Rice and curry is the bedrock of Sri Lankan food culture. It’s a daily staple, the distribution and consumption of which defines the country’s streetscapes. Vendors stand behind makeshift tables topped with neat stacks of brick-like packets of tightly wrapped food, each with a defining “C” (Chicken), “F” (Fish), or “V” (Vegetarian) scrawled on top. Eaters sit hunched over sprawling, open packets. Handfuls of curry-soaked rice are shovelled into expectant mouths, the sheer volume of spicy starch seeming incongruous with the lithe bodies into which it is dispatched. Some packets are used as offerings at temples or shrines, whilst leftovers provide a source of welcome forage for crows and dogs. Rice and curry is, without doubt, the fuel that keeps Sri Lanka ticking day in, day out.
Presenting rice and curry in packet form produces a sort of synergy that is also reflected in the way it is eaten – with the (right) hand. Colours and flavours are tightly fused together, bound by paper or fingers that hold a spectrum of taste sensations; from the stomach-swelling comfort of starch to the firecracker bite of chilli, the smooth suppleness of dhal to the crunchy complexity of curried vegetables. It’s one of the most complete and sensuous forms of food and eating there is; a microcosm of Sri Lankan society and culture, unchanged for generations.
Bought on the street, rice and curry comes in a double-wrapped parcel costing LKR 100-150 (roughly SGD 1.00-1.50). Encasing it is an inner-layer of cling film and an outer layer of (news)paper. The contents remain private, like a well-wrapped gift, until opened. Indeed, one of the joys of such a meal is that you never quite know what you’re going to get. Two things are for sure – rice and dhal – but everything else is a wildcard. What vegetables? What colours? What spices? How viscose the curry? How spicy? Will I like it? Can my stomach take it? The enigma of anticipation is an intoxicating thing; the excitement of uncertainty that can make or break your lunch and, quite possibly, your day as well.
Once opened the packet versions don’t provide much visual enticement (see above), as the tight encasing and sealing of ingredients causes them to fuse into one. After a bit of prodding and scraping, however, it can look as good as if served straight from the kitchen. Well, nearly.
As with everything edible in Sri Lanka, the ingredients used to make the curry are almost guaranteed to be fresh and unprocessed. There is minimal tampering during the journey from soil to cooking pot. This is a defining feature of Sri Lankan food: wholesome and natural flavours, largely derived from a strong coconut base. Such a base is as distinctive as it is enhancing, and for me is what sets Sri Lankan cuisine apart from its Indian cousins. The sweetness of the coconut moderates the spiciness of chilli, helping to generate a broader and more complex spectrum of flavours and taste sensations. It’s unique and delicious; there is nothing else quite like it.
If the packet format isn’t quite your style, then rice and curry can also be bought from most low- and mid-range restaurants (or “hotels” as they are called). You will find the curries lined up in stainless steel troughs, steaming in their freshly-cooked glory, and radiant with colour and vitality. One place that I visited (twice) during my last trip to Lanka was the Green Park Restaurant in Kandy. Being part of the Green Park culinary empire means that the standards of both food and service are high. The manager was engaging and happily answered my obscure questions about ingredients, flavours, and dhal. He even gave me a second serving of the latter (FOC), probably just to shut me up.
The vegetarian rice and curry (LKR 250) at Green Park costs double what you would pay for it on the street, but it’s worth it. (Besides, the street vendors typically cater to the lunchtime crowds; it’s difficult to buy at night from anywhere but a restaurant/hotel). The plate pictured above contained one of the creamiest, most coconut-sweetened dhals that I have ever eaten. It was made with large and robust lentils that added deliciously nutty flavours and textures to the sweet spiciness of the coconut and chilli. Also included was a squash curry with a strong and sour (tamarind-induced) flavour, another coconut-sweetened potato and runner bean curry, and sambal. The latter was so authentic it contained a few shards of coconut husk, which lent a rustic credibility to the meal.
Rice and curry. It’s honest, unpretentious, and one of the most satisfyingly sensual eating experiences there is. Mother earth would be a far less interesting planet without it.