Sri Lanka has been famous for its native spices for thousands of years.
Spices in Sri Lanka have played the most important role in cuisine throughout the history of the country. Until recently, in the absence of electricity and cold storage, spices were important as food preserving agents. Spices enhance the color, fragrance and flavor of food. In addition, many of them also have many health benefits such as improving digestion. Used in the right combination, spices can turn the simplest of foods in to rich and aromatic dishes.
- Tropical Sri Lanka with its diverse micro climates and soil types has been fertile for the growth of spice trees, of which some of them are endemic.
- Sri Lanka has been historically renowned for its quality spices. In ancient times it maintained relations with the Greek, Roman, Persian, Chinese and Arab traders through its spice trade.
- During the 15th century trade route maps were drawn for the Europeans to navigate around Africa and arrive to South Asia.
- Europeans such as Portuguese, Dutch and English invaded the island mainly to acquire its spices.
The main spices of Sri Lanka are as follows:
Cinnamon refers to cinnamomum verum or ‘true cinnamon’ which is a plant endemic to Sri Lanka. Other varieties of cinnamon from other countries are from related species of plants and is called ‘cassia’. It is a spice obtained by making shavings (also known as quills) of the inner bark of the cinnamon plant. Cinnamon trade has a very long history and records show cinnamon in the spice trade of Egypt as early as 2000 BC.
Cinnamon is often used to spice up chocolates, deserts and beverages but also for alcohol flavoring and medicine. 90% of the true cinnamon traded around the world comes from Sri Lanka.
Pepper generally refers to black, white and green pepper. Black pepper is the unripe fruit of the pepper plant, piper nigrum, cooked and dried. Green pepper refers to the dried, but uncooked, unripe fruit of the pepper plant. White pepper, on the other hand, is made from the seeds from ripe pepper fruits.
Pepper is the spice that is most commonly traded in the world. It is used due to its strong aroma and for its spiciness. In addition to its use as a spice it has medical purposes and is also used for massages (pepper oil). Pepper is native to South and Southeast Asia.
Cardamom, is a small spindle shaped seedpod with black seeds inside. The covers are thin and pale green (elettaria) or dark brown (amomum). It is the third on the list of the world’s most expensive spices, right behind vanilla and saffron. Cardamom is used as a cooking spice as well as flavoring (mainly for tea and coffee). It is also used in medicine. Cardamom is native to South Asia.
Nutmeg and Mace
Nutmeg is the seed of a type of evergreen tree (myristica fragrans), while mace is the reddish netlike covering surrounding the seed. Nutmeg and mace are used as a flavoring for many sweet dishes from the cuisines as well as a spice in many savory dishes. Nutmeg is also an essential ingredient in many Christmas favorites such as mulled cider, mulled wine and eggnog. Other uses of nutmeg is for perfume and medicine.
The common nutmeg is native to the Banda islands of Indonesia. The plant was a lucrative trade spice throughout history. Therefore, after the Napoleonic wars it was transplanted by the British to Sri Lanka. However, records show that the plant existed in Sri Lanka even before this.
Turmeric (binomial name: circuma longa), once processed from the rhizomes, is a deep orangish yellow powder. It is used mainly to add color to meals. When it comes to flavor, the spice tastes slightly bitter and peppery with undertones of earthy flavor. 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.
Cloves, which are the flower buds of a form of 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.
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 flavor to certain curries. The black cumin is the sweeter variety used in desert dishes and various alcoholic liqueurs.
Hot chile peppers
Hot chile peppers are a fiery variety of capsicum which add a biting flavor to curries. Ripe chilies may come in a range of colors and the extent of their spiciness varies. Red chilies 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 chilies are also famous and have even more heat than red chilies. The fiery taste is contained in the seeds and the pith between the seeds and the shiny outer layer. Amount added to a dish depends very much on individual taste.
Ginger is a spice used widely in 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 flavor in cooking but also pickled in vinegar or used to make ginger tea. It was brought to Sri Lanka by the ancient Chinese traders 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.
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 curries. They are mostly used as seasoning in the cooking of Sri Lanka, India and their neighboring countries. Curry leaves have many medicinal properties including being anti-diabetic.