A Feast to Celebrate Independence

As Sri Lanka celebrates 50 years independence on February 4th 1998 its lavishly aromatic and spicy cuisine is at long last gaining recognition as one of the world’s finest. String hoppers and hoppers, red, white and black curries, milk rice and yellow rice…… are among the many mouth-watering delicacies that are reaching destinations far beyond the shores of Taprobane. A few Sri Lankan restaurants have already soared into top-100 status in the London circuit; and one of the city’s most respected publishing houses has just brought out a new book Leith’s Book of Indian and Sri Lankan Cooking in which the cuisine of Sri Lanka is accorded pride of place. Sri Lankan food seems well set on course to become a major international food vogue in the next millennium.

When the British formally annexed Sri Lanka in 1802 by the Treaty of Amiens, it did not take them long to recognise that the island could not be administered as just another extension of the British Empire of India. Although they had in fact administered the area from Madras for a brief period until 1798, they very quickly realised that this could not be continued. The distinctive culture, history and social traditions of the island that separate Sri Lanka from India are clearly reflected in the food habits of the islanders as well. Every traveller to the paradise island of Sri Lanka could vouch for the fact that Sri Lankan food is markedly different from the food of India, even allowing for the enormous variation of food-styles that are prevalent in the sub-continent. And despite its unavoidable links with India, through history and proximity, Sri Lankan food represents a distinctive culinary style in its own right. It embodies the influences of Moorish traders (e.g.Biriani ) as well as Portuguese, Dutch and British rulers (e.g. in Bibikkan and Sri Lankan Christmas cake)

As a general rule one finds that Sri Lankan curries are hotter (more laden with chili) than their Indian counterpart, but this is not the only difference. Sri Lankan curries are distinguished by their colour, white, red and black, the white curries being the mildest. Coconut is an important ingredient, and vegetable dishes and sambals are flavoured with Maldive fish, a form of dried tuna that comes mostly from the neighbouring Maldive Islands

From historical times the island of Sri Lanka (Lanka, Zylan, Ceylan, Taprobane to the ancients) has been famous for its spices. Cinnamon, cardamoms, cloves, nutmeg are amongst the more fragrant of the spices that grow there, and all these are included in Sri Lankan curries. Sri Lanka’s legendary beaches, that stretch over hundreds of miles are lined with coconut plantations, the swaying palm trees adding to the exquisite splendour to the landscape. Coconut is a major food crop of the island. In one form or another coconut finds its way into Sri Lankan food. Curries are invariably cooked in coconut milk, the rich milky liquid extracted from the grated coconut kernel. And many Sri Lankan sweets also contain coconut, particularly grated or desiccated coconut.

It is fair to say that food planning and food preparation takes up more of a household’s time and effort in Sri Lanka than it does in the West. Food also plays a bigger role than it does in the West in the planning of social events, including formal ceremonies. Special occasions, weddings, new year celebrations, ceremonial functions of state are often heralded by firecrackers, Kandyan dancing, magul bera (festive drums) and the lighting of oil lamps. Alongside with pomp and pageantry, drum beat and bright lights there is always the food – extravagant, festive food to mark an auspicious occasion, food intended to uplift the spirit and please the palate at the same time. I list below a selection of authentic Sri Lankan festive dishes that you might use to create your own Sri Lankan Independence festival:


Rice: Biriyani, Kahabath or Kiribath


Aubergine Curry

Ala thel dhaala (Spicy Potatoes)

Malu Curry (Fish)

Isso Curry (Prawns)

Sri Lankan Chicken Curry

Pol Sambol (Coconut Sambal)






An exotic dish that combines meat, rice and spices, is perhaps the most famous of Moghul dishes. It is eaten throughout the Muslim world on festive occasions. I have eaten a Kurdish version where the Biriani was encased in pastry for the final cooking.

