Sri Lanka: the Cookbook – warmth and coconut spice

These days, I do most of my travel through books; cookery books in particular. A month ago I was asked if I wanted to review Sri Lanka: the Cookbook by Prakash K Siranathan and Nirajala M Ellawala. I did! I know very little about Sri Lanka and was curious to see what I could learn about the country through its cuisine.

Coconut heavy with vegetables and rice. Making the everyday sing.

Coconut sauce with vegetables and rice. Making the everyday sing.

The first thing I learned, at my very first look through the book, is that the climate is tropical: the coconut plays a central role to Sri Lankan cuisine. Dessicated, freshly grated or in the form of milk and cream, it turns up in many of the recipes. Cooking from this book has made me think about coconut in a new way. It’s not just for Thai curries but can be used for so much more. Pol mallung is a spiced coconut salad which would make a great side at a barbecue: aromatic and sweet at the same time.

Aromatic and coconut scented

The recipes I tried were easy to follow and yielded great results. My favourite is the kaja kari, an aromatic and indulgent cashewnut curry with coconut and peas. It’s gorgeous! It’s presented as a side which makes sense: cashewnuts are, shall we say, energy-dense. A little goes a long way.

Cashewnut and pea curry: I am so pleased to have met this dish.

Cashewnut and pea curry: I am so pleased to have met this dish.

Kiri hodi is a coconut milk broth which can be used as a soup, a sauce or a broth. We’ve had it over steamed vegetables and drizzled over plain rice. Simple and lovely. I liked it so much, that when I spotted a fenugreek sauce (vendaya kalumba), I made it. It has a deeper, slightly bitter flavour but it’s also lovely. Both sauces make a great noodle base. I enjoy the simplicity and flexibility of these two recipes. It’s up to me how I choose to use the sauces.

Rasam, a spicy, Ayurvedic drink, was a surprising hit. A concoction of garlic, cumin, coriander seed, pepper, tamarind water (or water and lemon juice), chilli and tomato, it’s hot and very savoury. I easily consume what’s meant to be for four in one serving. In Sri Lanka it’s a appetiser; I love it as a drink with cheese on toast.

Fenugreek sauce and noodles on the left, rasam on the right. Very different dishes but both refreshingly different from what I usually eat or drink.

Fenugreek sauce and noodles on the left, rasam on the right. Very different dishes but both refreshingly different from what I usually eat or drink.

Exotic and adaptable

There are ingredients in the book that won’t be easy to get. None of the shops I’ve visited sell pandan, for example, hat aromatic leaf that is central to several of the recipes, for example, and I’ll leave out the Maldive fish when cooking for vegetarians. The fact that I can’t get hold of all of the ingredients isn’t a problem to me. The recipes are authentically Sri Lankan, not Sri Lankan adapted for Sainsbury’s. Bitter gourd, snake gourd (love the name!) and drumsticks (the fruit, not the chicken cut or the drumming tool) might not be available in Gorgie but I enjoy reading the recipes. We do have coconut, fresh and in all its forms, as well as jackfruit, tamarind, plantains and some of the other ingredients that feel exotic to European cooks. If a recipe looks interesting, swap out the ingredients you can’t find.

Beautiful and varied

The book covers Tamil and Sinhalese recipes as well as some that show influences from the Dutch occupation in the 17-hundreds. Dishes range from breakfast to feasts, through sauces, drinks, curries, breads and desserts. There are vegetarian recipes and I found some of the meat recipes could be amended for vegetarians.

The photography is beautiful. We get glimpses of Sri Lankan life and produce, and the food is styled simply and attractively. The book itself is bound in cloth which makes it a pleasure to touch. I haven’t spillt on it yet so I don’t know how wipe-clean it is.

Fresh coconut: to create and turn into salad or snack it all now, that is the question.

Fresh coconut: to create and turn into salad or snack it all now, that is the question.

Sri Lanka: the Cookbook contains a 100 recipes. I’ve mostly tried curries and sauces so far but I’m looking forward to making coconut rice – perfect with the sauces I’ve tried, as well as more of the vegetable sides and condiments. There are intriguing small bites like mutton rolls and fish pattys, sweet desserts like pineapple fluff and a coconut caramel custard that looks wonderful. There are lots of aromatic mains, fish stews, vegetable and meat karis. I’ll enjoy cooking from this book for a long time to come.

Sri Lanka: the Cookbook

Sri Lanka: the Cookbook
Prakash K Sivanathn
Niranjala M Ellawala
Published by Francis Lincoln
£20 for the flexi-bound version, £10.83 for the Kindle version.

Caroline was invited to review Sri Lanka: the Cookbook by the publisher.

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About Caroline von Schmalensee

Cooking, eating and drinking is fun as well as necessary. I do food for fun and I write for a living. Good food makes the world a more delicious and satisfying place. Good writing, meanwhile, can make the world a less confusing place.

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