Herbs and Spices in Sri Lanka have played the most important role in cuisine throughout the history of the country. During the medieval era, in the absence of fridges and freezers, herbs and spices were importantly used as food preserving agents, specifically for meat based dishes. In Sri Lanka, the spices were controlled by the Portuguese invaders who exploited and over-used the spice growing areas, leading to their near destruction. When the Dutch took over, they tried to improve the spice lands and successfully designated certain areas of the country to specialize in the growth of one particular spice, thus the trade flourished from there. Today tourists can visit the many herb and spice gardens situated around the country. A single visit will demonstrate how the allure of spices and the wealth they generated, drove Western merchants to brave the unknown oceans in search of profits.
Cinnamon – Cinnamon is a spice which appears to be thin, pale brown cylinders of bark and is rather sweet and delicious in fragrance. The fine quality of Sri Lankan cinnamon makes it the best in the world. It is a universal favourite due to its versatility as a spice and can be used for many purposes ranging from cooking to embalming to perfume.
Cardamom – Cardamom resembles a plump, three-sided pod which contains three clusters of dark seeds. The seeds have an aromatic fragrance and provide an exotic flavour to boiled rice. It grows in many temperate, shaded gardens, on shoots which rise up from the base of the plant and has to be gathered by hand. It is rather expensive, thus one of the most valuable spices in Sri Lanka.
Turmeric – Turmeric is a rather cheap spice which is very similar in texture and appearance to saffron. It is famously known as one of the most marvelous medicinal spices of the world. As it needs a warm climate with plenty of rainfall, an abundance of this spice is grown in Sri Lanka where the most favourable weather conditions are met and it is used for all sorts of purposes ranging from cooking to home-made remedies.
Mustard – Mustard is one of the most widely used spices in Sri Lanka. The acrid black seeds have a strong fragrance and are used whole, powdered or finely ground to add flavour in almost everything from pickles and chutneys to meat, fish and vegetable dishes.
Lemon Grass – Lemon grass is fresh tropical grass used as an herb in many dishes. The stalks and leaves have a vibrant lemon-like fragrance due to the essential oils produced in the plant. The lower bulbous portion of the plant is sliced, used whole or pounded whereas the tall upper portion is finely sliced and used for cooking, medicinal purposes and even as a mild insect repellent.
Nutmeg – A nutmeg is a brown shriveled ball about the size of a large marble which is encased in a mottled yellow fibre. The nutmeg tree actually produces two types of spices, the hard seed kernel inside the fruit and the lacey mace which hugs the outer layer of the kernel. Nutmeg has long been acclaimed as possessing or imparting magical powers, which has led it to be used for many spiritual and superstitious purposes along with cooking. It is most often used to make sweet dishes such as pies, custards and spice cakes.
Cloves – Cloves are undeveloped flower buds which resemble small nails with one narrow end and the other being a four-pointed stub. They have a warm aromatic fragrance which is slightly pungent and are used widely to enhance the flavour of meat and sometimes to aromatize rice. Quality cloves are rich reddish-brown and large. However the ones used more widely are black and small. This spice is also famously used in remedies to aid digestion and cure toothaches.
Coriander – Coriander is the ripe seed of a small plant which belongs to the parsley family. The seeds of this herb have a mild, fragrant aroma and are usually roasted then coarsely ground or finely powdered and used to give a spicy flavour to stews and soups. The delicate, feathery leaves of the pant and the flimsy stem are also used in cooking, especially in salads and curries.
Gamboges – Gamboges is an orange coloured fruit which resembles liquorice and has a sharp, sour taste. It is most often extracted by tapping resin from various spices of evergreen trees and gamboges trees which have to be at least 10 years old. The resin is extracted by making spiral incisions in the bark and by breaking off leaves and shoots and letting the milky yellow resinous gum drip out. It is used to flavour and thicken fish gravy, meat and vegetable sauces.
Curry leaves – Curry leaves, which are most commonly known as Karapincha are used throughout the island to flavour various curries and are grown in almost every Sri Lankan garden. They are thin and shiny and are most often used fresh and whole or dried and ground. More than just an herb to add taste to a dish, Karapincha it is widely used for its medicinal purposes. It is excellent for fat reduction, protects the liver and has proved to be a medicinal cure of certain liver diseases, the control of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and high cholesterol.
Tamarind – Tamarind is an acid tasting spice from a curved brown bean-pod from the tamarind tree. The bean-pod is large and is encased in a little brown shell, in which are shiny dark seeds covered with a sticky brown flesh. The flesh is pulp like and is the part of the pod which is used as flavouring. The aroma and taste varies from being very sweet to very sour. It adds a very delicious fruity tartness to soups, salads, stir-fries and sauces.
Besides being used it cooking, wet tamarind is a valuable silver polisher that leaves and impeccable sheen.
Chillie/Powder – Chillies are a fiery variety of capsicum which add a biting flavour to curries. Ripe chillies may come in a range of coulours and the extent of their spiciness varies. Red chillies are the most famous in Sri Lanka and can be used for almost every dish including certain salads! They are easy to dry in the sun or in a slow oven and then used whole, powdered or freshly chipped. Green chillies are also famous and have even more heat than red chillies. The fiery taste is contained in the seeds and the pith between the seeds and the shiny outer layer of the chillie. Amounts added to cuisine should be thought of carefully to those who are unfamiliar with this tiny fiend.
Cumin – Cumin is the second most popular spice in the world. There are two basic varieties of cumin, the black and the yellow. The yellow brown seeds grow on a small herb belonging to the parsley family. They are used roasted and ground due to their earthy, distinctive taste and aroma to add flavour to certain curries which have been brought to Sri Lanka by the ancient Arab and Indian settlers. The black cumin is the sweeter variety used in desert dishes and various alcoholic liqueurs.
Ginger – Ginger is a spice used in almost every Asian cuisine. They are succulent, fleshy tubers which are consumed either as a delicacy, medicine or spice. In Sri Lanka it is not only used as a flavoursome ingredient in cooking but also pickled in vinegar or used to make ginger tea. It was brought to Sri Lanka by the ancient Chinese settlers as it was and still is heavily used in their cuisine. Ginger is an extremely versatile spice and almost every part of it can be used.