Sri Lanka is famous for its aromatic spices that add depth and complexity to dishes. If you’re looking to cook this cuisine, understanding the best Ceylon spices is a good starting point.
We’ve compiled an essential list of the 19 best spices in Sri Lankan cookery to kick off your journey. Get ready to tantalize your taste buds with the rich and aromatic flavors of Sri Lanka.
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What popular spices are used in Sri Lankan cooking?
Spicy, flavor-packed Sri Lankan dishes often incorporate cilantro, cinnamon, cumin, cardamom, nutmeg, and turmeric. Paprika, cloves, chili, black pepper, fenugreek, and mustard seeds are often tossed into recipes to dial up the heat factor.
|Spice||Popular uses in Sri Lankan recipes|
|Cilantro||Flavoring rice dishes like pilau or adding to pickles such as seeni sambol. An essential ingredient in Sri Lankan curry powder.|
|Cinnamon||Lamb, beef, chicken, and dhal curries. Sweet treats like flan, custard, rice pudding, drinks|
|Cumin||Vegetable curry, parippu curry, and masoor dal.|
|Cardamom||Baked goods, pastries, and confectionery like milk toffee. Widely used in gravies, sauces, and yellow rice dishes.|
|Nutmeg||Soups, sauces, and meat dishes. A key component in many Sri Lankan curry powders and takes fish curries to a higher level.|
|Turmeric||Turns food into a vibrant yellow or orange shade. Used in potato curry, yellow coconut gravy, yellow rice, and turmeric omelet.|
|Paprika||Popular in red chicken curry and pickled mango stir fries.|
|Cloves||Watalappan, sweetmeats, vegetable dishes, and condiments like Seeni Sambol.|
|Chili||Ideal added to curries, pastes, and chutneys. Popular recipes include lunu miris, Jaffna crab curry, egg curry, pol sambol, and achcharu|
|Black Pepper||Tasty options include beef pepper fry, fish ambul thiyal, and black pepper pork curry.|
|Fenugreek||Build flavor and helps to thicken sauces. Use in Sri Lankan classics like coconut sambol and kanjee.|
|Mustard Seeds||Lends itself well to pickling recipes like sinhala achcharu.|
|Curry leaves||Delicious in Sri Lankan favorites like ulundu vadai, soups, stews, sambol, and many curries.|
|Pandan leaves||Flavoring ice cream, baked goods, and rice. The mild-tasting leaves are popular in a variety of curries.|
|Ginger||Refreshing teas and combined with lemongrass as a tasty base for fish or goat curry.|
|Garlic||Enhances meat, fish, vegetables, and seafood like spicy crab.|
|Fennel||A valuable addition to crab, prawn, or lamb curry. It is also blended into Sinhalese curry powder.|
|Vanilla||Widely used in baking and dessert recipes.|
|Gamboge||Excellent for thickening gravy and adding a sour kick to food.|
Koththamalli – கொத்தமல்லி
Cilantro plants are found in almost every Sri Lankan veggie patch. Their seeds are ideal for toasting gently and grinding into a fine powder.
Cilantro seeds, aka coriander seeds, have a slightly citrusy, spicy flavor with earthy, sweet notes. They add depth and complexity to curries, stews, teas, and pickles.
Popular uses for the seeds include flavoring rice dishes like pilau or adding to pickles such as seeni sambol. It is also a must-add ingredient for Sri Lankan curry powder.
Kurudu – இலவங்கப்பட்டை
Ceylon cinnamon, or real cinnamon, has been used extensively in Sri Lankan cooking for centuries. It was traditionally a food preservative but grew in popularity as a natural flavoring.
Locally grown cinnamon is more refined than the regular Cassia cinnamon sold in most stores around the world. Its aroma and flavor are mild and delicate, with a subtle floral undertone.
