Sri Lankan cuisine presents a challenge even to those who grew up with the hot spices of its much larger neighbour.
Learning to stand the heat
Sri Lankan cuisine is not for the faint-hearted. I'll be the first to admit it, even as an inhabitant of another chilli-loving nation. We, the Indians, are no match for the fire power that our island neighbours to the south can summon with the presentation of a dish. Any dish. The island's food differs slightly from the north to the south - from the Sinhalese style to the Tamil flavours, from the northern hills of Kandy to the coastline that shows its influence with abundant seafood. But there is no doubt that the variety of chillies that are used to flavour the dishes and create side dishes are some of the world's hottest mixes.
Last weekend, I found myself staring at a Sri Lankan buffet at the Panorama Hotel in Bur Dubai. The Palm Court restaurant was alive with a motley quintet who were taking requests written on napkins from patrons and singing popular songs from Bollywood, Tamil films and regional Sinhalese music. Sri Lankan cuisine has evolved over thousands of years. Those who came to Sri Lanka - whether in search of spices such as cloves, cinnamon and cardamom, which were prized by Arab traders, or to form a new law in the land, as the Malays, Dutch and Portuguese did - all left their mark on the way food is now prepared.
But my friends and I had our minds set on trying to conquer the spice battle that lay in front of us. The all-you-can eat buffet started with kiribath, or milk rice. It is usually served on auspicious occasions - weddings, celebrations, the Sinhala new year and on the first day of every month to kick off of a propitious 30 days. The rice, which is boiled in coconut milk, is usually served with a side of lunumiris, a type of sambol, which is a mix of grated, fried onions, spices and dry red chillies. It is also popularly - and appropriately - called dynamite.
The jackfruit curry ignited a fire that was only added to by most of the other dishes, from the wonderful sardine curry to the beef and potato curry cooked in coconut milk. Of course, this was an adventure of the taste buds and a journey into possibly acquiring permanent stomach disorders, but it turns out the best way to eat a spicy curry is to savour it. For it can only be conquered with an intricate mix of yogurt, rice and gulps of water to temper the heat. To hurriedly dig through a mound of curry is a recipe for pure torture. After all, as a wise adage I once saw scribbled on the side of road sign, said: Hurry-burry spoils the curry.