Spices of Sri Lanka
If you know anything about us Sri Lankans, it would include the fact that we love our spices. Our local cuisine is known for particular combinations of herbs, meats, vegetables, fruits and rices; which are highly centred upon the use of spices.
Spices grown on our own soil and commonly used in our kitchens comprise cinnamon, pepper, clove, cardamom, chilli, cumin, nutmeg, turmeric and ginger.
Ceylon Cinnamon – Kurundu is endemic to our island, and is cut and curled into long tubes from the inner back of the tree. The tree’s leaves are used to produce ‘leaf oil’. Historically, it was used in ancient Egypt, Greece and there are references to it in the Hebrew Bible. Through the middle ages in Europe traders kept the source of the spice a tight secret and myths about it were common. It was not until the trade was restructured by the Portuguese in alliance with the Kingdom of Kandy that the true source was made known. The Dutch then organised its cultivation. The British East India Company had established the Anjarakandy Cinnamon Estate in Kerala in 1767 and the Ceylonese monopoly declined as the tree was cultivated in other countries. Until today, however, we still produce by far the most Cinnamomum verum, the very best, or ‘true’, variety of cinnamon.
Try the cinnamon-spiced tea by Dilmah during your afternoon cream tea at Ceylon Tea Trails.
Cumin – Suduru in seed form, has a remarkable pungent and aromatic flavour. This is a spice that can be used as a whole or ground as a powder. Physically the seed does look a lot like caraway seeds but is quite different in taste and aroma. The most common variety of cumin traded around the world is of the yellow-brown variety which is used for the preparation of dishes while other varieties such as the sweeter black cumin often seen used in the making of dessert. Beyond just added flavour, elevator cumin is also known to possess distinct medicinal properties to aid against digestive difficulties, blood cholesterol or diabetes.
Try the traditional biryani infused with cumin at Ahu Bay.
Turmeric – Kaha is valued in every Sri Lankan kitchen for its powerful aroma and distinctive flavour. A pinch goes a long way, and brings a golden hue to mildly or spiced coconut broths and curries. It is grown in wet and intermediate zones of our island as a mono-crop and available in the market in dried whole or powdered form. Though there does seem to be many varieties, they are not specifically identified. From seasoning dishes like curries and even rice, soups, stews, sauces and marinades, turmeric adds a warm, peppery flavour and works well even in teas and smoothies.
Try the famous Southern Province lake fish curry during the Discover Sri Lankan Cuisine experience at Wild Coast Tented Lodge.
Pepper – Garn Miris is one of the earliest known spices to mankind. Hailed as the King of Spices, it is the most consumed spice in the world, taken from the berries (or from ‘drupes’ to use its exact botanical name) of the plant Piper nigrum which is native to the Malabar Coast in the Indian state of Kerala. Ceylon Pepper is particularly favoured worldwide as it is quite rich in piperine, the alkaloid which lends it a distinct pungency. Depending on the time of harvest and the post-harvest process, there can be different types of pepper: green, black, red and white.
Try the curry leaf and pepper sauce coated crustacean dish at Cape Weligama.
Chilli – Miris is cultivated in several varieties and used widely in our cuisine. The history of chilli in the human diet dates back to 7,500 BC, with evidence to suggest that it was cultivated in Mexico more than 6,000 years ago. The Greek philosopher and botanist Theophrastus described capsicum in his Historia Plantarum around 300 BC, long before the Spaniards reached the Americas. The Roman poet Martialis also wrote about chilli, referring to piperve crudum or ‘raw pepper’ in the 1st century AD. It was the Portuguese that introduced it to Asia. The famous red chillies that can be used in almost any dish are powdered, sliced or even dried for preservation and an extra crunch compared to green chillies which are even hotter and contain added zest.
Try the passion n chilli infused sorbet at Wild Coast Tented Lodge.
Cardamom – Enasal is popularly known as the Queen of Spices and is made from the seeds of several plants in the genera Elettaria and Amomum, in the family Zingiberaceae. Both genera are native to the Indian subcontinent and Indonesia. It is the cardamom dried fruit or cardamom pod that is traded as a spice. The pods are spindle-shaped and have a triangular cross-section, and contain a number of seeds, which are small and black, while the pods differ in colour and size by species. Cardamom lands are generally termed as spice forests. Due to the unique flavour of green cardamom cultivated on our island, formed by the nation’s unique tropical environment, it is typically known as Ceylon Cardamom. The seeds have a wonderful aromatic flavour and happen to be the third most expensive spice after vanilla and saffron.
Try the cardamom-infused yaara tea during your heritage breakfast experience at Kumbuk, Cape Weligama.
Nutmeg – Sadikka and Mace are two separate spices derived from the fruit of tree Myristica fragrans of the family Myristicaceae. Myristica fragrans is, in fact, the only tree in the world that produces two separate spices. The fruit contains a hard pit, which is a nutmeg, while the lacy red membrane which surrounds it is called mace. Nutmeg, a perennial evergreen spice tree, is native to the Moluccas in East Indonesia. From ancient times, Nutmeg has been a highly prized spice for its numerous culinary and other applications.
Try the Central Province influenced local goat curry, infused with nutmeg at Ceylon Tea Trails.
Ginger – Inguru is a spice that needs no introduction. Ginger is currently one of the most widely used spices in the world as more and more regional cuisines integrate it into their everyday cooking. The spice is extracted from the thick gnarly roots of the ginger plant, originating from Asian regions; it has and continues to be a favourite ingredient by both chefs and doctors thanks to its sheer versatility in both culinary and medicinal applications. In our local kitchen, ginger is used to tenderise and flavour meats and adds complexity to any dish it’s used in. Beyond its use as a spice, it is renowned for its array of health benefits.
Try the traditional Southern Province influenced chicken curry, flavoured with ginger at Kayaam House.
Cloves – Karabu is one of the most prized and expensive spices from ancient times. It is native to the Maluku Islands or the Moluccas in the Indonesian Archipelago. Although the time and manner of introduction of cloves into Sri Lanka are not known, the general belief is that Arabs or colonists brought the crop to the island as we were a major market for spices. Along with nutmeg and pepper, clove was highly prized in the Roman Era. Cloves were traded by Arabs in the Middle ages but in the 15th Century, Portugal took over the trade. The Portuguese brought large quantities of cloves to Europe mainly from the Maluku Islands and valued it at seven grams of gold per kilogram. Later on, the Spanish, and then the Dutch dominated the trade until the 17th Century. As one of the best known of all spices, cloves are used as dried whole buds.
Try the fragrant dun thel buth infused with clove for lunch at Cape Weligama.