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Culinary influences of the kitchen from all over the world
What is now known as Sri Lanka's cuisine is the result of centuries of merging local dishes with the recipes and products that colonialists, traders and immigrants brought to the island.
Not only is the obvious influence from the South Indian regions of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which are only separated from the north of Sri Lanka by the approximately 55 kilometre wide strait, but the former colonial powers of the Netherlands, Great Britain and Portugal also brought parts of their domestic cuisine to the island.
Furthermore, influences from immigrants from Arab states and Malaysia were added.
The result is today known as Sinhala or Ceylonese cuisine, as Sri Lanka was still called Ceylon under British rule.
At first glance, curries in particular look like those of the Indian subcontinent, but on closer inspection they are very different: the combinations of different spices and flavours are more varied, for example there are bitter melon and hot coconut, and they are also thinner and less creamy than Indian curries.
The numerous and varied sweet dishes you will find in Sri Lanka were mostly brought or influenced by the Dutch and Portuguese, as sweets play a major role in the local traditions.
It is striking that many of the ingredients used are not at all native to Sri Lanka. Numerous spices and plants, for example chillies, were brought by traders from all over the world, as is often the case in island states, and then found their way into the country's kitchens. Before the chili plant came to Sri Lanka in this way, it was the local black pepper that provided the pungency.
When it comes to vegetables, the British influence is particularly noticeable, as the British, for example, created curries with potatoes, pumpkin, beetroot, aubergines and carrots.
The most important building blocks of the typical cuisine of the country
If there are two ingredients that no meal in Sri Lanka should be without, then they are rice and coconut. No other ingredients characterize the country's cuisine as much as these.
In Sri Lanka more than 15 different varieties of rice are grown. In the most different preparation forms it finds its way into almost every dish and serves as a balance to the spicy and intensely spiced curries and sambals.
The coconut is used both in the form of coconut milk and coconut flakes.
In addition, local chefs like to use a variety of spices, which are imaginatively combined with each other to create the unique taste of Sri Lankan dishes. You should definitely stroll at least once over one of the many markets and be enchanted by the scent of the many fresh spices.
For a good curry spice mixture, coriander, cardamom, cumin, fenugreek, mustard seeds, cloves and various herbs are usually mixed together and then blended with garlic, ginger, turmeric and cinnamon.
Fresh curry and pandan leaves are also a must. You will find the edible curry leaves in almost every dish and learn to love their unmistakable taste.
The pungency is then determined by the amount of chilli that is added. Although chillies are not indigenous to Sri Lanka, as mentioned above, more than 60 different types of chillies are now cultivated in Sri Lanka and are used in fresh, dried or deep-fried form in typical Sri Lankan dishes. Sri Lanka's cuisine is one of the hottest in the world, the locals love their food so spicy that it is almost inedible for our European taste buds. Restaurants that serve many tourists usually adjust the spiciness of their dishes to suit them. When in doubt, when ordering, just tell us how spicy you want your food to be.
The cinnamon used in Sri Lanka is Ceylon cinnamon, which is native to the island and gave it its earlier name. Ceylon cinnamon is clearly more spicy and tasty than the more widespread Cassia cinnamon.
Cardamom is also cultivated in Sri Lanka. However, the fact that each cardamom capsule has to be harvested by hand, which makes harvesting extremely costly, makes this spice one of the three most expensive spices in the world.
Because it is an island state, fishing not only plays an important economic role, but fish also lands on Sri Lanka's plates in many different forms. At the markets you will always find freshly caught fish from the Indian Ocean. This is very much liked afterwards to fish curry is processed. The so-called Maldivian fish is often used as a flavour enhancer. It is a dried and shredded version of the Bonito Tuna.
By far the most processed meat in Sri Lanka is chicken. Otherwise, the island's abundant fruit and vegetables are always an important part of local dishes.
Also popular and widespread is the "Curd", which is typical for Sri Lanka and India. This is a yoghurt made from buffalo milk and is actually not comparable to the yoghurt we know. Often "mixed pickles" are also served as a side dish, which refers to pickled vegetables.
Fruits in Sri Lanka
As a tropical country, the island in the Indian Ocean is incredibly rich in the most diverse fruits. We have never heard of many of them in Europe, let alone tasted them.
Among the most typical fruits in Sri Lanka are not only the common varieties of coconut, avocado, mango, pineapple, guava and papaya, but also specialties such as the cashew apple, carambole, breadfruit (which is often neglected along with its more famous brother jackfruit) and woodapple.
When you ask for bananas on the market, the demand will initially be: which ones? For Sri Lanka has more than thirty different types of small bananas. Especially recommended is the pleasantly sour tasting lemon banana or the red banana, which tastes more hearty and less sweet.
