July 2018


Ala: Delicious Island Culinary Customs
July 2018




Raja-ala, a type of vael ala found in Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka one encounters many varieties of nutritious yams. Many grow in village backyards waiting to be rediscovered.


Words: Nethu Wickramasinghe
Photography: L J Mendis Wickramasinghe


Ancient Sri Lanka was abundant with food resources, that bygone civilisations in the island met all their nutritional and medicinal needs from the surrounding land. Apart from rice, the island's staple food, many native varieties of yams too had been consumed by our ancestors to meet their daily dietary requirements. Despite their significant nutritional and health benefits, common knowledge on certain varieties are slowly disappearing.


Edible tubers (yams) in Sri Lanka may grow as herbaceous vines, which are known as vael-ala in Sinhala, or as herbaceous plants known as gass-ala. Semi-cultivated vael-ala are yams such as Hingurala (Dioscorea alata L), Angili ala (Dioscorea spp), Raja ala (Dioscorea alata L), Kiriala (Taro root), Dandila (Water Yam). While tubers like Hulankeeriya (Arrow Root Plant) and Kidaran ala (Elephant-Foot Yam) are the more popular varieties of gass-ala. The names for these yams change from place to place, and at times two different varieties may be known by the same name.

Edible tubers (yams) in Sri Lanka may grow as herbaceous vines, which are known as vael-ala in Sinhala, or as herbaceous plants known as gass-ala.


Kidaran ala is a gigantic yam, which appears semi globular. Its resemblance to the footprint of an elephant likely resulted in its English name - Elephant-Foot Yam. With its centre slightly dent, a fully grown Kidaran ala will weigh as much as 15-20 kilograms. Its large dark purplish flower known as the Devil's tongue (also known as the Witch of the forest) is recognised as one of the smelliest of flowers, which gives out a foul smell of rotting meat. The foul odour attracts carrion beetles who are deceived into pollinating these plants to the next generation. Care must be taken when cooking this yam, as when not cooked suitably, it may result in a slightly itchy feeling.


Some yams such as Dandila are purple in colour. Yams with this purplish tinge are at times colloquially called "purple yam". These yams can be conveniently cooked, unlike other varieties, and are consumed as a complete meal. In Sri Lanka, they are often consumed as a main dish, usually boiled after peeling the skin, and served with scraped coconut and spicy lunu-miris (Sri Lankan chilli-paste).

Some yams such as Dandila are purple in colour. Yams with this purplish tinge are at times colloquially called "purple yam". These yams can be conveniently cooked, unlike other varieties, and are consumed as 
a complete meal.


Hulankeeriya or the arrow root has a very scaly paper-like outer skin, which can be cleaned fairly easily prior to preparation. This is known to contain many health benefits. Both Dandila and Hulankeeriya can also be prepared like wholesome porridge with coconut milk.


Air potatoes also known as Udala in Sinhalese is a climber and has a yam underground that can be consumed as well as bulbils above. These bulbils appear like a hanging potato.


Hingurala and Angili ala both look alike in appearance, with yams branching off in the shape of fingers. When peeling the skin of these yams, care must be taken to avoid direct contact with the skin as it may cause irritation. In the village, oil or a little bit of lime juice is applied on the hands prior to cleaning these yams. These are also served as a main meal especially for breakfast.


Hingurala, Angili ala and Kiriala can also be prepared as a flavoursome curry dish that can be served with rice for lunch.


An endemic variety ‘Pathan ala' (Brachystelma lankana) is only found in the Knuckles massif in the country's Matale district. This yam variety is known to be critically endangered. The plant in itself is small with elongated leaves and a single yam that grows beneath, which can be consumed.

The traditional culinary customs of the island reflect the interaction between its citizens and the indigenous flora.


In general, these native yams are particularly used today in traditional medicine. An owner of an ayurvedic shop along the Colombo-Ratnapura road, one of the few remaining outlets that sell only traditional yams, revealed that many purchase these rare yams to seek relief from various ailments and diseases.


With changing times and fading traditions, as well as centuries of colonialism, much of the knowledge on traditional Sri Lankan yams that grew naturally on our land were never passed on to future generations. As a result of current trends, cultivation of yams mainly includes a few varieties such as ala (potatoes), manioc (cassava) and bathala (sweet potatoes).


The traditional culinary customs of the island reflect the interaction between its citizens and the indigenous flora.


It should not be forgotten that the island's fertile soil gifts many nutritious food sources, and this knowledge should be preserved.

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    Kidaran Mala or the Devil's Tongue is the flower of the Elephant Foot Yam
    © Hemachandra Kularathna

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    The vines of the Raja-ala
    © Hemachandra Kularathna

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    Kiri Ala

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    The herbaceous plant of the Elephant Foot Yam
    © Hemachandra Kularathna

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    Kidaran ala also known as Elephant Foot Yam for its distinctive shape similar to an elephant's foot

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    Dandila also known as the purple yam

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    Hulankeeriya or the Arrow root has a very scaly paper-like outer skin

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    Udala tuber

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    The tuber locally known as Hingurala

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    The vines of the Hingurala

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    Angili ala when cooked can be consumed as a main meal

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    Manioc is a popular yam in Sri Lanka, eaten boiled, fried or as a curry

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    The endemic tuber 'Pathan ala' (Brachystelma lankana), is only found in the Knuckles massif
    © Naalin Perera

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    Bathala has a distinctive purple skin and is deliciously sweet when cooked

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