Cooking the best food starts with the best ingredients. The aim of this section is to provide information about some of the exotic spices and ingredients used in Sri Lankan Tamil cooking. Even though the ingredients are same throughout Sri Lankan cooking, there some variations in the preparation methods between the different ethnic groups.
Sri Lanka has long been renounced for its exotic spices. These spices give these dishes their distinct flavor and color. There are no written recipes for any spice mixture preparation. So a traditional cook relies on his/her imagination to combine different spices to create a specific spice mixture. Thus, each cook creates his/her own unique flavor.
Most of the spices used in Sri Lankan cooking are grown in Sri Lanka. Some examples are chili, cardamom, cloves, black pepper, coriander, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, mustard seeds, tumeric, and vanilla beans. Even the botanical name of cinnamon (Cinnamomum Zeylanicum) was derived from the country’s former name Ceylon. There is also a town called “Cinnamon Gardens” in Colombo which was once covered with cinnamon trees thus the name “Cinnamon Gardens”. Other ingredients commonly used to flavor dishes are curry leaves, lemon grass, rampa, tamarind and gorakka.
Depending on a dish, these spices are either used whole or ground into powder. Once a cook decides which spices to use, he/she mixes them in different quantities to create unique flavors. Different techniques of spice mixture preparation creates a totally different flavor from the same spice/spice mixture.
Spices are dried form of herbs, fruits, flowers, seeds, leaves and barks of plants found in tropical countries. They have been used for many centuries in medicinal purposes, flavoring food, and as preservatives. These spices should be stored in air tight containers. It’s best to buy the spices whole and then grind them when needed. For example black pepper, cummin, coriander and fennel can be bought as whole seeds and ground into powder with a coffee grinder. Some of the spices used in Sri Lankan and Indian cooking are follows (Tamil name for each ingredient is given in parenthesis):
Chili is one of the main cultivated crop in Jaffna. Chilies are used in the form of green chilies and red chilies. When the green chilies are rippened they are dried in the sun. Chili powder is made by grinding the dried red chilies into a powder. In Sri Lankan cooking, chili powder is normally mixed with ground coriander and cumin. This is what called “Chili Powder” in Sri Lanka.
Coriander is an annual herb belongs to the family Apiaceae. In the United States coriander leaves are called “Cilantro”. The main parts of this plant used in cooking are the fresh leaves and dried seeds. Chopped coriander leaves are used to garnish many dishes. Coriander seeds are mainly found in the form of dried seeds or as a powder (coriander powder). Since the coriander powder loses its flavor quickly, it’s best to grind the seeds when needed. Coriander powder is used in many dishes such as curries, sambar, gravy and rasam. It’s also used in medicinal purposes. In Sri Lanka coriander seeds boiled in water with a little bit of black pepper is used to cure common cold. The boiled coriander water is mixed with honey or sugar and drunken couple of times a day.
Cardamom is native to India where it grows wild in the forests. Cardamom tree looks like a ginger plant. There are two different kinds of cardamom – green cardamom and black cardamom. Green cardamom is common in Indian and Sri Lankan cooking. Cardamom is used as a flavoring in sweets, drinks and other dishes. Cardamom is a fragrant spice and available whole or ground. This is my favorite spice and I use them in many dishes including sweets, desserts and some snacks.
Cumin Seeds (Cheerakam)
Cumin is an annual flowering plant belongs to the family Apiaceae. Cumin is famous for its distinctive aroma and used in flavoring curries, pulav, chutneys and other dishes. It’s best when the cumin seeds are roasted and used as whole or ground. Cumin powder, coriander powder and ground dried red chili are the main ingredients used in the Sri Lankan chili powder.
Fennel Seeds (Perunch cheerakam)
Fennel is a perennial flowering plant belongs to the family Apiaceae. It has yellow flowers with feathery leaves. Fennel seeds are used in many vegetarian and non-vegetarian curry dishes. Also roasted, ground fennel seeds are the main ingredient of Sri Lankan “Curry powder”.
Fenugreek Seeds (Venthayam)
Fenugreek belongs to the family Fabaceae and it grows well in semi-arid regions. It has a strong flavor and bitter taste. Fenugreek leaves are used as greens and the seeds are used to flavor curry powders, pickles and flavor curries. Fenugreek seeds have a lot of medicinal effects. In Sri Lanka fenugreek seeds are boiled in water and the water is drunk to alleviate some stomach problems.