Incidentally, the Sri Lankans are particularly proud of their King Coconut - the king among drinking coconuts - which has been planted for centuries.
This has comparatively little fruit flesh, but all the more tasty and extremely healthy coconut water.
You can find the King Coconut at almost every fruit seller, which are widely spread along the roads of the country. They are elongated and yellow to reddish in colour.
You can also try the many fruits in liquid form at the many juice stands. Juice merchants will prepare the most diverse creations for you in a very fresh way. You should definitely try a Woodapple juice, which you will never find at home like this.
If you look for fruit and vegetables at the market, be sure to ask the seller when the fruits are ready for consumption.
He will give you trustworthy information whether you should eat them immediately or wait.
In this way you can be sure of the optimum taste experience and a freshness you can only dream of in German supermarkets. As a rule, seasonal fruit and vegetables in Sri Lanka are only offered in season.
So if you can't find avocados or mangos, you are unfortunately on the road at the wrong time.
Sri Lanka's cuisine for vegetarians
Since in Sri Lanka lives a not insignificant minority of Hindus, who mostly eat vegetarian, it is relatively easy for vegetarians here.
Most of the locals understand the importance of avoiding meat and fish and there is a wide variety of vegetarian curries and dishes.
If in doubt, ask briefly whether dried Maldivian fish was not used in the preparation, which is often the case with onion sambal and some pastries at street stalls.
In Sri Lanka, by the way, eggs are often considered non-vegetarian - if you eat egg, it is best to say when you ask that it is okay and that you are only interested in meat or fish.
Table manners in Sri Lanka
If you not only want to try typical Sri Lankan dishes, but also eat them in a typical way, then wash your hands - because in Sri Lanka people eat with their fingers.
Traditionally, you use only your right hand for this, as the left hand is considered unclean and remains under the table.
You mix your rice and curry and form little balls with your thumb, index and middle finger, which you then push into your mouth with your thumb over the other two fingers. This may feel a little unfamiliar at first attempts, but it won't be long before you get the hang of it.
Not only are the locals happy that you are eating the food in their own way, but you will also notice how much fun this kind of food is and how much closer you feel to what you are eating.
Many voices also claim that the taste is much more intense when you are with your fingers - so it is definitely worth a try!
And don't worry, if the whole thing is not your cup of tea, cutlery will be served in every restaurant.
Sweets in Sri Lanka
As mentioned at the beginning, thanks to the Portuguese and the Dutch, there is a wide range of desserts in Sri Lanka. However, these are usually much sweeter and stickier than ours.
A particularly common dessert is watallapan, which is a kind of airy flan made from coconut, raisins, palm sugar and chopped nuts.
Kiribath is a square-shaped rice prepared with coconut milk and in the sweet variant with palm sugar, which is served at festivals or for breakfast. The small oil cakes kavun and halapa are also very common: red millet (kurakkan) is mixed with wheat flour, coconut flour and palm sugar, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed.
At the numerous markets you will find a large selection of packaged sweets, where the influence of other cultures is once again particularly evident. Indian sweets as well as British cakes or fudge toffees are offered.
The Hawaiian cookies of the Munchees brand are also popular with locals and visitors alike, which are speculoose-like cookies with coconut and addictive ingredients. Unfortunately, they have not yet made it beyond the borders of Sri Lanka, so make sure to stock up well before you leave!
Alcohol in Sri Lanka
Alcohol is comparatively expensive in Sri Lanka and yet widespread.
The only liquor produced on the island is Arrack, which is made from the nectar of the coconut palm blossom. Sri Lanka is the world's largest producer of this spirit and you can find it on the island quite often.
Significantly less alcohol contains toddy, which is called fermented palm nectar. To try this specialty, however, you have to ask the locals a little bit, as it is not officially sold in the shops.
The most common local beer is the lager Lions Beer, followed by the strong beer Anchor Strong. Imported beers are rarely found and if they are, they are significantly more expensive than local beers.
Once a month, on the occasion of the full moon, Sri Lanka celebrates the so-called Poya Day, a holiday on which no alcohol may be sold in the whole country.
Although Sri Lanka is one of the world's leading tea producers, the enjoyment of tea is not a high priority for the locals.
On tea plantations or in tea factories with their own café you can still find very high quality tea.
In actually every café or restaurant in the country the typical milk tea is offered.
For this, black tea is mixed with lots of sugar and milk powder.
If you don't like to drink sweet tea, it's best to ask if you can get the tea unsweetened - some waiters are then surprised for a short time, but usually follow your request.
Some of the local people like to drink their tea, which is allowed to steep for a long time, in such a way that they first bite off a piece of pure palm sugar and then have a sip of tea afterwards.