The history of spice in Sri Lanka is a fascinating one that spans several centuries. Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, has been a hub for spice trading and production since ancient times. Spices have played a significant role in Sri Lankan culture and economy for thousands of years. This island nation is renowned for its high-quality spices, which include among others, cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, clove, and nutmeg.
Sri Lanka was one of the major ports of the legendary Spice Route. Arab traders first introduced cinnamon to Sri Lanka in the 7th century AD, and it quickly became a prized commodity. The island's cinnamon trade flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries when European traders, particularly the Portuguese, Dutch, and British, arrived on the scene. The Portuguese were the first to establish a colony in Sri Lanka, and they monopolized the island's cinnamon trade for over a century. However, the Dutch eventually took control of the spice trade, and they established a cinnamon monopoly that lasted until the British arrived in the 18th century.
During the Dutch period, Sri Lanka's spice trade reached its peak, with cinnamon being the most valuable commodity. The Dutch established plantations in the southern and western regions of the island and introduced new spices such as nutmeg and pepper. They also developed new methods of cultivation and processing, which improved the quality and yield of spices. The Dutch influence on Sri Lanka's spice industry can still be seen today, with Dutch-style houses and canals still present in the coastal towns of Galle and Negombo.
The British took control of Sri Lanka in 1815, and they continued to develop the spice industry. However, their focus was more on tea, which they introduced to the island in the 19th century. Nonetheless, Sri Lanka remained a major producer of spices, and its reputation for high-quality cinnamon, in particular, remained intact. The British also introduced new spices, such as cardamom, which were cultivated in the central highlands.
Today, Sri Lanka remains one of the world's major producers of spices, with cinnamon, pepper, and cardamom being the most significant. The island's spice industry employs thousands of people and contributes significantly to the country's economy. The quality of Sri Lankan spices is widely recognized, with cinnamon from Sri Lanka being considered among the best in the world.
Sri Lankan cuisine is a rich and vibrant mix of flavours, influenced by the island's geographical location and its historical interactions with various cultures. Spices play a crucial role in Sri Lankan cooking, adding depth and complexity to the dishes. Following are some of the most commonly used spices in Sri Lankan cuisine and their significance.
Cinnamon is one of the most important spices in Sri Lankan cooking. It is used in both sweet and savory dishes, and its warm, sweet aroma adds depth and richness to curries, rice dishes, and desserts. Cinnamon is also believed to have medicinal properties and is used to treat various ailments.
Cardamom is another important spice in Sri Lankan cuisine. It has a warm, aromatic flavour that is perfect for adding depth and complexity to curries, rice dishes, and desserts. It is also used to flavour tea, and its medicinal properties are believed to aid digestion.
Cloves have a strong, pungent flavour and are used in small quantities in Sri Lankan cooking. They are often used to flavour rice dishes, curries, and meat dishes. Cloves are also believed to have anti-inflammatory properties and are used to treat toothaches and other ailments.
Coriander is a popular herb in Sri Lankan cuisine, and its seeds are used as a spice. The seeds have a warm, citrusy flavour and are used to flavour curries, chutneys, and pickles. Coriander is also believed to have medicinal properties and is used to treat digestive issues and other ailments.
Turmeric is a bright yellow spice that is widely used in Sri Lankan cooking. It has a slightly bitter, earthy flavour and is used to give curries, rice dishes, and other dishes a vibrant colour. Turmeric is also believed to have anti-inflammatory properties and is used to treat various ailments.
Mustard seeds are used to add a pungent flavour to curries and other dishes. They are often used in pickles and chutneys and are also believed to have medicinal properties.
Curry leaves are a staple in Sri Lankan cooking and are used to flavour curries and rice dishes. They have a slightly bitter, earthy flavour and are also believed to have medicinal properties.
Fenugreek seeds have a slightly bitter flavour and are used to add depth and complexity to curries and rice dishes. They are also believed to have medicinal properties and are used to treat digestive issues and other ailments.
Cumin seeds have a warm, nutty flavour and are used to flavour curries, rice dishes, and meat dishes. They are also believed to aid digestion and are used to treat various ailments.
Black pepper is a common spice in Sri Lankan cooking and is used to add a pungent flavour to curries, rice dishes, and meat dishes. It is also believed to have medicinal properties and is used to treat digestive issues and other ailments.
The combination of these spices, along with other ingredients such as coconut milk, creates a unique and flavorful cuisine that is truly one of a kind.
Pete is a Sri Lankan born Australian with over 40 years experience in hospitality. Pete has a deep love and understanding of the culture, cuisine and hospitality industries of both countries - knowledge which he weaves into his culinary tours.