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Sri Lankan chefs cook up an international audience

The island's unique cuisine is steadily acquiring a global profile

An assortment of spices and other basic ingredients needed for a typical Sri Lankan Sinhalese meal, as presented by Viran Perera of Na Tree Catering. (Photo by Rajpal Abenayake)

COLOMBO -- Sri Lankan food is a smorgasbord of color, its varied forms reflecting the complex ethnic and religious history of the island. Unlike Thai or Indian cuisine, it has never attracted much international attention. But that is changing as a new generation of chefs finds ways to popularize its unique mix of flavors.

Sinhala, European, Tamil and Muslim influences have all contributed to the layered story of Sri Lankan food, each providing the inspiration for notable local dishes. For example, biryani, a rice curry with its roots in Indian Muslim cuisine, is strikingly different in Sri Lanka, where it is spicier and served with accompaniments such as achcharu (pickle), cashew curry and mint sambol, made with grated coconut and flaked fish. Sri Lankan biryani is traditionally cooked and served in a clay pot.

Hoppers -- crispy pancakes borrowed from the Indian state of Kerala -- have evolved in Sri Lanka into a much crispier offering, sometimes crowned with a gleaming egg on top, with the yolk intact. And the island's Burghers -- a small Eurasian ethnic group descended from Portuguese, Dutch and British colonists -- are responsible for lamprais, a unique Sri Lankan preparation involving rice boiled in stock and wrapped in a plantain leaf.

Then there are the "bites," such as the cutlets and fried lingus -- a kind of meatball -- often eaten before a main meal. These were mostly developed in Sri Lanka, and are widely available in popular dives in Colombo's narrow alleyways, where a thriving street food culture draws hungry crowds in their thousands.

As varied and tasty as the cuisine is, its international following has been limited, largely because until recently it was excluded from menus in Sri Lankan restaurants and hotels serving overseas visitors -- partly due to fear that foreigners would object to the cuisine's rustic informality. It is usually eaten with the fingers, without cutlery, with the main dishes served together, rather than in courses.

"Sri Lankans were embarrassed about their food," said Hemalallindre Ranawake, a local celebrity chef universally known as Koluu, whose Maharaja Palace restaurant in Colombo is leading attempts to present Sri Lankan cuisine to foreigners in more attractive ways.

Wambatu moju, or eggplant pickle, is said to be of Malay origin but is now a Sri Lankan rice and curry staple and on the menu at Maharaja Palace. (Photo by Rajpal Abenayake)

Many chefs have found that the Sri Lankan tradition of eating 10 or more separate curries at one sitting, smashed together with the fingers, is hard to present as a fine dining experience. And some acknowledge that if local food is to be served to foreigners in upmarket restaurants, this traditional, homely approach will have to go. But those involved in promoting local cuisine often disagree about how Sri Lankan cuisine should evolve, and particularly, how the authenticity of historic dishes should be preserved or developed.

Many Burghers, for example, maintain that authentic lamprais can only be found at the Dutch Burgher Union, a century-old Colombo social club founded by Dutch immigrants, where it is served without the additional boiled egg that has become commonplace but is anathema to purists.

Koluu is following an individual course, navigating between these conflicting currents by dispensing with traditional restaurant trappings such as thatched roofs and clay pots -- often used to convey an aura of authenticity -- but retaining the tradition of serving all the main dishes together.

Typical Sri Lankan fare: rice and curry with sambol, along with fish and mellun, a mashup of uncooked green leaves. (Photo by Rajpal Abenayake)

At the Maharaja Palace, Sri Lankan rice and curry is presented as a fine dining experience, although it is not served in courses, and customers tend to be appreciative. "Sri Lankan food is never done in courses; rice and curry is rice with accompanying dishes," said Koluu.

"But the taste is in how each person mixes his rice with his curry, usually using fingers. Every morsel you eat could be different because you put one rice ball into your mouth with certain curries, and the next perhaps with different curries, or different quantities of the same curries that made up the previous morsel."

This, said Koluu, is a key element in the Sri Lankan food experience, and cannot be properly appreciated if dishes are served in courses. 'The varying spice combinations make it safe to say that no two meals in two Sri Lankan households are the same, and that's the Lankan food experience in a nutshell," he said.

Local celebrity chef Hemalallindre "Koluu" Ranawake tucks into a spread of rice and curry at Maharaja Palace, his restaurant in Colombo. (Photo by Rajpal Abeynayake)

Viran Perera, who runs Na Tree Catering with his mother, said purist ideas such as this have a point, but the quest for authenticity can become absurd. For example, he said, "pot biriyani," rice and other ingredients traditionally cooked in a clay pot, is these days often prepared in aluminum containers and then transferred to pots for consumption. "What kind of authenticity is that?" he asked.

Glen Jalendran's Culinary Ceylon food tastings, a popular program among visitors, feature incremental servings in a staggered menu -- not the usual rice and curry -- presented with a narrative identifying and explaining the spices and other ingredients.

Jalendran asks diners to choose what dish they would be if they had to live life as a food item. Many Sri Lankans say they want to be lunu miris, a hot spicy chili accompaniment, laced with Maldive fish -- cured tuna, traditionally produced in the Maldives, which is a staple of both Maldivian and Sri Lankan cuisine.

Culinary Ceylon's kalu pol, or black coconut pork curry, with coconut roti uses a combination of roasted coconut, dried chiles and several other traditional ingredients. (Photo by Rajpal Abeynayake)

Jalendran said he is making strides in introducing Sri Lankan food with a "back story" that focuses on vegetables and spices and seeks to distill the island's evolving food experience into a sentence. But it remains unclear how the experimental approaches of Sri Lanka's ambitious contemporary chefs will turn out.

What is certain is that the cuisine will not lose its boisterous quality, which is an integral part of the Sri Lankan character. 'We are a baila people,' said Koluu, referring to a popular and rumbustious local dance style brought to the island by Portuguese colonizers.

The British writer George Bernard Shaw, speaking when Sri Lanka was a British colony, said that, "Ceylon is the cradle of civilization, everyone here is an original." The same could be said of Sri Lankan dishes. There may be a shortage of fastidious fine dining on the island, but the cuisine remains an intensely flavorful gastronomic blast.

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