In my experience of living in Sri Lanka for two full years with private cook and access to the best restaurants of the South Coast, Sri Lankan food is limited. Ingredients, technics, recipes and especially presentation… are sort of consistently disappointing.
Rice and curry is a pile of rice with a few vegetables and fish or chicken curries spooned around.
It has zero aesthetic appeal, makes the plate look overcrowded and generally looks like a pile of leftovers…
They only look slightly better served in clay pots
or small bowls…
It’s a shapeless food of stew consistency, by default un-arrangeable on the plate.
The curries, although they could be quite delicate as individual dishes, are consumed at the same time which makes them indistinguishable from each other.
Essentially it is one dish – vegetables slightly simmered with some spices and coconut milk, fish cooked the same way but usually with more spices and chilli and often without coconut milk or dhal, cooked with less spices, but with coconut milk… And this is pretty much it. The whole content of national cuisine.
To satisfy the yarning for authentic local food, even good restaurants serve rice and curry which is always disappointing in my view.
Rice and curry is not a dish. It is a style of cooking and a meal solution for ordinary folks. It does not translate into restaurant setting at all and first thing that is sacrificed is authenticity.
For a start, the restaurants compete in quantities serving more varieties of curries (often incompatible with each other) then necessary. While traditionally only 2-4 curries are served in one meal, you will get 6 or 7 as a tourist (some places boast to serve up to 15!). Do you really want to eat so many dishes at the same time?
They will push you expensive touristic ingredients. For example potato or carrot which are relatively expensive on the coasts as they need to be brought from cooler Hill Country. How exotic! And why would you want to eat potato with rice?
What can I say? You will shit well tomorrow, man!
Traditionally a matriarchic grandmother or a wife who has no other job to do between breakfast and lunch would slowly and thoughtfully grind the spices and prepare a few dishes for a family lunch.
The idea is that dishes are simmered slowly on the mud stove, could be reheated and served when needed. That is why the best airline food is curry. It’s the only dish in the whole world that is not spoiled by reheating.
The preverbal grandmother will think of what is in season and ready to pluck and pick from the garden or to buy cheaply at the market as it will be plenty of it. She will think of variety and contrast – each dish has a specific role to play to compliment the rest of dishes.
If she cooked fish in salted tamarind, for example, making quite sharp poignant dish, she might combine it with a mild sweet pumpkin curry with a lot of coconut milk.
Oily and wonderful brinjal moju (obergine relish) http://www.mysrilankanrecipe.com/brinjal-moju-eggplant-pickle
would bring some umami to more volumous background dishes like dhal (lentils), mild and non-spicy, often cooked with a local variety of spinach providing extra proteins to otherwise rather carby or sometimes totally vegetarian combination.
My favourite is fish or crab black curry cooked with goraka – a small dried fruit resembling a prune in its use.
I would only add some wilted kankun (water spinach, also known in Asia as Morning Glory), some rice and carrot and coconut sambol (salad) dressed with lime juice.
In conclusion, Sri Lankan food is vibrant varied healthy and inventive cousin but badly represented by tourist industry.
It’s a food of rough fishermen and robust farmers, agile coconut pluckers and endurant buffalo gopala (shepherds), strong masons and tough tree cutters … – not plump bourgeois chattering in the cafés.
Do: eat it with your pal, a sadhu (holy man) in the jungle under the stars on the palm leaves.
Don’t: bother to order in the restaurant