What's Cooking in... Sri Lanka

By Sandra Scott
This item appears on page 57 of the June 2013 issue.
Curried prawns, sautéed.

In January 2013, my husband, John, and I visited Sri Lanka, a place that had been on our “wanna visit” list for several years. The small island country in the Indian Ocean is home to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites plus beautiful beaches. 

We visited the UNESCO sites, went on a safari in a national park, stopped at an elephant orphanage, learned about tea production and marveled at the beautiful scenery. 

We ended our visit near the international airport at one of the properties of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, Jetwing Beach (Ethukale, Negombo, Sri Lanka; phone, in the US, 800/608-0273). We were hosted for two nights and paid $293 for a third night. We were allowed to take a cooking class gratis, but it usually costs $40 per person.

The cooking lesson started bright and early but not as early as Chamara, the naturalist at Jetwing Beach, wanted it to start. He thought 4 a.m. was the perfect time to go to the fish market. I did not, so I talked him into going at 6 a.m. 

John Scott dining on Negombo Prawn Curry.

I know why he wanted to go so early. Negombo is one of country’s major ports, and the fishing boats arrive early in the morning to sell their fish wholesale. As Chamara explained, “By 6 a.m., most of the fish has been sold and taken to retail markets all over the country.” 

Even so, there was an amazing amount of fish still for sale, including tuna, bass, shrimp, prawns and squid. We bought shrimp for our cooking class.

At 11 a.m., John and I went to the palm-shaded area between the beach and the hotel’s restaurant, where the chef de partie showed us how to make Negombo Prawn Curry. 

Curries and rice are the mainstays of Sri Lankan cooking, and, while many Sri Lankans eat with their fingers, the hotel caters to Europeans, so cutlery always accompanies meals. 

We tried eating with our fingers by putting the curry on top of the rice, mixing it up, shaping it into a small ball and then putting it in our mouths. (By the way, the left hand should not be used when eating, as it is reserved for cleansing after using the toilet.) We found eating with our fingers to be not easy and a little messy, so we resorted to using cutlery.

4 curry leaves
¾ cup coconut milk (you can add ½ cup of water to coconut cream)
2 one-inch slivers of cinnamon stick
½ tsp gambooge (aka goraka) paste (or substitute tomato paste)
½ cup coconut cream
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp curry powder
1 tbsp chili powder
½ tbsp turmeric powder
Salt to taste
1 lb prawns (or large shrimp), cleaned and deveined
2 tbsp oil
½ cup thinly sliced onions
2 tbsp diced garlic
1 tsp diced ginger
¼ tsp dill seeds
Mix curry powder, chili powder, turmeric and salt and toss with prawns. Heat oil in frying pan. Sauté onion, garlic and ginger until golden brown. Add seasoned prawns and sauté for about one minute. Add all other ingredients but not the coconut cream. Cook for about eight minutes, then stir in the coconut cream. Remove from heat and add lemon juice. Serve with rice.