The real taste secrets of a country’s food are hidden in the kitchens where its broiled. That authentic taste can only be created in those timeworn pots, with the home grown food ethos, with the practice of mulling the spices a certain way and with the panache of the sous-chef.
I truly believe, if you want to deepen your culinary experience beyond just tasting food in local restaurants, go for a cooking class.Getting your hands dirty in a local kitchen is the best way to discover the nuances and details of a country’s taste.
Quite fortunately, Srilanka offers a lot of cooking classes. Also, most of them are quite authentic, as they take you in their real home or restaurant kitchens to show what goes in making that delicious plate of curry & rice. Sometimes, they may also have a spice garden that they may like to show you around. Just go with the flow and you may get enticed to take a class even if you were not looking for it. Yes, such is the magic of Srilankan food and its makers.
I took 2 classes during my trip to Srilanka:
- First was at Rice & Curry restaurant in Tangalle where they teach you curries of your choice in their restaurant kitchen. You can contact them at +94712099696
- Second was a more thorough class in Ella, at a place called Ella Spice Garden, where they take you through a tour of their spice garden and conduct a cooking class in their home kitchen. You can contact them at +9475236 3636
I managed to gather some spicy and simple secrets about Srilankan cooking, through the cooking classes, lots of gastronomy questions to the local chefs, my very keen taste observation and massive over eating. I am spilling the secrets out here. Shhhh….
You would enjoy the read if you are looking to master Srilankan cooking or just great curry cooking : )
Secret 1: Recipe of Srilankan curry powder
Every Srilankan curry is simmered in a magic Srilankan spice mix. Indeed, every curry cooking nation may have a version of their own curry powder, and I was all out to hack the Srilankan one. Definitively, I did! Here are the ingredients and authentic technique to formulate it.
Srilankan curry powder is of 2 types – unroasted and roasted. The unroasted curry powder is mostly used for vegetable curries and the roasted version, which is stronger in flavor is mostly used to prepare meat, fish or garlic curry. To my surprise, it’s very simple to make and can be preserved for a fairly long time (over a year). You just need to have the freshest spices!
- 4 table spoons Coriander seeds
- 2 table spoons Cumin seeds
- 1 table spoons Fennel seeds
- 4 pods Cardamom
- 4 Cloves
- 1 piece (3 cm) Cinnamon
- 12 Curry leaves (dry)
- 4 pieces (4 cm) Pandan leaves
For preparing unroasted curry powder, grind all the 8 dry ingredients until fine powder form.
For roasted curry powder, roast the ingredients. You must roast the first 5 dry spices each separately and the last 3 spices all together. Roast on a dry pan on medium to low heat, stirring regularly, until color slightly changes. Now let the spices cool down and then grind all roasted ingredients until fine powder form.
Get to the grind, fill up your curry powder jar!
Secret 2: Preparing coconut milk for curry
Just like curry powder, the coconut milk is also used in 2 forms in the Srilankan curries. Both versions of the coconut milk are extracted from the same coconut grind, however one is a rich texture liquid and the second is thinner. The thicker and thinner milk may be added depending on what kind of richness is needed for a specific curry. Or sometimes people may just use half and half of both milks for the same curry.
You can make coconut milk in 4 steps, I can’t really say simple steps. Read below to know why?
Find the right coconut – Understandably, you get started on the coconut milk by finding the right coconut. A good way of checking this is to shake the coconut and gauge if it has enough water inside it. If you hear a rounded splash of water from inside the coco, it means this is a good one to go for.
Break it – Obviously you got to break the coconut. No, there is no jinni inside but just stuff that is going to give you the milky-ness in your curry. So go for the hit, with a lot of care. Check this video out by a pro.
Sieve it – Lastly, you need to sieve the coconut scrape to make milk. Add about ¼ cup of lukewarm water to the scrape of 1 big coconut. Mix it in a blender and then strain the mixture through a sieve. Your extract is the thicker coconut milk.
You can process the remaining coconut scrape another time. This time add ¾ or 1 cup of lukewarm water. Mix it again in a blender and then strain through a sieve. Your extract is the thinner coconut milk.
Making coconut milk is simple but requires specific equipment, practice and some arms workout ; )
If you read this far, then you get a prize. An easier way of making the coconut milk ; )
If you don’t have a fresh coconut available where you live or you just don’t feel like making it, there is also a simple way of making the coconut milk. You can use the canned coconut milk, which can be used directly as the thicker coconut milk. For the thinner version you can add …… lukewarm water to the canned milk. Ta daaaa.