(Preparation time 25 minutes; marinading time 6 hours; cooking time 90 minutes)


800g (28ozs) leg of lamb

1 teaspoonful cumin powder

1 teaspoonful coriander powder

1/2 teaspoonful grated nutmeg

8 cloves

10 cardamom pods

5cm (2″) piece cinnamon stick

8 black pepper corns

5 cloves garlic

5cm (2″) piece fresh ginger

50g (2oz) coriander leaves

1 large onion, roughly chopped

0.3l (10 fl ozs) natural low fat yogurt

salt to taste

2 tablespoonsful oil

1/2 medium onion finely sliced

For the stock you need:

lamb bones

1 onion

2 bay leaves

10 peppercorns

1.5l (3 pints) water

For the rice you need:

400g (14 ozs) basmati, washed in a sieve and drained

2-3 tablespoonsful ghee

2 bay leaves

5cm (2″) piece cinnamon

5 cloves

6 cardamoms

0.8l (28 fl ozs) lamb stock

salt to taste

1 teaspoonful saffron powder

For the garnish you need:

25g (1 oz) onion flakes

50g (2 oz) blanched whole almonds

50g (2 oz) sultanas

oil for deep frying


1. Trim away any fat from the leg of lamb, and cut the meat into 1 cm (1/2 “) cubes. Put the bone into a large pan, add the onion, bay leaves, peppercorns and the water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer until it is reduced in volume by half. Strain the stock and reserve.

2. Put the cumin, coriander nutmeg, cloves, cardamoms, cinnamon and peppercorns into an electric grinder and grind until you have a fine powder.

3.In a liquidiser or food processor blend the yogurt, the roughly chopped onion the ginger, the coriander leaves and the garlic. In a large bowl combine the ground ingredients together with the blended ingredients. Put in the cubes of meat and stir until well coated in the marinade. Leave to marinade for 6 hours.

4.In a heavy-bottomed pan heat the oil and fry the onion until golden brown. Then add the pieces of meat stir over a medium flame for 10 minutes. Add the marinade and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer until the liquid has evaporated.

5. Dissolve the saffron in a teaspoonful of hot water. Bring the stock to the boil. In a large pan heat the ghee. Add the bay leaves, the cinnamon, cloves, the cardamom and the rice, and fry on a low heat for 2 minutes. Add the meat, the stock the salt and the saffron and bring rapidly to a boil. Lower the heat, cover the pan and simmer for 15 minutes. Allow to stand for a further 10 minutes before serving.

5.In a small pan, over a low to medium flame, heat the oil. Fry the almonds until golden brown. Drain and reserve. Add the sultanas and remove them as soon as they plump up. Lastly add the onion flakes and almost immediately remove from the oil as they hardly take a second to brown.

6.Put the biriani onto a large serving dish or platter and garnish with the almonds, the sultanas and onion flakes and serve hot.


Literally translated to mean “yellow rice”, this Sri Lankan rice speciality is cooked in coconut milk. It is often made on special occasions and is always served with Sri Lankan

chicken curry, fried aubergines and potato curry.

(Preparation time 10 minutes; Cooking time 30 minutes.)


300g (11oz) Basmati rice

2 tablespoonsful oil or ghee

½ a medium-sized onion finely chopped

10 curry leaves

1 stalk lemon grass (optional)

5cm (2″) screwpine (optional)

8 peppercorns

4 cloves

5 cardamoms

5cm (2″) stick cinnamon

0.75 litres (27fl ozs) boiling water

¼ teaspoonful turmeric

salt to taste

50g (2 oz) creamed coconut


1. Wash the rice in a sieve under running cold water until the water that runs is clear. Leave to drain.

2.In a heavy-bottomed pan heat the oil or ghee. Add the onion, the curry leaves, the lemon grass, the screwpine and the whole spices (peppercorns, cloves, cardamoms and cinnamon). Fry on a low to medium heat until the onions are golden brown.

3. Add the rice (which should be quite dry) and fry for a minute. Now add the boiling water, the turmeric, the salt and the creamed coconut chopped into little pieces. Bring to the boil and stir to make sure the coconut is dissolved. (Alternatively the coconut can be dissolved in the boiling water prior to adding to the rice.) Put the lid on, lower the heat so as to simmer and cook for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Garnish with deep-fried onions (see basic recipes 000) and fried cashews (see recipe 000) and serve hot.


Literally translated to mean milk rice, this dish is perhaps the most traditional of Sri Lankan rice dishes. It is usually made with unpolished rice that is red in colour. This dish is prepared for the New Year (in April) and for special occasions, and is served with a hot onion relish, pieces of jaggery and bananas.

