Sri Lanka has been known for its high quality spices for centuries, even before the island was ever known as Sri Lanka.
Spices enhance the colour, fragrance and flavour of food. In addition, many of them also have many health benefits. Used in the right combination, spices can turn the simplest food into an aromatic and rich experience in the world of cooking. Of course, if used incorrectly, and the wrong spices are combined, it will make food taste terrible and bitter. Hence care and knowledge are important for the successful use of spices.
There are two kinds of cinnamon: Ceylon cinnamon and Cassia cinnamon. In the spice world, people often say that the Ceylon variety is the “real” one; however, in reality, both are from the same family of trees. Nevertheless, Ceylon cinnamon has a sweeter, fresher taste than Cassia, and if you are cooking Sri Lankan food, don’t ever replace one with the other. Sri Lanka is the number one producer and exporter of Ceylon cinnamon.
Another spice native to Ceylon, where it was an integral part of the national cuisine long before the introduction of chillies from the New World. Black pepper is made from the unripe berries of the pepper vine. It is probably the world’s most versatile and popular spice. Sri Lankan black pepper is especially high in piperine, pepper’s active ingredient, making it
unusually flavourful and pungent.
Cloves, which are the flower buds of a form of an evergreen tree, originate from the Maluku Islands, Indonesia. They are primarily used as a spice but are also used for medicine, fragrance (pomander) and clove cigars.
Cloves are harvested and traded mainly in Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, Madagascar, Pakistan, Tanzania and Zanzibar. When it comes to culinary purposes cloves are used in Asian, African, Mexican and Middle Eastern cuisine. They are most often used to add depth to meats, curries and marinades.
A versatile spice that changes character depending on how it is used. The flavour of nutmeg has been compared to mint, bergamot, bitter lemon and even hazelnuts.
Originally native to the Indonesian island of Banda, it was transplanted to Ceylon by British traders in the 1800s, where it flourished. Only a tiny pinch is needed to add a breath of tropical exoticism to any dish.
The nutmeg tree produces not one but two spices. The second is mace, which is made by drying and powdering the lacy red seed covering surrounding the nut. Several trees must be harvested to produce even a small amount of mace – a laborious manual process – so it’s no surprise this spice is so precious. In flavour, it is similar to nutmeg but lighter and more delicate, and it imparts its red colour to the dishes it flavours.
Vanilla is a word that has Spanish origins and comes from the word ‘vaina’, literally translating to ‘little pod’. Vanilla may be sold as whole pods, powder, extract or as vanilla sugar mix. There are many types of vanilla due to the related species of orchids that produce vanilla; Bourbon Vanilla, Mexican Vanilla, Tahitian Vanilla, and West Indian Vanilla. Sri Lanka has Bourbon Vanilla.
Lemongrass and Citronella (Sera)
Lemongrass is used as a medical herb, pesticide and preservative. When it comes to citronella grass, it is from the same family of plants and is a very close relative to lemongrass.
It is used in soaps, candles and insect repellant sprays. East Indian lemongrass is from Sri Lanka, India, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. West Indian lemongrass is native to South Asia and the Southeast Asian islands.
Curry Leaves (Karapincha)
The Curry Tree (binomial name: Murraya koenigii) is a tropical tree native to India and Sri Lanka. Its fragrant leaves are called curry leaves as they are popular for spicing up curries. They are mostly used as a seasoning in the cooking of Sri Lanka, India and their neighbouring countries. Curry leaves have many medicinal properties including being anti-diabetic.
It is used mainly to impart colour or in other words, dye foods. When it comes to flavour, the spice tastes slightly bitter and peppery with undertones of earthy flavour. Though used mainly as a powder, turmeric is also used fresh in its rhizome form in certain regions of the world. Turmeric is grown in Southeast Asian countries due to their tropical climes but is native to southwest India.