Cinnamon whole quills or powder are added to sweet and savory Sri Lankan cuisine. Lamb, beef, chicken, and dhal curries all benefit from this spice. Sweet treats like flan, custard, rice pudding, and drinks are also popular choices for cinnamon.
Sooduru – සූදුරු
Cumin spice comes from the seeds of the Cuminum cyminum plant and is native to the Middle East and India. Cumin seeds are tiny, oblong, and brown with a distinctively warm, earthy flavor and aroma. There’s also a hint of citrus, giving this spice a unique taste that many cuisines love.
Cumin is used in seed or powder format and is added to food toasted or uncooked. The spice is popular in vegetable curry, parippu curry, and masoor dal.
Enasaal/Karandamungu – එනසාල් / කරදමුංගු
Cardamom is known as the Queen of Spices, revered for its pungent sweet flavor with a minty, lemony undertone. It can be into food as a whole pod, or the seeds can be used whole or ground into a powder.
Sri Lankan chefs use Ceylon cardamom in baked goods, pastries, and confectionery like Milk Toffee (Kiri Aluwa). The spice is also widely used in savory gravies, curries, sauces, and yellow rice dishes.
Sadikka – ஜாதிக்காய்
Nutmeg is an aromatic spice that’s warm and sweet with woody, nutty notes. It is used in baking and desserts, such as pies, cakes, and custards. Sri Lankan favorites like rich cake, watalappam, and love cake often include nutmeg.
Nutmeg also suits savory dishes like soups, sauces, and meat dishes. It is a key component in many Sri Lankan curry powders and takes fish curries to a higher level.
Kaha – කහ
Turmeric features in a wide selection of Sri Lankan meals. It has a warm, earthy, and slightly bitter flavor with a mild aroma. It is excellent for balancing or enhancing other spices and ingredients, such as cumin, ginger, black pepper, garlic, and lemon juice.
Turmeric turns food into a vibrant yellow or orange shade. It is perfect for potato curry, yellow coconut gravy, yellow rice, and turmeric omelet.
Paprika – පැපිකා
Paprika has a sweet and slightly smoky flavor that pairs well with many ingredients used in Ceylon recipes. Its mild heat and somewhat bitter aftertaste bring out the best in proteins like lamb, fish, seafood, and beef.
Paprika is made from ground, dried peppers with varying flavor profiles. Use this spice in red chicken curry and pickled mango stir fries.
Karabu – கிராம்பு
Ceylon cloves have a warm, sweet, and slightly bitter flavor. They’re a popular spice in baked goods, fruit desserts, and spice blends like garam masala and pumpkin spice.
Sri Lankan recipes often slightly crush the cloves with a pestle before adding to watalappan, sweetmeats, vegetable dishes, and condiments like Seeni Sambol.
The flavor of cloves can be enhanced or balanced by combining them with cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cardamom.
9. Red Chili
Rathu Miris – රතු මිරිස්
Chili adds a spicy, hot punch to savory dishes, whether used fresh or sprinkled into food as a flake powder. Ceylon cookery uses the spice extensively, used to add bright red color and heat to seafood, meat, and vegetables.
Chili is ideal for adding to curries, pastes, and chutneys. Popular recipes include lunu miris, jaffna crab curry, egg curry, and pol sambol. Achcharu is a Sri Lankan-style pickle made with vegetables, fruits, or seafood.
10. Black Pepper
Gammiris – ගම්මිරිස්
Black pepper is revered in most cuisines, including Indian and Sri Lankan. Sometimes referred to as the King of Spice or Black Gold, Ceylon pepper adds sharp heat to food.
Cooks love pepper for its versatility. It pairs well with most spices and can be added early in the cooking process or as a finishing touch.
Black pepper flavors most Sri Lankan savory recipes. Some popular options include beef pepper fry, fish ambul thiyal, and black pepper pork curry.
Uluhaal – උලුහාල්
The leaves of a fenugreek plant make a flavorsome herb. But the pods contain tiny yellowish-brown seeds with a tangy, bitter-sweet flavor combo. Some describe their taste as comparable to burnt sugar or maple syrup.