(Preparation time 5 minutes; cooking time 25 minutes.)

INGREDIENTS (serves 4)

400g (14 oz) Basmati rice

950ml (33 fl oz) cold water

salt to taste

100g (3½ oz) creamed coconut

0.4litres (14 fl oz) boiling water


1.Wash the rice under running cold water until the water that runs is clear. Put the rice and the cold water into a heavy-bottomed pan and bring to the boil. Give the rice a stir, put the lid on, lower the heat so as to simmer, and cook for 15 minutes.

2. Whilst the rice is cooking, dissolve the creamed coconut in the boiling water. Add the salt to the creamed coconut. Once the rice is cooked the next stage requires your constant attention.

3. Pour the coconut milk into the rice and, over a low heat, stir until the rice has absorbed the liquid. In Sri Lanka this is done with the handle of a wooden spoon in order to minimise damage to the grains of rice.

4.Once the liquid has been absorbed, spread the rice onto a flat dish or platter. Using a spatula flatten and smooth out the top. Cut into diamond shapes about 7.5cm (3″) long. When the rice cools it holds its shape and you should be able to serve pieces of kiribath onto individual plates.


This aubergine preparation is made on special occasions. It is often served with yellow rice and Sri Lankan chicken curry recipe.

(Preparation time 10 minutes. Cooking time 40 minutes.)

INGREDIENTS (serves 4)

600g (21oz) aubergines

1 teaspoonful salt

oil for deep frying

2 tablespoonsful oil

1/2 a medium-sized onion finely chopped

1/4 teaspoonful turmeric powder

1 teaspoonful cumin powder

1 teaspoonful coriander powder

1 teaspoonful whole mustard seeds ground

4 cloves garlic finely chopped

2.5cm (1″) piece of ginger, grated

3 green chilies chopped

10 curry leaves

1 tablespoonful malt vinegar

4 tablespoonsful water

2 tablespoonsful coconut milk powder

salt to taste

1/2 teaspoonful sugar


1. Wash the aubergines. Remove the stalk. Cut each aubergine lengthwise into 4 slices. Sprinkle with salt and leave uncovered in a single layer for half and hour.

2. Rinse the aubergines quickly under running cold water and pat-dry with kitchen paper. Cut each slice into strips and then into 2.5cm (1″) cubes.

3. Deep-fry the aubergine cubes a few at a time until golden brown. Drain thoroughly on kitchen paper.

4. In a medium-sized pan heat the oil and fry the onion until golden brown. Add the turmeric, cumin, coriander and mustard and stir for a couple of seconds. Add the garlic, ginger, chilies and curry leaves. Remove pan from heat and drain off excess oil. Add the vinegar, the water, the milk powder, the salt and the sugar and bring slowly to the boil. Add the fried aubergine pieces and stir and simmer on a low heat until most of the liquid has evaporated.


These potatoes are hot and are usually eaten with fried rice or any special rice dish such as kahabath.

(Preparation time 15 minutes; cooking time 35 minutes)


450g (1 lb) potatoes

225g (8 oz) finely sliced onions

1 tablespoonful maldive fish, powdered (when available)

1 tablespoonful vegetable oil

salt to taste

½ teaspoonful chili powder, coarsely ground

a few curry leaves

1 dessertspoonful lime or lemon juice

oil for deep frying


1. Wash the potatoes and place in a saucepan. Cover with cold water and bring rapidly to the boil. Allow to boil for 10 minutes. Drain away the water and peel the potatoes. Cut the potatoes into 2.5cm (1″) cubes.

2. Heat the oil and deep fry the potatoes until lightly browned. Deep fry the onions until golden brown.

3. In a frying pan or skillet heat the tablespoonful of oil. Fry the maldive fish for about 30 seconds. Add the curry leaves, the salt and chili powder and mix well. Lastly toss in the potatoes and the onions and stir. Remove from heat. Prior to serving add the lime or lemon juice.


Fish is much more popular than meat in Sri Lanka, and there are many varieties of fresh fish available in the markets ranging from the miniscule sprat to succulent seer fish which is steak like in texture. Cooking fish in a spicy coconut sauce is the most popular preparation. I have chosen mackerel for this recipe as it is a firm fish which is well suited to currying.

