March 2017

The Genies of Flavour
March 2017

Kamaranka, Goraka, Kaha and Siyambala

Meet some of the genies of flavour bottled up in the kitchen's of Sri Lanka, when added to curries, these spices unlock and release their magical potency to give a fillip to the taste with oomph.

They are the ticklers of Sri Lanka's taste buds. They do not show off their colours and turn a curry into a blazing red or make your mouth burn and eyes tear at first taste like the fiery chilli does. Their presence in Sri Lankan cuisine is more discreet. And their taste, more-subtle. But without them gracing Sri Lanka's dishes, the bottom will fall out of every curry made. No matter how chilli hot or spice smeared, the traditional curry will lose its zing and the guests their appetite.

Words: Manu Gunasena | Photography: Rasika Surasena

Take Goraka, the Malabar Tamarind, for instance. The fruit resembles a miniature pumpkin and when ripe is yellow in colour. It is cut in half and the seeds are removed and then sun dried for a day. It is then smoked till it turns black. The sun dried, smoked, black wrinkled rind is the quintessence that is taken to add the acidic magic touch to a curry. It is mainly used to enhance the taste in seafood. No fish curry is complete without a slice of it to provide the tangy zest.

It is the key ingredient in making a fish delicacy, which has achieved the gastronomical status of becoming the national fish dish in the country. Called the Ambul Thiyal, it is a must on the New Year lunch table. It is quite simple to make. The traditional fishermen's way of making the dish is to pound the dried Goraka to a pulp and mix it with salt and pepper and some water to make it into a paste. Then the fish is smeared with the paste and cooked in a clay pot for a few minutes. The fish normally used is Tuna or Skipjack Tuna, both red fish. The preservative qualities of Goraka enable this dish to be stored for many days, even months if refrigerated.

The medicinal properties contained in Goraka have been employed in ayurvedha to cure ulcers, strengthen weak gums and provide relief to bowel disorders. Its bark and leaves are also known for healing fractured bones.

The Tamarind seed, or Siyambala as it is commonly called in Sri Lanka, is a small nut covered with a spice layer that packs a potent flavour enhancing punch. It comes enclosed in brown, bulbous pods, similar to string beans. Inside each pod is a sticky reddish pulp, which encases the seed. It's sweet and sour in taste and when the seed is added to hot curries it gives an amazing piquant flavour that transforms an otherwise ordinary dish to one with bite. During the cooking process, the layer of pulp breaks free from the seed and merges with the curry, giving it that special tangy taste, the Tamarind magic. The seed remains, it is not eaten but discarded.

While Goraka is mainly used in fish dishes, tamarind can be used in any meat or seafood dish, including shellfish. It can be used not only in curries, but also in stir fried or sautéed dishes.

Kaha Mula
The rhizome or the root of the turmeric plant is used to produce this condiment which, unlike Goraka and Tamarind, has no inhibitions in painting its presence in any dish it is added to, with a bright golden yellow from which it gets its Sinhala name Kaha. In that respect, it is not only a flavouring ingredient but a colouring one too.

The root of the Turmeric is first boiled and then it is diced to make drying easier and then left in the sun till it becomes crispy. It is then grounded to a very smooth powder. Kaha is now ready to be used in a wide variety of dishes. This drying process can be done in the oven too

Mild in flavour but bright in colour it adorns each dish, which receives its honoured presence. On a special occasion, Sri Lankans tend to use it on their staple white rice to turn it to a special yellow to signify the importance of the occasion. The fish demands it when made mild and not chilli-hot as a curry. The chicken clamours for it in the curry since it blends well with a mixture of spices and a touch of chilli. And the jacket potato will ooze with colour when it is cooked with Turmeric mixed with yoghurt.


Turmeric is used in savouries as well as in cakes. It is also found in biscuits. Turmeric is an all round condiment and an indispensable one to have in all kitchens.

The Kamaranka or the Star Fruit is a fruit for many reasons. As the name suggests, it resembles a star when cut at the five or six longitudinal ridges. It has many uses. It can be used in salads, in curries or simply squeezed and made into a refreshing health drink, given its reputation to bring down sugar levels. The fruit is about six inches long and is oval in shape and becomes dark yellow when ripe.

Some don't use it as flavouring, but cook the Star Fruit in a curry. Some use it in a vinegar pickle, achcharu, and some use small diced pieces of it in a curry. But its main use in Sri Lankan cuisine is when it is added to salads to give an acidic or sweet twist - for the Star Fruit comes either acidic or sweet - to the salad, depending on the flavour wished to be created. It can also be used in fruit salads or eaten raw.

The Star Fruit is not only known for its power to lower blood sugar levels but is also an aphrodisiac. Ancient Sinhala ayurvedic texts refer to it as a fruit that stimulates passion and mention instances when those who had consumed it had shown out of character behaviour leaning towards lust. The juice can also be extracted to make a refreshing and cool health drink.


Then there is also the Sadikka or Nutmeg. It is a favourite flavouring condiment in Sri Lanka cuisine. It is used in a great many savoury dishes as well as in sweets. It's the only fruit that comes double packed with two spices. When locals make biriyani, the Mace found on the outer skin of the Nutmeg becomes a vital ingredient to add that subtle flavour to the rice.

These are a few of the genies of flavour who lie bottled in Sri Lanka's kitchens: they discreetly work their magic and are the essence of our cuisine.