Sri Lankan vegetarian delights

  • Food
  • Wednesday, 10 Jan 2018

In her immaculate kitchen, Mangai Radhakrishnan bustles about with purpose, taking ladles, spoons and various other implements out of well-stocked drawers and cupboards.

Once she is confident that she has everything she needs, she places a large banana leaf on a table and carefully heaps giant spoonfuls of curries, dhals and pappadoms on it. Satisfied that there is enough food on the leaf (realistically she has piled enough to feed at least four!), she encourages me to dig in.

“Please eat,” she says, a smile carved on her gentle face.

It is evident that Mangai’s pleasure in food comes from seeing others eating and enjoying the culinary concoctions she works hard to create. A talented home cook, Mangai began stirring up a storm in the kitchen as a child, when she learnt how to cook traditional Sri Lankan dishes from her mother, also a gifted cook.

“I learnt from watching her. Whenever she cooked, I was there helping to cut and clean. By the time I was 16, I could cook quite a few of the dishes that she had been cooking and I knew what to do,” she says.

Coincidentally, a lot of the dishes she learnt how to make were vegetable dishes, as her mother took charge of all the meat and seafood offerings. When she got married, her vegetarian mother-in-law taught her how to make even more Sri Lankan meals. So when Mangai herself later became a vegetarian, she already had a rich tapestry of dishes in her arsenal. So much so that in the 1990s, Mangai became one of the pioneer volunteers at acclaimed Indian vegetarian restaurant, Annalakshmi.

Mangai Radhakrishnan, Sri Lankan vegetarian food
Mangai Radhakrishnan's love of cooking is largely tied in to her love for feeding people. In the early 1990s, she was even whipping up Sri Lankan food for customers at the acclaimed Indian vegetarian restaurant Annalakshmi.

Annalakshmi is largely staffed by volunteers, although the eatery does have cooks from India working in the kitchen. But when the restaurant first opened its doors, there were no cooks at all, so Mangai and a few other ladies found themselves cooking in a professional kitchen for actual customers!

“Initially we used to cook ourselves because the cooks hadn’t come yet. When the cooks came, we imparted our knowledge and they took over,” she says.

Mangai says Sri Lankan food is actually quite simple to make and many of the vegetable dishes can be varied, once home cooks know which vegetables co-exist harmoniously with each other.

ALSO READ: Vegetable-forward, the new way to eat

Like the brinjal paal curry, which is essentially mashed up brinjals in coconut milk.

“You can turn this into a tomato paal curry or even make it with French beans and carrots, so there are a lot of combinations,” she says.

The tamarind-infused okra hot curry is another delicious Sri Lankan vegetarian offering that can be modified with other ingredients as well.

“The hot curry also works well with other vegetables, like long beans. So you can easily innovate once you know what you’re doing and which vegetables work well in each dish,” she says.

Some Sri Lankan dishes are staples that are often found at festivals and other celebratory affairs. Like the deliciously creamy, aromatic Sri Lankan parappu, which is made with roasted split green gram.

“This parappu is very traditional and is a must at weddings and other celebrations. In my house, we often used to have it for lunch as well,” says Mangai.

Mangai says she enjoys making all these traditional Sri Lankan dishes, because they remind her of her childhood.

okra hot curry, cabbage and carrot varai, brinjal paal curry, Sri Lankan parappu
Mangai continues to make all the delicious Sri Lankan vegetarian dishes she learnt as a child. Clockwise from top left: okra hot curry, cabbage and carrot varai, brinjal paal curry and Sri Lankan parappu.

“We grew up eating it and we love the food. And I’ve given my children a taste of it and they love it. So it will be repeated because of the sheer love of the food we grew up with. And by continuing to cook these dishes, we are preserving the recipes of our forefathers, because Sri Lankan food is different from South Indian food, so it actually stands out,” she says.

ALSO READ: How to switch to a plant-based diet in 2018

Mangai’s love of cooking has even been passed down to the rest of her family, as she has taught all three of her daughters how to make this heritage food, and they in turn, have taught their children. These days, even her teenage granddaughters are able to whip up the family’s favourite paal curry with ease!

