Food History

The History of Sri Lankan cuisine

 Sri Lankan has a unique culinary tradition which has, over the centuries, been shaped by historical, cultural as well as anthropological factors. Rice, coconut and spices are the dominant components of standard Sri Lankan diet. Spices play a prominent role in the Sri Lankan culinary tradition as country being a major grower and supplier of spices and also being a shipping and trading hub.

Over the centuries, encounters with diverse cultures enriched the Sri Lanka’s culinary legacy, leaving a unique blend of cultures on Sri Lankan plates, as proven by the large variety of Sri Lankan dishes. For example, traditional milk rice, a staple of Sri Lankan cooking, is cooked on special occasions. Other staples include Appam, which was inherited from from neighbouring India, while lamprais is a relic from the Portuguese and Dutch colonials. This unique blend has lent Sri Lankan cuisine a distinct flavour that is exotic and capable of evoking the aroma of the East, luring and mesmerize any food lover.

Hunting was the main source of food about 34,000 years ago when the island of Sri Lanka was inhabited and dominated by the native (indigenous) “Adivasis”. Their diet was primarily made up of venison, wild boar and reptiles, which were roasted over an open fire. Since Sri Lanka is an island, fish has also become a part and parcel of standard Sri Lankan diet.

With the arrival of settlers from North India in 5000BC, rice cultivation began as these migrants made their settlements on the river banks. The elaborate and intricate irrigation systems were built for the cultivation of grains, primarily rice. Eventually grain and vegetables were added to the standard meal. Around 900 BC, livestock breeding also commenced in the island nation, further enriching the traditional Sri Lankan meal.

As Sri Lanka has long been a transit hub, Sri Lankan cuisines were highly influenced and shaped by seafarers who happened to visit Sri Lanka during their voyages. It’s also possible they wanted to trade goods with the locals and buy spices. In the process, successive traders left their culinary traditions with the nation.

The Portuguese ruled the country in the 1500s and not only introduced chillies, but also the culinary term ‘temper’ originating from the Portuguese word ‘temperado’, which means to fry and season.
Successive colonial power, including the Dutch, who ruled the maritime provinces from 1658-1796, introduced recipes which employed the use of butter and eggs and left Sri Lanka with Breudher, frikkadels (also known as meatballs) and the much-loved lamprais (a confection of rice and curried cooked and assembled within a banana leaf and baked to perfection). The Sri Lankan Malays arrived from Malaysia and eventually settled down in Sri Lanka further enriching the repertoire of Sri Lankan cuisines with their delicacies and dishes, including wattalappam, pilau rice and biriyani, which still continue to tempt our taste buds hundreds of years later. Indians brought with them appam, dosai, and indiappam and they entered onto Sri Lankan plate as staples.

Sri Lanka has a rich traditions of diverse cuisines and the composition, taste and the aroma as well as the methods of preparations differ from region to region. Rice is still the king of grains and graces the dining table sometimes three times a day in most households. Accompanied by a variety of curries cooked in coconut milk and fragrantly spiced, a traditional Sri Lankan rice and curry will contain four or five curries of fish or meat and finely chopped green leaves mixed with grated coconut, sometimes lightly cooked. Dried fish pieces (also called Maldives Fish), is a unique ingredient used in the preparation of Sri Lankan curries, adding a distinct taste and flavour. Sri Lanka has three types of curries: White, Red and Black. White curries are based on milk and coconut milk, red curries contain a large amount of chili powder and the black curry is darker in colour as the spices used are roasted.

Despite the different colours, the Sri Lankan rice and curry is a much sought-after meal with a collection of sensuous notes ranging from tangy and spice, to sweet and salty. If you are bold enough to explore the Sri Lankan cuisine, be prepared to be dazzled as your taste buds will reach a new level of sophistication.