It’s all about the Plating
My mother told me that you “eat with your eyes first and then with your mouth” and never a truer word was spoken than when applying this to a Sri Lankan curry! What I didn’t fully appreciate at the time that she told me this, was that it is all about the plating! Presentation is key and can be the difference between enjoying and savouring a meal or just consuming sustenance.
She always took the time to make our meals an experience. I can still remember as a child being served a plate that looked like a garden scene, a flower head or some form of animal. Other times it was simply the artful placement of the ingredients on the plate. This was my first experience of the importance of food presentation and it is something that has stuck with me. I found myself doing the same thing on my children’s plates creating rabbits, trees and other images that I could put together on the day and it always resulted in delighted faces and easy eating. But it wasn’t about creating food ‘images’ that would entice us to enjoy our food. It was about placing food on a plate in such a manner that each dish complemented the other and together, made for an eye pleaser even before we had tasted the deliciousness of what was to come, and a Sri Lankan curry, when plated the traditional way, excels at this.
Rice and Curry
On moving to Sri Lanka I was immersed in a totally new culture of food. The colours, smells and tastes still have me in awe today. The plethora of dishes that accompanied the traditional Sri Lankan curry was (and is) a thing of beauty and I totally took for granted how a rice and curry was put together.
It wasn’t until I came to the UK that I realised the way people eat their curries in Sri Lanka is not the same as in England. I would go to curry houses and my friends would order rice and one other dish which would be served on top of the rice. A bit of mango chutney on the side and a poppadum, and they were ready to tuck in. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t share the sides amongst each other, thereby adding variety, flavour and colour to their plates. I was too shy and quiet to say anything back then.
I have ‘grown up’ since and am now more vocal about how to plate a rice and curry. I still see this way of eating rice with one dish, as common place. Please don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with eating your curry in this way but it is not the way of the Lankans!
Traditional Sri Lankan Curry
If you have been to Sri Lanka or a Sri Lankan eating establishment, the first thing you will notice is that on the set menu/buffet there are a huge number of dishes. You will have your rice of which there are a number of varieties including white samba, nadu, red, turmeric yellow rice, fried rice etc. You will also have a number of rice alternatives including hoppers, string hoppers, pittu, roti, kothu roti and more. Then your senses will be overwhelmed by the vast array of accompanying curries. Sri Lankans are pros are currying pretty much every known edible food item to man and they do it with flair and flavour. These buffets will have everything from beef, chicken, pork, mutton, sprats and crab to an astounding array of vegetable and fruit curries that will have any vegan feeling like they have landed in foodie heaven. Breadfruit curry, jackfruit curry, aubergine salad, dry fried bitter gourd, pol sambol, manioc crisps, ladies fingers (otherwise known as okra) and gotukola mallung are just a minuscule example of what you will find. So does the discerning eater head to the buffet table and take a portion of rice and one accompanying curry dish? No!! is the short and sweet answer.
How to Serve a Sri Lankan Curry the Traditional Way.
So, where do you start? The first thing you will take is a portion of rice that is placed, usually, in the centre of your plate. Depending on what is available or on offer, you would then take a portion of meat (for those who eat meat) followed by a portion of 1 to 2 other vegetable dishes along with a portion of dhal (lentil curry). There may then be a selection of cold salads, such as gotukola mallung (I could eat this on its own) or a pol sambol, seeni sambol or some form of acharu, which is a pickled side dish.
Depending on how many dishes are on offer, the placement can be fairly moderate to over indulgent ; )
You may choose not to have rice and opt for hoppers or string hoppers instead.
The variations are endless but what is consistent is that you choose a variety of side dishes to accompany your main ‘carbohydrate’ on the plate. What you may not know, and might be useful for future reference is that most Sri Lankan curry dishes are gluten and dairy free. Because rice flour and coconut milk are the predominantly used products for the cooking of curries, hoppers, string hoppers, pittu etc any food intolerances you may have in these area will have you covered. Just watch out for the roti as sometimes wheat flour is used to make them – so it is always best to ask before you tuck in.
Now that you know how to serve a Sri Lankan curry the traditional way, I hope that you are able to enjoy a wider variety of flavours on your plate and palate. If you wanted to go one step further, you would in fact eat your curry with your fingers too. The mixing of all the little sides with the rice, creating that fingertip full of food that you pop in your mouth has a flavour that cannot be recreated with a spoon and fork. But how to eat with your fingers is a whole separate blog post : )
Next time you eat a Sri Lankan curry, why not send us a picture of your plating so we can share it on our social media channels. I would love to see how you did yours.