Dining in Sri Lanka is still a ritual unlike in the West, so understanding the etiquette that prevails will help you get the best out of your meal.
Mention the cuisine of Sri Lanka and the majority of foreigners will say they imagine it’s just like Indian food. Such comments completely underestimate the varied, eclectic cuisine that has developed on an island that has played host to different ethnic groups and nationalities. While there is, of course, an Indian influence, there are also Dutch, British, Arab and Portuguese flavours and recipes that vie for attention. Sri Lankan is definitely special!
This has led to a country in which the inescapable rice and curry sits alongside ‘Chinese’ food adjusted to suit the Sri Lankan palate. Numerous bakeries across the island overflow with “short eats” – pastries filled with spicy concoctions, fish cutlets – and freshly baked cakes and biscuits, reminiscent of British high teas. Then there are the wonderful home-grown treats such as kiri bath (milk rice served at all auspicious occasions), pol sambol (fresh grated coconut combined with chilli, salt, pepper, onions and lime), “hoppers” (crispy at the edge and gooey in the middle pancakes) and kavum (dough cakes deep-fried in coconut oil).
It is not only the cuisine that is distinctive, but also the way in which it is consumed. Sit down for a Sri Lankan meal and you must contend with a number of ‘consumption rules’ that are very different to what you might do elsewhere.
Eating With Your Fingers
Firstly, you have to forget about cutlery and prepare to delve in with your fingers. It may surprise all of the food lovers everywhere that this is absolutely the most delicious way to enjoy a curry. The different curries are mixed with the rice using the fingers of your right hand. This is because of the belief that the left hand is the ‘dirty’ one to be used for trips to the bathroom. Also the food should never work its way above your knuckles, as you should mix only with your fingers and not roll the food in your palms. Then as you are about to eat, the food should be balanced on your fingertips and then given the final push with the back of the thumb. Strangely, licking your fingers is also a no-no.
Don’t worry too much if you cannot master the technique, most hosts will gladly offer you cutlery to help you enjoy the meal.
Although we say “rice and curry”, in the west we often eat curry and rice, in that the rice is an accompaniment to the main curry dishes. In Sri Lanka it is truly RICE and curry. The slightest of Sri Lankan women can put away about three days’ worth of western rice portions at one sitting and that is nothing compared to the men. Also while the west is used to slices of bread, in Sri Lanka they just cut the loaves in half and dig in, mopping up the curry gravy with lumps of ripped apart bread.
A visitor eating a rice and curry should be careful to eat rice and curry rather than curry and rice. It would be embarrassing if a family had made what they felt was enough for them and their guest, only for the guest to ladle four large pieces of chicken, two slices of fish and half the vegetables on their plate and then a tablespoon of rice as an accompaniment. This would be depriving the family of food and also making them lose face.
Spicy Sri Lankan Food
There are other advantages to being sparing with the curries when you first begin to serve yourself. Sometimes, the food can be extremely hot, and by serving yourself a little of each curry you can test which ones you can handle, all tempered by generous handfuls of rice. If you do find you really like something, simply top up your serving as the meal progresses.
Other etiquette includes taking a small gift for your host. If they put it aside and don’t even bother to look at it for the duration of your visit, don’t leave highly offended vowing never to buy a gift for them again. It is actually polite not to make a big deal of a gift in Sri Lanka, since the act of giving is what is important – not the contents. Once you get used to it, it’s actually a great relief not to have to endure fake exclamations of delight when you have presented somebody with a gift they do not like.
There are culinary surprises to be aware of, too. Avocados in Sri Lanka is classed as a fruit, and rather than being served with prawns and mayonnaise or as a guacamole dip, are often blended with sugar or condensed milk to constitute a very sweet treat. Pineapple can be served not in fruit salad form, but with salt and pepper, and unripe mango tends to be dipped in salt and chilli.