(Preparation time 30 minutes. Cooking time 30 minutes.)


2 large mackerels weighing approximately 1.5kg (3lb 4oz)

1 lime or lemon

2 pieces of gamboge (kokam)

½ teaspoonful fenugreek seeds

3 cloves garlic chopped

2 green chilies chopped

5cm (2″) piece of ginger grated

1 teaspoonful cumin powder

2 teaspoonsful coriander powder

1/4 teaspoonful turmeric

5 curry leaves

salt to taste

4 tablespoonsful coconut milk powder

100ml (3½ fl oz) cold water


1. Soak the fenugreek seeds in 2 tablespoonsful of hot water. Wash the gamboge, and set aside.

2. Cut off the heads and tails of the mackerel. Slit each mackerel about 3cm (1½”) along the belly-side, so that you can easily remove the entrails and any roe. Cut each mackerel into 4 cutlets, and without washing put into a large bowl. Squeeze the lime or lemon juice over the fish. Without discarding the lime or lemon skins mix them into the fish and leave for 15 minutes. Wash each piece of fish quickly under running cold water and pat dry on kitchen paper.

3. In a wide-bottomed pan, large enough to hold the 10 pieces of fish in a single layer, combine the fenugreek, garlic, chilies, ginger, cumin, coriander, turmeric and the curry leaves. Add the coconut milk powder and the water, and mix thoroughly. Now add the fish, and carefully spoon over the spicy mixture to ensure that the fish is thoroughly coated in the spices. On a medium heat, bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Turn the pieces of fish over, add the salt, and cook for a further 7 minutes. Discard the pieces of gamboge and serve.( I always wear a pair of disposable gloves when cleaning fish, gamboge is available in Sri Lankan shops and is known as goraka.


This prawn preparation takes a little time to prepare but is well worth the effort.

Preparation time 15 minutes. Cooking time 20 minutes

INGREDIENTS (serves 2)

400g (14 oz) fresh prawns

juice of half a lime

2 tablespoonsful fine desiccated coconut

2 ripe plum tomatoes

3 cloves garlic

2.5cm (1″) piece of ginger

1/2 medium-sized onion

1 teaspoonful fennel

1½ teaspoonsful coriander powder

1 teaspoonful cumin powder

1/8 teaspoonful fenugreek

1 teaspoonful chili powder

1/4 teaspoonful turmeric

2 tablespoonsful oil

10 curry leaves

salt to taste

100 ml (3.5 fl oz) water

coriander leaves for garnishing


1. Peel away the shells and devein the prawns. Put into a pan, add the lime juice, and leave for 5 minutes. Wash each prawn under running cold water, and pat dry with kitchen paper.

2. In a food processor, blend together the coconut, tomatoes, garlic, ginger and onion.

3. Grind the fennel, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, chili and turmeric to a fine powder.

4. In a medium-sized pan heat the oil. Add the curry leaves and the ground ingredients (the spices) and fry over a low heat for a couple of seconds. Add the blended ingredients and continue to fry for 2-3 minutes. Add the water and bring slowly to a boil. Simmer for 2 minutes. Add the prawns and the salt and bring back to the boil. Simmer for 6-8 minutes, or until the prawns are cooked through. Garnish with coriander leaves and serve.

If fresh plum tomatoes are unavailable use tinned tomatoes. Care should be taken not to overcook the prawns.


This recipe takes a fair bit of preparation time, but it is well worth the effort. In Sri Lanka a handful of soaked rice is ground along with the spices, but I have found that the sauce is sufficiently thick without adding the rice.

(Preparation time 30 minutes. Cooking time 1½ hours.)


3 tablespoonsful desiccated coconut

4 cloves garlic

5cm (2″) piece peeled fresh ginger

1 onion roughly chopped

2 tablespoonsful coriander seeds

1½ teaspoonsful cumin seeds

1 teaspoonful fennel

1 teaspoonful black peppercorns

8 cloves

12 cardamons

10cm (4″) piece cinnamon

¼ teaspoonful turmeric

10 curry leaves

1 teaspoonful chili powder (optional)

2 tablespoonsful oil

1 onion finely chopped

900g (2lbs) chicken pieces

salt to taste


1. In a heavy-bottomed pan, on a low heat, dry-roast the desiccated coconut until golden brown. It is important to keep stirring the coconut, to prevent it from burning. Tip the coconut together with the roughly chopped onion, the garlic, the peeled ginger and ½ cup of water into a blender and grind into a smooth paste.

