Food Safari: Sri Lanka

Each month, we dip into the UAE’s multicultural melting pot to discover a new cuisine from a foodie.

Far win Simaak, born and raised in the bountiful land of Sri Lanka, didn’t always have a knack for cooking. Sure she did the ‘odd job/ as she calls it, of scraping coconuts and extracting the milk, to help her mother and grandmother in the kitchen, but she never thought it would be something she would become known for someday. «When I graduated from high school, my mother decided it was time for me to learn how to cook. So I would visit the markets, scrape coconuts, and peel fruits and vegetables. While I don’t scrape coconuts nowadays, I still do extract the milk from grated coconut!” says Far win.

Although Far win’s home in All Nahda is scented with aromas and spices from enticing Sri Lankan dishes, she confesses that when she initially began cooking, it wasn’t a smooth ride. «My first time in the kitchen was a disastrous episode, but I made sure to improve after that, and cook better food for my family and friends,” she says.

Far win is a stay-at-home mother of four-year old twins, Ammar and Ahyan, and founder of her blog, Love and Other Spices, where she shares authentic Sri Lankan recipes that have been passed down by her grandmother and mother. The blog began two years ago when she moved to

Dubai, from Qatar, as she saw very few Sri Lankan bloggers in the blogosphere who focused on traditional cuisine from her home country.

THE COUNTRY

Sri Lanka is an island country in the Indian Ocean, off the southern coast of South India. Up until 1972, it was known as Ceylon, and it now shares maritime borders with India to the northwest and Maldives to the southwest. The small teardrop-shaped island, sometimes referred to as the emerald isle due to its lush, tropical jungles fringed by sandy beaches, is becoming increasingly popular as a tourist destination, having recovered from its decades-long civil war which ended in 2009.

Sri Lanka’s location near the Indian Ocean sea lanes allows for fresh seafood to be caught and sold at markets daily — one of the reasons why seafood dishes are popular around the country. With a tropical climate, which consists of dry and wet seasons, Sri Lanka experiences mainly warm weather throughout the year, with two monsoons. From May to August, the island’s southwestern half experiences rains, known as the Y a l a monsoon, and tends to remain dry from December to

March. The M a h a monsoon, from October to January, brings rain to the North and East, with the dry season starting from May and ending in September.

Mainly made up of low, flat terrain, it is only in the central part of the island that you will find elevated hilly landscapes — this is where most of the tea plantations are. Tea is one of Sri Lanka’s major agricultural crops, along with rice, which is exported all over the world. Sri Lanka’s tropical monsoon climate also allows a variety of fruits such as dragon fruit, ripe jack, rambutan, pineapple and mangosteen to be produced in the region, as well as of course, the ubiquitous coconut.

Far win’s home is in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s second largest city and cultural capital, but her ancestral home, where her maternal grandmother lives, is in Galle. «My grandmother has a big coconut estate in her backyard, and gorgeous, untouched beaches nearby — we loved gong there!” she says. Reminiscing her childhood, Far win tells us that her most cherished memories were her Sunday visits to the local farmers’ market, where she would pick up fresh mangoes.

Sri Lankan cuisine is heavily reliant on spices, however the cooking techniques and methods differ across ethnic cultures. «The northern part of Sri Lanka is heavily influenced by South India, and you’ll find a lot of Tamilian foods including idles, wades and doses in that area. Palm flour is an ingredient used quite a lot in that area as well,” says Far win. The South, on the other hand, focuses on the indigenous, from the ingredients to the cooking methods. «Dishes are cooked in clay pots, and while we don’t use them to cook with every day at home anymore, we do cook in it for weekend meals and celebrations,” she says.

When asked about the most popular ingredient used in Sri Lankan cuisine, Far win replies in a heartbeat. «Coconut — if is used in everything and every meal,” she says. Coconut is cultivated in most parts of Sri Lanka such as Puttalam, Kurunegala and Colombo — as these areas have tropical climate conditions — and is used grated in salads, with the milk extracted in curries and stir- fries or to make the Sri Lankan staple flatbread, coconut rotis.

Spices such as cinnamon, coriander seeds, chilli powder, turmeric and curry leaves are widely used as well. Curries, Far win tells us, not only have lot of coconut milk in them but sometimes a raw Sri Lankan curry powder blend is also mixed in — especially in chicken curries. A herb known as Brahimi is also quite popular, and is eaten chopped, mixed with onions, green chillies, lemon juice and grated coconut, in a salad. The juice from the herbal leaves are also extracted and mixed with porridge.

Spices aren’t only used in dishes in cooking, but also as natural health remedies. For example, Far win makes a special herbal tea with coriander seeds, ginger, cinnamon, black pepper, cloves and honey, which works great for cold and flu.

The Sinhalese usually eat tapioca, sweet potato, boiled and tempered chickpeas, and porridge with coconut, for breakfast. Preserves are also quite popular, and often eaten with toast. «My mother and I used to make preserves with rambutan and exotic fruits,” says Far win. A typical lunch in a Sinhalese household includes dishes such as milk rice, lentil, seafood, chicken or vegetable curry, pickle, or a stir-fry, whereas dinner is usually string hoppers (fermented batter of rice flour and coconut milk), with curry and a salad. To complete the meal, steamed pudding and coconut toffee are popular for dessert.

Street food such as K u t t u R o t i (a mixture of r o t i, with spices, chicken and egg) and M u n g K a v u m (a M u n g bean cake) are well-loved as snacks. «When we were young, my friends and I would go out and eat K u t t u R o t i, or buy peanut brittle and mix it with sugar and treacle, and eat it as a snack,” Far win reminisces.

THE CULTURE

Celebrations are aplenty in Colombo, as it is a multicultural society, Far win tells us. The two popular occasions are the January 1 New Year, and the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year. Both occasions have rituals based on milk. «On January 1, we let milk boil over, as it is meant to bring prosperity and new beginnings. For the other New Year, we boil milk at astrological times,” says Far win.

Being a tea-producing nation, the beverage naturally forms an important part of the diet. Most people drink milk tea in the morning and ginger tea in the evenings. An interesting habit still practised in rural areas is to have a piece of jaggery or some sugar in their palms to sweeten their tongue before sipping their tea. Sweets form an integral part of their culinary customs, with traditional sweets like K i c h a d i (a concoction of rice with mung beans and jaggery) always kept in stock at most homes to serve when guests drop in. Far win can’t wait to indulge in these delicacies when she goes back home for the summer. In the meantime, we got her to shared the menu for a traditional Sri Lankan lunch with us.

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