“Spicy!” declares Rishi Naleendra when asked to describe Sri Lankan cuisine.
“It’s all about heaps of chilli in your face,” says the Colombo-born chef who heads the one-Michelin-starred modern Australian restaurant Cheek by Jowl. In Sri Lankan cuisine, there is mainly maluwa (which translates to curry), and thel dala (which literally means ‘put it in oil’), which are dishes that are stir-fried, explains chef Naleendra.
“There really isn’t a main dish in Sri Lankan cuisine. In Singapore, you can maybe just have chicken curry and rice, but we never eat like that in Sri Lanka. We need to have the vegetable curries, a bit of dhal, sambol and then a bit of chicken curry,” he says.
Private chef and culinary instructor Roshini Dharmapala, who was born and bred in Sri Lanka, describes the cuisine as “slightly fierce and flavoured with spices.”
“Sri Lankan cooks use considerably more spices, herbs and condiments in both variety and number. This makes a Sri Lankan curry more aromatic, complex and spicier than, for example, an Indian curry,” adds chef Dharmapala, who runs a private chef business 2Gud2Eat.
Hence the question: Just how does Sri Lankan cuisine, which features rice and curry, differ from Indian cuisine?
“Sri Lankan cuisine has been influenced by historical and cultural factors –South Indian, Portuguese, Dutch, for example – and the spice trade, and we do see some Indonesian influences as well. You will also find that cuisine in the northern part of Sri Lanka is also quite similar to the Southern Indian style of cooking,” says chef Dharmapala.
“A lot of the ingredients are similar but the cooking style is very different,” explains Shalu Asani, chef and founder of Little Green Kitchen cooking studio, which specialises in vegetarian cuisine.
The Singaporean chef of Indian descent who learnt to cook Sri Lankan food during her travels in the country, adds, “Indian curries typically take a long time to cook as we like to simmer the spices over low heat to let flavours develop, but Sri Lankan food is all about freshness and is quick to prepare with much less cooking time.”
A RARE SIGHT
Unfortunately, one can hardly find Sri Lankan food outside of Sri Lankan homes.
“Food culture in Sri Lankan is massive. But it is mostly home-cooked food. We do not have the biggest culture of ‘eating out’,” says chef Naleendra.
A quick search online turns up maybe four places in Singapore but two of them have closed (Taprobane and The Ceylonese Affair).
One – Rasa Raja Bojun, a food stall located at Tekka Market – is still going strong, while a small selection of Sri Lankan dishes is available on the menu at Colombo Restaurant at Boat Quay.
The stall owner, who prefers to go by just Mr Odi, says Rasa Raja Bojun was set up about six years ago and business was slow at first, but it picked up over the years and is now very busy, especially on weekends.
“I bring in all the curry powder, pepper, goraka (a sour fruit similar to tamarind, but with a sharper taste) and Maldive fish (cured and dried fish, similar to Japanese katsuobushi) all from Sri Lanka. It is a lot of work to cook the traditional way,” says Mr Odi, who graduated from culinary school in Sri Lanka and has been in Singapore for over 30 years.
When Colombo Restaurant was launched in the last quarter of 1997, the menu was almost equally North Indian and Sri Lankan. But the Sri Lankan selection has dwindled, due to low demand and manpower woes. It serves just a few dishes now, such as devilled prawns and hoppers.
But there is a silver lining. The restaurant’s spokesman says they will be reviewing the menu in early 2019 and reviving some Sri Lankan dishes that are seeing fierce demand. These could include Pol Sambol, a spicy coconut relish, and Maalu Ambulthiyal, a classic Sri Lankan-style sour fish curry.
THE SRI LANKAN DIET
Breakfast, chef Naleendra describes, could be mung beans boiled with spices then mixed with fresh coconut and served with lunu miris (a chilli onion sambol paste). If it is your birthday, then you get milk rice (think: a rich risotto cooked with coconut milk that sets into a “cake”).
Hoppers – bowl-shaped fermented ‘pancakes’ (delicious with an egg in the centre) are also popular for breakfast (or dinner).
For lunch, it is rice and curry, accompanied by condiments. If it’s a special occasion, lamprais may be served.
“This is a Dutch Burgher-influenced dish that consists of fragrant rice cooked in meat stock, mixed meat curry (little cubes of chicken, pork and beef), blachung (ground dried prawns seasoned with chilli), frikkadels (Dutch meat balls), seeni sambol (onion relish) and ash plantain curry. That’s wrapped in a banana leaf and baked,” says chef Dharmapala.
“Short eats” is the Sri Lankan term for afternoon tea snacks. This could be anything from mutton rolls (a crepe filled with spicy mutton mix, crumbed with bread crumbs and deep-fried) to fish ‘croquettes’ and patties – curry puff-like pastries.
WHERE TO FIND IT
Rasa Raja Bojun
662 Buffalo Rd, #01-280 Tekka Centre
Tel: 9105 0475
On a typical day, Mr Odi whips up six vegetable dishes (including classic Sri Lankan fruit curries such as mango), two salads and four to five meat items. In the evenings, he may also prepare kottu roti, a popular street food in Sri Lanka made from chopped flat bread “stir-fried” with vegetables, sometimes with meat, eggs and spices. Closed on Mondays.
46 Boat Quay, Level 5
Tel: 6538 3058
It currently offers limited dishes such as devilled chicken and string hoppers. But more variety is expected next year.
Tel: 9025 8643
Roshini Dharmapala’s signature Sri Lankan dishes include lamprais and ambul thiyal (sour fish curry). She also works with Clubvivre, an on-demand chef service and conducts classes on Sri Lankan and French cuisine at Brettschneider’s Baking & Cooking School part-time.
Little Green Kitchen
1 Hacienda Grove
Upper East Coast Road
Tel: 9763 1483
Shalu Asnani teaches “Rustic Homestyle Sri Lankan” recipes such as eggplant moju (sweet and spicy eggplant stir-fry) and okra in coconut curry at her cooking studio.
(RELATED: Is there such a thing as Singapore cuisine?)
This article was originally published in The Business Times.
Photos: Roshini Dharmapala, ST/SPH, Little Green Kitchen