These days, Mangai doesn’t realistically have to cook as much anymore as her children are grown up and live overseas. But she continues to cook, often inviting friends and family over for a good meal, something she says she intends to do for as long as she can.

“I find every excuse to cook, because I love food and I love to feed people,” she says.

brinjal paal curry


Serves 4

For the curry

250g brinjals

1 medium onion, sliced

1 green chilli, sliced lengthwise

a pinch of turmeric

½ tsp salt

handful of curry leaves

pinch of fenugreek

1 cup water

¼ cup coconut milk

For the garnish

1 tbsp ghee

½ tsp mustard seeds

1 onion, sliced

2 dried chillies, cut in two

a sprig of curry leaves

To make the brinjal curry

In a medium size pot, add all the ingredients, except the coconut milk. Cook on medium heat and cover. Stir every few minutes.

When the mixture reaches a boil, add coconut milk and boil for another few minutes. The brinjal should be soft and well-cooked. Once done, mash brinjals with a potato masher.

To prepare the garnish

For the garnish, add ghee to a pan. When ghee is hot, add the mustard seeds. Once the seeds sputter, add the chillies, onions and curry leaves. When the chillies turn dark and onions have browned, the garnish is ready.

Scatter garnish on top of the brinjal dish. Serve hot.

cabbage and carrot varai


Serves 8

2 tbsp ghee

1 tsp mustard seeds

3 pieces dried chilli, each cut into 2

1 tsp urad dhal

a sprig of curry leaves

2 medium onions, diced

1 cup grated coconut

¼ tsp turmeric powder

½ tsp chilli powder (optional)

¾ tsp salt

400g cabbage, shredded

100g carrot, grated

To cook

In a wok, add the ghee. When ghee is hot, add the mustard seeds. When the seeds sputter, add the chilli, urad dhal, curry leaves and finally the onions. When the onions turn golden brown, add the coconut, turmeric powder, chilli powder and salt. Stir for a few minutes.

Add the cabbage and carrot and stir on a medium heat until the cabbage and carrot are cooked. Serve with white rice.

okra hot curry


Serves 8

½ tbsp tamarind

1 cup water

2 cups oil, for deep-frying

500g okra, cut into 2.5cm pieces

2 tbsp oil, for cooking

½ tsp mustard seeds

¼ tsp fenugreek

2 medium onions, diced

6 garlic cloves, each cut into 4 pieces lengthwise

2 green chillies, sliced lengthwise

a sprig of curry leaves

100g tomatoes, cubed

2 tbsp curry powder

¾ tsp salt

½ cup coconut milk

To cook

In a bowl, mix tamarind with water. Remove seeds and set juice aside.

Deep-fry the okra until light brown, then drain and set aside.

In a wok, add 2 tablespoons oil. When oil becomes hot, add the mustard seeds. When mustard seeds sputter, add the fenugreek, onions, garlic, green chilli and curry leaves and fry until onions brown. Add tomatoes and stir for a short while, then add the tamarind juice, curry powder and salt and leave to boil for a few minutes. Add the fried pieces of okra and coconut milk and allow to boil for a few more minutes. Remove from the heat and serve hot.

Sri Lankan parappu


Serves 4

For the parappu

1 cup roasted split green gram

3 cups water

1 medium onion, sliced

2 cloves garlic, cut into 4 pieces lengthwise

1 green chilli, sliced lengthwise

a sprig of curry leaves

1 tsp pepper-cumin powder

1 tsp chilli powder

½ tsp turmeric powder

1 tsp salt

½ cup coconut milk

For the garnish

1 tbsp ghee

½ tsp mustard seeds

2 dried chillies, each cut into 2

1 medium onion, sliced

a sprig of curry leaves

To cook parappu

Wash the green gram and put to boil with water together with the onion, garlic, chilli and curry leaves.

When the dhal is cooked, add the pepper-cumin powder, chilli powder, turmeric powder and salt and allow to boil for a few minutes more. Then add the coconut milk and boil for about 3 minutes. Set aside.

To make garnish

In a separate pan, add ghee. When ghee is hot, add the mustard seeds and allow to sputter.

Add the chillies, onion and curry leaves and stir until chillies darken and onions are browned.

Add garnish to the dhal and serve hot with rice.

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