Sri Lankan dhal with coconut sambol

As one of my favourite countries in the world, it’s about time I wrote something about Sri Lanka. I spent 3 months there is 2007 – my Mum, concerned that I wouldn’t be eating properly, sent me off with 100 vitamin tablets, and I came back having gained half a stone.

Monks

It baffles me why Sri Lankan food isn’t more of a big deal over here. Indian food is so massive, and yet Sri Lankan food is relatively overlooked. There are similarities to South Indian food, but really it is as distinct as cuisines from Thailand and Malaysia.

Where to get a good Sri Lankan meal in London

Elephant Walk, West Hampstead (right by the tube).

www.elephantwalk.co.uk

They not only do rice and curry, but also hoppers, rotti and kothu, which are classic Sri Lankan street foods, and not easy to find in London!

Authentic food and friendly staff – it’s a winner.

With 75% of the population of Sri Lanka Sinhalese Buddhist, most dishes are vegetarian, and, with no place further than 110km from the sea, there is an abundance of fresh fish. You can also find meat (especially in the Tamil regions of the North and East), and this is often chicken or goat. But it’s not all rice and curry! As mentioned in my previous post Sri Lanka: Where is all started…, you get get roti, vadai, kothu, hoppers… (all of which I will attempt to make in future posts, I am sure).

When you order a curry, however, you don’t just get one curry and rice. Oh no, you get about 6 dishes: a few vegetable curries, pickles and sambols accompany the main dish. It’s a feast. A proud (or not) moment of mine was when a waiter came over to clear my plates and bowls, to exclaim “no one has EVER been able to finish that before” (you can see now where the half a stone came from).

My dhal and sambol dinner

My home-made dhal and sambol dinner

One dish that is massive in Sri Lanka is dhal. A little bowl of yellow dhal arrives with pretty much whatever curry you order. Recipes are pretty standard across the board – you cook the lentils into a broth, and separately make a spicy “temper,” which you spoon onto the top before serving.

I had a look at a few recipes and decided to follow this one, on a lovely blog written by a US-based Sri Lankan called Romona. I had to substitute/leave out a couple of ingredients that I couldn’t get hold of (namely pandan leaves and canola oil), but it still seemed to turn out all right (see photo above).

The coconut scraper

While in Sri Lanka I taught computing (those of you who know me – don’t laugh) to a group of 16–24 year olds. During power cuts (frequent), we played games. During a game of “fish, flower, fruit,” (my Gran’s favourite) I discovered that coconut scrapers exist and are a common household appliance (beginning with the letter “c”) in Sri Lanka.

As a woman who has lots of kitchen gadgets, I brought one back for my Mum. She used it once apparently, which I am quite impressed with.

The coconut scraper - no Sri Lankan household is without

The coconut scraper – no Sri Lankan household is without

To accompany my dhal, I made a coconut sambol, which has been on my “must make” list for the last 6 years. I plumped for this recipe; however, I have to confess that I didn’t use fresh coconut (I live in London, after all). I tentatively bought desiccated coconut (not the sweetened stuff), and, do you know what? It turned out pretty tasty!

Sri Lankan spices

Sri Lanka is famous for its quality spices, and it is thought they have been traded to Europe as far back as Roman times.

The most important and valuable of the Sri Lankan spices is cinnamon; in fact, cinnamon was at the centre of a war between Portugese invaders and the island in the 16th Century, and continued to be a draw for the Dutch and British colonisers in the 17th and 18th Centuries.

Sri Lanka produces 90% of the world’s Cinnamomum zeylanicum (botanical name derived from Sri Lanka’s British colonial name Ceylon). It is also known as “true cinnamon,” and is considered to be among the highest quality cinnamon in the world.

Grinding spices in Sri Lanka: This woman was my adoptive mum - she couldn't speak a word of english and I could say about 4 Sinhalese words, but we had the same sense of humour!

Grinding spices in Sri Lanka: This woman was my adoptive Mum. She couldn’t speak a word of English and I could say about 4 Sinhalese, but we could tell we had the same sense of humour! She invited me round to their house for regular meals, and tried to marry me off to every male in the family – from the 17-year old son to the 50-year old brother.

For more information about Sri Lankan spices, see the Sri Lankan Spice Council website.

Some photos of my trip

Monks in Sri Lanka

Monks in Sri Lanka

A painting of Buddha in the Dambulla caves

A painting of Buddha in the Dambulla caves

This is one of about 1,000 turtles that we saw hatching from the sand and making their way to the sea

This is one of about 1,000 turtles that we saw hatching from the sand and making their way to the sea. Cuuuuute

My class at the Eire-Lanka Computer Institute, Unawatuna

My class at the Eire-Lanka Computer Institute, Unawatuna

I love this photo! This chef was prepping a fish that had come straight out the sea. He cooked it on a barbecue built out of coconut husks on the beach, and it was delicious

I love this photo! This chef was prepping a fish that had come straight out the sea. He cooked it on a barbecue built out of coconut husks on the beach, and it was delicious. Fish seasoned with fag ash – mmm!

Related posts:

Sri Lanka: Where it all started…

Keralan village cuisine: You can find it here!

Brrr, London is flipping freezing: Warm yourself with an Indian masala chai

8 Comments

Filed under Eateries, Recipes, Sri Lanka, tried and tasted

8 Responses to Sri Lankan dhal with coconut sambol

  1. Radha

    Bex, you blogs are so refreshing :)

    Am so impressed :) your pics look so delicious

    Xx

  2. Cute turtle pic! He’s almost made it!!
    Arianwen recently posted…Christmas in Gaiman: a Lonely Planet failMy Profile

  3. Fed Up and Drunk

    Awesome blog Rebecca! We’re all in the mood for a Sri Lankan curry now (yes it is 11.30am…) x

  4. Ubiquitous coconuts, veg dishes, fresh fish, and spices, considering its geographical location, I guess I should have realized that Sri Lanka is a food lover’s paradise. Now I understand that I’d probably love to eat my way around this extension of the subcontinent, and I wouldn’t be doing the food culture justice if I didn’t put on half a stone in the process, which is about seven pounds in my language. :-) Super informative post!
    EarthDrifter recently posted…Captured for the Camera in Beautiful BañosMy Profile

    • BeccaHills

      Thanks EarthDrifter! I am 100% confident you would love it, but I think the half a stone have just been me…

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