MinistryOfCrab

It has been said that Sri Lankan cuisine is one of the most complex cuisines in South Asia. As a major trading hub on the spice route for thousands of years, traders from around the world brought their native cuisines to the island resulting in a rich diversity of cooking styles and techniques. The island has also drawn from its regional neighbors and the colonial powers that ruled it for 450 years.

Having spent the last week in the northern province of the island, it was obvious that Sri Lankas proximity to India has influenced many of its northern dishes. However, the combination of freshly ground local spices and fresh coconut milk gives the food a distinct flavor and the dishes were much spicier than its northern neighbors.

In Jaffna, steamed rice and spicy curries are normally consumed for lunch, dinner and on special occasions. While local dishes like idiyappam, pittu, dosai, idly, chapatti and uppuma prepared from rice flour or wheat flour are eaten for break-fast and sometimes for dinner.

My favorite has always been idiyappam or string hoppers as they are known in English, eaten with a sothi which is made by boiling different types of vegetables in coconut milk. The lacy idiyappam and watery sothi is eaten with pol sambol made from a mixture of freshly grated coconut, red chillie powder, sliced green chillies, salt and freshly squeezed lime.

Pittu

Jaffna chillie powder is not the traditional red chilli powder made from grinding dry red chillies to a fine powder found elsewhere on the island. A Jaffna chilli powder consists of dried red chili, coriander, cumin, little bit of turmeric and fennel, all roasted and ground together which gives it a unique flavor.

The red crab curry I ate in Jaffna was spicy and tasted wonderful. Knowing that the crab was caught only that morning in a lagoon not more than a few kilometres away gave it a very special meaning. Dishes in Jaffna tend to have lots of gravy and this dish was no exception. The next day we ate a delicious fish curry known locally as ‘charakku’ curry made with roasted coriander, fenugreek, mustard, cumin, fennel, black pepper, garlic and ginger which has medicinal qualities that helps the digestion. Many Tamils are vegetarians and some of the vegetable dishes we ate while in Jaffna were well prepared and tasty.

MannarMeal

But the highlight of our northern culinary adventure came not in Jaffna but in the coastal town of Mannar about 100 kilometres to the south. The crab curry we had at the Palmyrah Guest House was simply out of this world. The spicy dish was prepared the traditional way with chopped murunga leaves to cool the digestive tract when eating the ‘heaty’ crustacean. Other dishes like a local chicken curry, isso thel dhala (tempered chilli prawns) and a mustard pumpkin curry prepared by the Muslim chef made me feel I had died and gone to culinary heaven.

This variety in regional preparation is why Sri Lanka is considered a gastronomic paradise. The differences are so distinct that flavors can vary even from village to village. Having sampled the food in the north, I just cannot wait to head down south where Sinhalese cooking with its fiery curries and freshly prepared vegetables just take your breath away.