 1 minute until they begin to pop.
3.) Add greens and all other ingredients, and toss with a little water.
4.) Cook for 2-3 minutes. Squeeze over lime. Mix well.
Coconut Sambol (Pol Sambola)
Though sometimes known as the poor man’s accompaniment to rice, coconut sambol is popular in every household. It goes great with hoppers and other breads as well.
1 onion, chopped
1 tsp. ground peppercorns
2-3 tsp. cayenne pepper
6 oz. (175 g) shredded, unsweetened coconut
1 tbsp. Maldive fish (or dried shrimp)
salt to taste
juice of lime
1.) Grind onions and peppercorns together.
2.) Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. The flavor of lime should be dominant.