2. Using the same heavy- bottomed pan, dry roast the spices (coriander, cumin, fennel, pepper, cloves, cardamons and cinnamon) until lightly browned. Grind the roasted spices to a fine powder.

3. In a medium-sized pan, heat the oil and fry the finely chopped onion until lightly browned. Add the curry leaves and the chicken, and cook for a minute, or until the chicken is brown on all sides. Add the spices, the turmeric, the chili and the ground paste. Add the salt and 1 cup of water and bring to the boil. Cover, lower the heat, and simmer for an hour or until the chicken is cooked through.


This hot chutney is typically Sri Lankan, combining the grated kernel of the coconut with hot chili powder.

(Preparation time 10 minutes.)


110 g (4 oz) freshly grated coconut

1 teaspoonful chili powder coarsely ground

salt to taste

¼ teaspoonful freshly ground black pepper

3 small red onions, or 2 shallots

3 cloves garlic

juice of 1 lime


1. Combine all the ingredients, and blend in a food processor until well mixed.

Small red onions are available in Chinese supermarkets. Freshly grated coconut can be subsituted with unsweetened desiccated coconut.

Finely chopped spring onions can be added to make an interesting variation to this sambol.


The Portuguese probably introduced a cake of this name to both Sri Lanka and Goa, but except for sharing a coconut flavour, the two cakes are quite different. Palm treacle is sold in tins in Sri Lankan shops.

(Preparation time 10 minutes. Cooking time 2 hours.)

INGREDIENTS (serves 8)

290 ml (1/2 pint) palm treacle

2 tablespoonsful dark muscovado sugar

170g (6 oz) desiccated coconut

1/2 teaspoonful cinnamon ground

1/2 teaspoonful cardamoms ground

a pinch of cloves ground

225g (8oz) plain flour

1/2 teaspoonful bicarbonate of soda

85g (3oz) butter or margarine

3 tablespoonsful coconut milk powder

50g (2oz) cashewnuts chopped

50g (2oz) raisins

7 tablespoonsful milk

1 teaspoonful vanilla


1. On a low heat slowly bring the treacle and the sugar to the boil. Add the desiccated coconut and cook for 1 minute. Add the cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. Leave to cool.

2. Put the oven on to 150oC (300oF). Grease and line a rectangular dish 25cm x 14cm (10″ x 6″).

3. Sieve the flour into a bowl. Add the bicarbonate of soda. Rub in the butter or the margarine to resemble fine breadcrumbs. Add the coconut milk powder, the cashews and the raisins. Now add the cooled coconut mixture and stir until well mixed. Lastly add the milk and the vanilla. Put into the baking dish, and cook for nearly two hours or until a skewer when inserted comes out clean. Cut into 5cm (2″) squares and serve.


This is a Sri Lankan interpretation of a steamed egg custard. It is considered to be the King of puddings, and was served to the Queen Elizabeth 11 on one of her visits! Use only Sri Lankan Kitul Jaggery.

(Preparation time 15 minutes. Cooking time 1 hour)

INGREDIENTS (serves 6)

150g (5 oz) creamed coconut

225g (8 oz) jaggery

5 eggs (size 4)

1 teaspoonful grated nutmeg


1. Place jaggery in a pan with 50ml (2 fl oz) water. Bring to the boil, and simmer until the jaggery has dissolved. Dissolve the creamed coconut in 50 ml (2 fl oz ) of hot water and allow to cool. Beat the eggs and strain into a 1¼ litre (2 pint) bowl. Mix the jaggery and milk into the beaten eggs. Add grated nutmeg. Cover bowl with greaseproof paper. Steam in a pressure cooker or colander for 1 hour. Alternatively the mixture can be divided into 6 ramekin dishes and steamed covered for 20 minutes in a pan of simmering water.

[Jaggery is an unrefined brown sugar made from the sap of the toddy palm (Caryota urens). It is available in Sri Lankan shops in a ready-to-use form known as Kitul Treacle.]