Traveling isn’t just about seeing places and making new experiences, it’s also about trying out exotic food. Sri Lanka is ideal for anyone who wants to go on a culinary adventure. Not only does this tropical island woo visitors with rare fruits that look like a fantasy, it also offers vegetables you’re probably not familiar with (unless you’re from India). Here’s a look at 5 Sri Lankan vegetables begging to be tried.
1) Karawila (bitter gourd)
No matter by which name it’s called – bitter gourd, bitter melon, bitter squash, bitter apple – everyone agrees on one thing: This vegetable is bitter. But not surprisingly, that also means it’s healthy. The bitter gourd looks somewhat like a misshapen cucumber or gourd with a green to yellow color and ridges all over it. Inside, you’ll find hard little seeds that are a whitish yellow and turn red when the vegetable is too ripe. It is believed that the bitter melon originates from the south of India (Kerala), and it’s found in almost all of Asia. There are two main ways Sri Lankans prepare their karawila, and you either love it or hate it. Some prefer cutting it into stripes/pieces and cooking it with tomato, spices, tamarind for something sour, and a dash of sugar to mask its bitterness. Others cut the vegetable into thin roundish slices and deep-fry them in coconut oil until their brownish and crispy. They’re then mixed with salt, pepper, finely chopped green chili and a sprinkle of lime to eat as a ‘salad’.
2) Batu (brinjal)
Do you call it brinjal? Or aubergine? Or eggplant? Some people argue that actually these aren’t synonyms but terms reserved for various kinds of the same vegetable, different in shape, size and color. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call it brinjal. This spongy vegetable with its longish shape, white inside studded with tiny, edible seeds, and purple skin color is a staple in Sri Lankan cuisine. Wambatu can be cooked with coconut milk and spices, tempered with some oil, garlic, onion, turmeric and curry leaves, or deep-fried and then prepared as a salad-like, sweet-and-sour batu moju with shallots, green chilies and optionally also tomatoes and pineapple pieces. The latter is a favorite for parties or meals that involve fried rice. Technically, brinjals are fruits (berries) but they’re treated as a vegetable. As soon as they’re cut, they need to be prepared because otherwise their white innards turn brown. To prevent that, the pieces can be kept in water or sprinkled with salt and/or turmeric. By the way, if you ever read the term ela batu, it’s a variation of aubergine that deserves the name ‘eggplant’ because it’s egg-shaped. It is mostly cooked as a spicy curry and carries a bitter undertone.
3) Polos/Kos (jackfruit)
The jack tree is – together with the coconut palm – the most important tree in Sri Lanka. People use its wood for furniture and its fruits as food. The jack tree is widely grown in South Asia and can yield up to 100 or 200 fruits a year. Its outward appearance makes the jackfruit look similar to breadfruit and durian, though the many small spikes aren’t sharp. The fruit can grow as big as bread loaves, greenish to yellow and heavy. An average fruit weighs several kilos and consists of 27% edible seed coat, 15% edible seeds, 20% white pulp and bark and 10% core. One needs to painstakingly remove its outer shell and then separate the edible pieces from its stringy, sticky white encasements.
The almost unripe, tender jackfruit (baby jack) is called polos. The vegetable is chopped into chunks that are hard and white. It is usually slow-cooked for hours (preferably over a wooden fire) with lots of curry powder, goraka for sourness, garlic, onion and thick coconut milk. In the end, you have softish, brown pieces that look and feel a lot like fish or meat and have an intense, spicy taste. Ripe jackfruit, on the other hand, has softer, stickier innards of a pale yellow color. Called kos, it is either prepared as a mellum with grated coconut when it’s relative immature or boiled with lots of coconut milk, turmeric and garlic when it’s mature. Its mild taste is reminiscent of potatoes while the seeds are rather like roasted chestnuts. Overripe jackfruit goes by the name waraka and is more of a fruit. It has a strong smell not unlike durian, is bright yellow and has a rubber-like consistency as well as a sweetish taste. You eat it raw as a snack or dry and fry it to make ‘chips’.
4) Pathola (snake gourd)
Called snake gourd or long gourd, this vegetable growing on a vine can reach stunning lengths of a few feet and look like a cross between cucumbers, bottle gourds and green snakes. To prepare pathola, you need to scrape off the whitish-greenish skin. Some cooks also half the vegetable and remove its white seeds. Long gourd is mostly enjoyed as a mild curry with coconut milk and not too many spices. Young plants that are lighter green in color and crispier can be sliced finely and eaten raw as a mellum with scraped coconut, green chili and onions.
5) Gotu kola (Asiatic pennywort)
Technically, this is an herb rather than a vegetable. It’s called Asiatic pennywort or centella and has even found its way to the American continent as part of alternative medicine and herbal tea. Sri Lankans love eating all sorts of greens and herbs, mostly as a sambol with scraped coconut, green chili and onion. Gotu kola is also used to make kola kenda, a sort of thick gruel-like soup or porridge that is enjoyed as a healthy drink (like a smoothie) in the morning. As such, it is pureed together with soft-boiled rice and coconut milk. The rounded leaves as well as the slender stems are edible, although care has to be taken to wash them thoroughly. This plant tends to grow in gardens, along the road and in wetlands as well as moist areas. It is indigenous to the Indian subcontinent.