Sri Lanka is foodie heaven and a vegan paradise
It’s mid-morning and the train to Nuwara Eliya is climbing through the lush, green countryside on its way to the hills of Sri Lanka’s tea country. Since I boarded at Haputale the scenery has changed completely and I find myself jostling with other passengers, hanging precariously out of the open carriage door as we wind our way through the undulating, rough country risking my life to get the perfect photo. Yes, the tea plantations are impressive and that is why I’m making the journey, but it’s the manicured terraces brimmed to capacity with vegetable plots that are really getting my attention. I had no idea that Sri Lanka produced such an abundance of fresh produce but then I suppose there’s a reason why the national dish is rice and curry and most of those curries are made from vegetables.
Having spent my first week in Sri Lanka at the coast and eating some of the best seafood I’ve ever tasted it was only during my travels inland that the pure joy of the vegetable curry really hit me. It is a thing of great beauty and as varied in colour, taste, and texture as you could ever imagine. Deep purple beetroot, shiny aubergines, delicate banana flowers, all shapes and varieties of pumpkins and squashes, beans that are so long you could wear them as a belt, spinach, sweet potato, gourds that look like they’re from another planet, there’s no end to the list of vegetables that find there way into this national dish: curried using a fragrant mix of heat and spice – think cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon – often with coconut milk, black mustard seeds and the addition of curry leaves to give that unmistakable Sri Lankan flavour.
It was my guide who first introduced me to the rice and curry buffet. He insisted that we stop for lunch at a local place he knew: tucked away at the end of a hidden, bumpy track, the heady aromas and the sounds from the bustling kitchen hit us as we made our way inside. Greeted by a long table simply bursting with vegetable curries, rice, dahls, poppodoms, rotis and fiery coconut sambols, I was like a kid is a sweet shop. From then on it was rice and curry on a daily basis – not always of the vegetable variety, sometimes cashew nut, jackfruit, fish or chicken – I simply could not get enough and thankfully it was available all over the island.
‘Aside from the flavours and textures, what I really love about Sri Lankan food is how succinctly it’s an expression of a place: a cuisine that’s grown out of the unique natural pickings to be found on the island’ – Rosie Birkett
On my return home I scoured the web to find authentic recipes that I could cook myself – everything from mixing my own raw and roasted curry blends (used in Sri Lankan curries to add more depth of flavour) through to blitzing my own coconut flesh to make pol sambol. At this point I should mention that I don’t even like coconut – I cannot ever imagine eating a coconut sweet or cake and the thought of desiccated coconut in anything makes me gag – yet here I was frying in the oil, grating it into sauteed, spicy cabbage and finishing curries with creamy coconut milk. And so far I have been pretty impressed with the results, even if I do say so myself.
To quote cook and food writer Rosie Birkett, ‘Aside from the flavours and textures, what I really love about Sri Lankan food is how succinctly it’s an expression of a place: a cuisine that’s grown out of the unique natural pickings to be found on the island’. What a beautiful way to sum it up. I couldn’t agree more.
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