Despite Sri Lanka’s compact size (roughly about the area of West Virginia), there are definite regional variations in its cuisine. The food from the south is said to be spicier and more fish-based, as is exemplified by one of my favorite dishes from that region, fish ambul thiyal; whereas Tamil cuisine from the northern city of Jaffna tends towards using a lot of tomato and tamarind as the basis for their spicy curries. Upcountry cooking, on the other hand, focuses largely on the bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables that grow in this mountainous central region of the country; while coastal cooking relies heavily on the use of the ubiquitous coconut.
Located in the central highlands, Kandy was the last Sinhala holdout against British colonial rule. As the seat of Sri Lankan kings and the site of one of Buddhism’s most important shrines, the Dalida Mahligawa (or Temple of The Tooth), which supposedly holds one of Lord Buddha’s teeth, Kandyans are proud of their heritage, and equally as proud of their cuisine, which is largely vegetarian. It’s probably got as much to do with what’s available in the proximity as much as an adherence to Buddhist doctrine, which eschews meat.
At his modest house overlooking the migthy Mahavelli River in Kandy, my Uncle Wilson has always taken great pride in his garden, which is flush with all kinds of produce. Mango, papaw and king coconut trees share space with spiky green jackfruit, pumpkin, and plantains. Greens such as gotu kola and koakka grow in the backyard. Under the ground, he’s got tubers like manioc and sweet potatoes growing. He even used to have a paddy field in his front yard until he gave up the land so that one of his sons could build a house there.
His garden, in fact, is almost a microcosm of these central highlands, well-known as the center of tea production in the country, but a veritable Garden of Eden as well. I took a trip to the central Kandy market to get a better idea of this region and all it has to offer.
Meanwhile, back at the house, Uncle Wilson’s cooks Kumari and Saroja were busy preparing lunch, which proved to be a veritable vegetarian feast including such dishes as red rice, white rice, jackfruit curry (kos), boiled manioc (battala), coconut sambol, dry fish curry (karola), banana blossom curry (keselmuwa), young jackfruit curry (polos), and egglant (ela batu). Most of the produce came straight from the garden, and anything that didn’t was from close by. Lunch was symphony of different tastes and textures, and even though I’m no vegetarian, I would have no qualms about eating food like that everyday.