Pan-roasting fenugreek seeds help reduce bitterness. They pair well with punchy spices like cumin, cilantro, or paprika.
No Sri Lankan curry is complete without fenugreek seeds. They build flavor and help to thicken the sauce. Use fenugreek in Sri Lankan classics like coconut sambol and kanjee. They’re also used in curry spice blends and panch phora.
12. Mustard Seeds
Aba – අබ ඇට
Mustard seeds come in black, brown, yellow, or white varieties. Sri Lankans often use brown seeds in recipes – heated in hot oil or ghee before adding them to food, a method known as tempering. This step helps release the flavor and aroma from the spice.
The strong, bitter taste of mustard lends itself well to pickling recipes like sinhala achcharu. The seeds are combined with coconut vinegar and vegetables like carrots, capsicum, and cauliflower.
13. Curry leaves
Karapincha – கறிவேப்பிலை
Curry leaves have a distinct flavor profile that is difficult to replicate. They are earthy, citrusy, slightly bitter, and slightly sweet with a subtle citrusy note.
The dried leaves are less pungent than the fresh ones. They are a good choice in dishes that require a depth of flavor without overpowering the other ingredients.
Curry leaves are delicious in Sri Lankan favorites like ulundu vadai, soups, stews, sambol, and many different curries.
14. Pandan leaves
Rampe – රම්පා
The pointy pandan leaf provides dishes with a distant hint of coconut, grass, and vanilla. The leaves are good for infusing flavor into liquids and also make practical wraps when cooking meat.
Pandan leaves are a delicious alternative to vanilla, used for flavoring ice cream, baked goods, and rice. In Sri Lanka, mild-tasting pandan leaves are popular in various curries.
Inguru – இஞ்சி
Ginger is a rhizome that adds a peppery, hot flavor to food. While the fresh version is pungent and spicy, it mellows during cooking.
Ginger is refreshing when steeped in hot water to make a tea with added health benefits. Local Sri Lankans combine this spice with lemongrass as a tasty fish or goat curry base.
Suduḷunu – සුදුළුනු
Garlic is a super-popular spice found in many Sri Lankan savory dishes. Its intense, nutty, mustard-like flavor enhances meat, fish, vegetables, and seafood like spicy crab.
Maha Duru – මහදුරු බීජ
Fennel seeds look like a greener version of cumin seeds. It is a unique ingredient that gives food an aniseed flavor. Once over heat, the seeds fill kitchens with a lovely sweet, warming aroma.
Fennel makes a valuable addition to crab, prawn, or lamb curry. It is also blended into Sinhalese curry powder.
Vanila – වැනිලා
Vanilla beans come from the Vanilla planifolia, a type of orchid. The beans are dried and sorted before being sold to markets worldwide for a hefty price.
Vanilla is available as a whole pod, extract, or powder. In Sri Lanka, a common variety is the Bourbon Vanilla plant. It has a rich, sweet, creamy flavor that is perfect for baking and dessert recipes.
Goraka – மக்கி
Gamboge is a lesser-known ingredient on this list. This orange fruit is dried with salt, then added to curries. It is excellent for thickening gravy and adding a sour kick to food.
The gamboge is sometimes referred to as the Malabar tamarind.
What spices are grown in Sri Lanka?
While Sri Lanka grows a wide variety of spices, it is best known for its Ceylon varieties of cinnamon, pepper, cardamom, cloves, and nutmeg. The country also harvests high-quality vanilla and mace and exports it worldwide.
What is the most expensive spice in Sri Lanka?
The most expensive spices grown in Sri Lanka are vanilla and cardamom.
Where are Sri Lanka’s spice crops exported?
The top five export destinations for Sri Lanka’s spices are India, Mexico, the United States, Peru, and Germany. Other notable importers include Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala, Bolivia, and the United Kingdom. Source.
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