Cinnamon (Karuva paddai)
Cinnamon is a perennial belonging to the family Lauraceae native to Sri Lanka. The sticks of a cinnamon tree are cut into pieces and the outer bark is peeled off. Then these sticks are beaten with hammer to ease the inner bark. Then these inner barks are rolled into long rolls. Only the inner bark of the cinnamon tree is used as a spice. It is used in the preparation of curry powder. Ground cinnamon is used in flavoring pulavs, vegetarian and non-vegetarian curries.
Other flavoring agents
Curry leaves (Kariveppilai)
The curry leaf plant belongs to the family Rutaceae and native to India. Curry leaves are commonly used in South Indian and Sri Lankan cooking. Curry leaves cannot be stored in the refrigerator for a long time. But they can be freeze for quite some time. However this results in the loss of their flavor. Curry leaves are also used in many traditional Sri Lankan medicines. Curry leaves are boiled in coconut oil and this oil is applied to hair. This results in healthy long hair. My friend used to make curry leaves into a paste and apply to her face to cure pimples and scars.
Gorakka (Black Tamarind)
Gorakka is similar to tamarind and normally used to flavor fish and meat dishes. It gives a smoky sour flavor. Gorakka is mainly used in the Singhalese cusine.
Tamarind (Palap puli)
Tamarind is a perenial tree belongs to the family Fabaceae. It grows up to 60-70 feet. Even though tamarind tree is not native to India, it was first described by scientists in India, thus the botanical name Tamarindus indica. Tamarind fruits are called pods. When the fruits are ripe, the outer skin is easily opened. The flesh is brown with a slight sweet and sour taste. The seeds are shiny brown color and can stay dormant until the right conditions for germination. Tamarind pulp is dissolved in water to make a paste and used in curries, sambar and other dishes.
Rampa leaves are used to flavor curries. They are normally used in Singhalese cooking combined with curry leaves. Fresh rampa leaves does not have any smell. Only slightly withered leaves give a nutty and slighty fresh hay kind of aroma.
Snake Gourd (புடலங்காய்)
Snake gourd (botanical name: Trichosanthes cucumerina) is a tropical vine belongs to family Cucurbitaceae. As the name implies this vegetable is very long and some time looks like a snake. Flowers of this vine are white color and lace like. When a snake gourd is quite young and small normally a stone is attached to the bottom of the fruit with a string. This prevents this fruit to curl and become out of shape. A fruit can reach up to 60 inches. Snake gourd is propagated by seeds. Its called “Pathola” in Sinhala.
Bitter Gourd (பாகற்காய்)
Bitter gourd (botanical name: Momordica charantia) also called as bitter melon is a tropical vine belongs to the family Cucurbitaceae. This vegetables exterior is quite warty and the interior is hollow with seeds. The flesh is very thin. Unripe fruit seeds are whitish-green color. When the fruit ripens the seeds become bright red. Bitter gourd is propagated with seeds. Bitter gourd comes in a variety of shapes. The Chinese bitter gourd is light green color and less warty. The Indian one is bright/dark green and the ridges are very prominent.
Bitter gourd has a lot of medicinal values. It said bitter gourd enhances digestion and also controls diabetes.
Wood-apple (விளாம் பழம்)
In Tamil wood-apple is called விளாம் பழம் and in Sinhalese its called “Divul”. Wood-apple tree grows up to 9 – 10 meters in height with rough spiky branches. This tree is native to India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other southeast asian countries. Botanical name of this tree is Limonia acidissima which belongs to the Rutaceae family. Besides wood-apple, it might be called elephant-apple, monkey fruit or curd fruit
The fruits are about 8 – 9 cm in diameter and depending on the variety, they might be sweet or sour. The fruit has a very hard rind which is difficult to crack open. The pulp is brown in color with small off-white seeds. Pulp is normally eaten raw with or without sugar/jaggery. Unripe fruits have a sticky taste which is used to halt diarrhea or dysentry. In Sri Lanka wood-apple jam, wood-apple cordial are very famous. A drink is prepared from wood-apple which consists of coconut milk, kithul pani (palm syrup) and wood-apple pulp.
Still More to Come!…