Rice and curry are not just foods in the Sri Lankan kitchen, they're a religion happily followed by every local and the kind I wouldn’t mind to convert to. For a person unfamiliar with local Sri Lankan cuisine, having rice and curry every single day might seem boring and repetitive, but the truth is there are so many Sri Lankan curries that you are unlikely to try them all even if you stay on the island for months.
I should mention, that when Sri Lankans say “rice and curry”, they use the word “curry” in a broad sense, meaning any side dish that comes with rice for lunch. Although some of those sides might be leafy salads or deep fried veggies. More specifically, “curry” means a dish prepared with spices and gravy. Gravy is usually made by adding water or coconut milk in the process.
The amount of sides served during a meal varies greatly with the absolute minimum being three. There's no maximum, but it can go up to seven or eight. The choice of sides is never random, it’s a thought-through combination of different textures, colors, and types of cooking that complement each other.
If you are from Sri Lanka, your everyday lunch would include a chicken or fish curry, a curry made of starchy vegetables or pulses with thick coconut gravy, a dry vegetable curry, green salad and a fried dish.
Today we will only be talking about “curry” in its narrow sense and I would love to share with you some of the most popular, unusual and delicious varieties.
7 Curries from the Sri Lankan kitchen You Must Try
1. Sri Lankan Chicken Curry (Kukul Mas Mirisata)
I think it’s safe to say that chicken curry is one of the most popular curries on the island. You will find it on the menu of every restaurant and on the table of every household.
While many Sri Lankan curries are prepared with coconut milk which makes them fatty, chicken curry is cooked in water-based gravy. Chicken pieces always have bones in them; bone marrow gives an extra kick of flavor to the dish. Besides, back in the day, women would buy a whole chicken and use every part of it: boneless chicken breast was never an option. And so the tradition lives on.
2. Sri Lankan Lentil Curry (Parippu Mirisata)
Sri Lankan parippu can easily compete with chicken curry for the status of the most beloved dish in the country. It was the first recipe I learned when I started cooking Sri Lankan food, because there’s nothing easier to make than good old parippu.
And as it always happens, simple things are the most enjoyable. It’s good with rice, but my favorite way is to have it with Lankan coconut flat bread called “roti”. Best. Breakfast. Ever. Forget croissants and avocado toast! After trying this creamy goodness once, you will crave it so much you’ll learn to make it at home.
Oh, and this lentil curry is also a good option if you're looking for a vegetarian Sri Lankan curry.
3. Sour Fish Curry (Ambul Thiyal)
The most amazing thing about this curry is not its taste, which is beyond delicious, but that’s pretty obvious. It’s the fact that this curry can stay at room temperature for a week without going bad. The trick?
Tamarind – or goraka as it’s called in Sri Lanka – used to marinate fish prior to cooking is a natural preservative. Ambul thiyal is a dry curry with a slightly sour taste. It originated in the South of the island but overtime became typical Sri Lankan food.
4. Sri Lankan Egg Curry (Biththara Hodi)
Julia Child has a whole chapter in her “Mastering the art of French cooking” dedicated to eggs. There are fried eggs and poached eggs, omelets, and scrambles, but I bet you have never tried an egg curry!
Turns out, poaching boiled eggs in spicy gravy can be a very good idea. Eggs are pricked with a fork slightly beforehand to ensure they absorb the curry sauce. Have this curry with rice for lunch or with a slice of bread for breakfast.
For all you veggies out there: this is another pure Sri Lankan vegetable curry.
5. Sri Lankan Ambarella Curry
This is where things get interesting. I surely had heard of chicken curry and vegetable curries but never had I imagined you can make a curry using fruits.
Ambarella, also known as jew plum, is a juicy sour fruit with a fibrous pit. It can be eaten raw, but when cooked in spices, ambarella really shows its true colors. The curry, with its unusual sweet and sour flavor profile and fibrous texture, is quite an adventure for a palette. Also vegetarian!
6. Sri Lankan Cashew Curry (Kaju Maluwa)
I won’t be far from the truth if I say that Sri Lankans can turn pretty much any type of food into a curry. You must possess a very creative mind to think of adding gravy to nuts. Or… you must have an abundance of nuts.
Both are true in Sri Lanka. Since cashews are grown right here, they are widely used in the Sri Lankan kitchen. Soaked for several hours and cooked in coconut milk and spices, cashew nuts become wonderfully creamy and fragrant. This is also a Sri Lankan vegetarian curry.
7. Sri Lankan Jackfruit curry (Kos Ata Maluwa)
Since we are using nuts, why not use seeds as well? Jackfruit is the largest tree-born fruit in the world. Its weight varies from 10 to 100 pounds. This “miracle fruit”, as it’s often referred to, could easily be a meal for a whole family. Partly due to its size, but also because of the amount of nutrients and vitamins it packs.
The flesh can be used to prepare curries, but the most surprising thing is that you can make a scrumptious curry using only the seeds, which are rich in protein, potassium, calcium, and iron. This kos ata curry is one of the most unusual and delicious things you can try in Sri Lanka. And it's also vegetarian.
If you are travelling to Sri Lanka you don’t have to look for rice and curry, it will find you! Make sure to try as many varieties as you can, because in this post we’ve only scratched the surface of the diverse Lankan cuisine.
And, most importantly, eat rice and curry with your hands! Not only because it’s a local tradition, but because it truly tastes better. Take it from a skeptical white woman who, after mixing food with fingers once, never asked for a fork again.
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Yulia Dyukova is a Russian food and travel blogger at The Foodie Miles, who spent 3 years in Sri Lanka and considers this gorgeous island her second home. She is the kind of person who starts to research a new country by googling “what to eat in…” instead of “what to visit in…” Having come across a particularly mouth-watering dish, she feels obliged to share it with the world, not just on her blog but also on Instagram.