One of the joys of expat life is meeting people from all over the world, discovering the home cultures and food ways of others, adapted into a new environment. Thanks to a fellow expat working magic in her Swiss kitchen, I happened onto this Sri Lankan coconut salad: golden with flecks of chilies and curry leaf, gloriously seasoned, and garnished with quick-fried curry leaves and cumin seed.
I took a tram across town for a cooking demonstration by Abi of Ami’s Vegetarian Delicacies, but my taste buds journeyed all the way to Sri Lanka. This was my second time to experience Abi’s kitchen, and it was every bit as much a treat as the first.
“We cannot cook without curry leaves!”
As soon as everyone had arrived and stashed coats and shoes, we gathered around the dining table for introductions to each other. Then it was into the kitchen for a demonstration of Sri Lankan vegetarian cooking. For most of us, the flavors were fairly exotic: curry leaves of course, but also Sri Lankan cinnamon, and plenty of coconut—both grated and creamy.
In a remarkably short time, we were back at the table, admiring the dishes Abi had prepared with us looking over her shoulder: a lentil curry, coconut sambol (a coconut salad) and seeni sambol, a jam-like spread of caramelized onions, served bruschetta-style, on slices of fresh bread.
After we had tucked into our first plates, accompanied by a mug of Ceylon tea, out came a loaf of crispy garlic bread for round two. There was not a scrap left!
Sri Lankan cuisine: flavorful, healthy, distinctive
I first tasted curry leaves during an extended stay in the Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu a few years ago. Their slightly sulfurous aroma quickly became a personal favorite, and I began to cook with them, sourcing these distinctive leaves from a Sri Lankan(!) grocer here in Switzerland.
I’ve since learned that although many of Sri Lanka’s foods bear a striking resemblance to those I tasted in South India, they have a flavorful presence all their own. Sri Lankan curries are complex, and feature an array of spices for which the island nation is renowned. The generous use of coconut in all its forms is also flavorful, light and healthy, and that counts for quite a bit with me.
It has been a treat for me to discover distinctions between the cuisines of South India and Sri Lanka, and among the varied food traditions within Sri Lanka itself.
For an idea of just how diverse these traditions can be, check out this list of blogger Mark Wien’s list of Sri Lanka’s 40 best dishes! Vegetarian dishes from Jaffna have proved to be a great way to taste my way into multi-cultural Sri Lanka.
My time in Abi’s kitchen has made me eager to book a flight to Sri Lanka and experience her vibrant homeland for myself. In the meantime, I’ll have her guidance and recipes to keep me company. I’ve already tried several of her preparations, with excellent results. Note to self: cut amount of green chilies in recipe by one-half, and enjoy!
Do you know Sri Lankan food?