Secret 3: Groundwork the curry straight in a clay pot
To get the authentic Srilankan curry flavor you must cook in a clay pot. That is how curries are made in all Srilankan households. The classic way to prepare for the curry is to accurately measure all the ingredients (including the veggies and spices) and heap them into the clay pot all together. This pot goes straight on fire. You know what is the best part of this cooking style? There is no oil used at all. All the ingredients go raw and dry in the pot with no oil frying at all. Guess the coconut milk adds the right amount of richness to the curry. The curry tastes so amazing that you don’t even feel this is oil free boring cooking. I was delighted to discover this healthy cooking method. Try it out now!
Secret 4: Some more super Srilankan ingredients
Curry & Pandan leaves – Curry leaves have a distinct citrus note to them that works great for curries. At the same time, it has quite a strong herbal aroma that plates a perfect combination with rice. On the other hand, Pandan leaves have a soft and fresh grassy aroma that balances the flavor milieu of the curry. Mutually these 2 leaves provide such an important character that I would never attempt to cook a Srilankan curry without these two greenies. So if you are in some part of the world where you may not get these leaves in fresh form, do pick up a dried version of these leaves from an Asian supermarket. Just make sure not to skip them.
Coconut oil – I believe that to create the authentic taste of a recipe, it’s important to choose an oil that provides the most appropriate flavor base. For example, would you enjoy canola oil in a pesto sauce? Or an Indian Paneer curry cooked in Avocado oil? No it just doesn’t sound right. More importantly it definitely doesn’t taste right.
It’s easy to guess that for Srilankan cooking the perfecto oil is Coconut oil. Though in today’s time, everyone is looking for lighter oil substitutes. I try to balance it out by using a variety of oils for different types of cooking. There are recipes where those smart oils work as a great grease. Also, there are recipes where to accentuate the flavors you need a hearty oil. Bottom line is that you need coconut oil for some superlative Srilankan cooking. Skip those dozen nimbler oils for Lankan curries. Go for coco health! I read an interesting fact recently that heart-healthy Srilankans eat 120 Coconuts a year. This study conducted on such hearty Srilankan vedas, concludes that only 3.8% of them developed high blood pressure and none had heart issues. Take a read here! It may also encourage you to use coconut oil, atleast for Srilankan cooking.
Samba rice – A great curry, is enjoyed best with the correct food partner. I did not mean your spouse or friend ; ) Essentially, we are talking about food pairing here. You must recognize the right rice partner to serve with a curry. Srilankan curries taste the best with Samba rice. This rice is a short roundish grain that is the perfect white contrast for a savory and creamy Srilankan curry. Rarely, Basmati rice may be served too, but for me personally Samba rice worked the best.
Secret 4: Differences in Indian and Srilankan curries
Being from India (quite a curry land of its own), it’s natural for me to compare Srilankan and Indian curries. Actually, not just the curries but the entire cooking style, as there are so many similarities in the cooking ingredients, especially the spices. However, more peculiarly what I noted was the differences, as I wanted to understand the distinctness of Srilankan cuisine. So here are a few that I sighted
- We don’t use Pandan leaves in Indian cooking, but in Srilankan cooking it’s a must for all curries, even in rice.
- In Indian cooking, curry leaves are often used (mostly in South Indian recipes), however in Srilanka, it goes into every curry.
- In Indian cooking we use several traditional oils like Ghee (clarified butter), raw mustard oil and coconut oil sometimes. Sometimes the choice of oil also depends on the regional food preferences. However, in Srilanka its coconut oils all the way in all recipes.
- Talking about oil, Indian curries could be quite oil heavy (in terms of the quantity used), on the other side I noted Srilankan curries to use very less or even no oil.
- Noting key differences in the ingredients, the presence of coconut is inevitable in all Srilankan recipes. It goes in the curry, on the top and served as a side too! There is a lot of coconut richness. On the other hand, the Indian curries may gain their richness from a variety of ingredients like onions, tomatoes, cashews, cream, yogurt or milk.
- Another notable difference in the cooking style is how the ingredients go into the tadka (pan fry). In Indian cooking mostly dry ingredients go first one by one. Its slowly conditioning the oil with flavor of each ingredient. In Srilankan cooking all ingredients go together in the oil or the cooking pot. It results in more muddled flavors.
It’s serendipity for me to experience flavors of another country and then to share them.
Don’t we want our world to smell and taste better? Well those were all the secrets I gathered. Stir them in our kitchen or tell me more of yours!