You haven’t had a curry until you’ve had a crab curry in Sri Lanka. This is a thing of beauty, a sauce made with cumin, peppercorns, mustard seeds, fennel, coriander, fenugreek, chilli and more, cooked with fresh sand crabs straight from the ocean. It’s hot, it’s sweet, and it’s umami-rich.
Of all the delicious food we’ve eaten in Sri Lanka, of all the streetside snacks, the standard rice-and-curry combos and the high-end dinners, this was the best, and it was served in a no-frills restaurant called Cosy on a dusty backstreet in the north of the country.
Sri Lanka. We really liked the whole country, from the high country of Kandy to the beaches of Unawatuna, from the bustle of Colombo to the history of Galle.
But that curry? We still think about that curry. We would return just for that curry.
We are not alone – at least, not alone in the desire to return. Australians are loving Sri Lanka right now.
Sri Lanka has experienced a phenomenal boost in visitor numbers, particularly from Australia.
In the last year, the number of Australians visiting this sub-continental island nation has surged 15 per cent, up to 91,500. There’s been a 400 per cent increase in the last decade.
Sri Lanka is a small, and wonderful tropical island with touch history from British and Dutch influence , and yet it’s the sixth most-searched destination worldwide.
So what’s the attraction? It’s not just the crab curries, though you could be excused for travelling there just to get your hands on one.
The truth is that there’s a whole range of factors that have come together to attract people to this sultry island nation.
One is definitely the food, and Australians’ increased interest in cuisine. Sri Lankan food is seriously good.
Every budget restaurant in every small town there seems to serve absolutely delicious, banquet style “rice and curry” combos cooked in the local style, heaped with sambals and sauces and trimmings.
Then you have places doing kothu roti, the stir-fry of chopped roti, meat, egg and sauce. You have hoppers, the sour pancakes served sweet or savoury.
You have “short eats”, the peppery deep-fried goodies peddled on every street corner.
There are plenty of affordable, high-end resorts in Sri Lanka if that’s your thing.
You can lounge around by a beach, or relax in the cool surrounds of a tea plantation, or stay in a historic old building in a major city.
You can hang out in a cheap, friendly hostel in a backpacker-friendly town such as mountainous Ella, or beachside Unawatuna.
Sri Lanka is also attractive as a diverse and yet self-contained destination, the sort of country you can tour in a few weeks and feel like you’ve hit all of the highlights.
You can be hanging out in Kandy one day, soaking up the colonial charm, and then hit the beach the day after. You can check out an emerging destination such as the formerly war-torn Jaffna, or stroll the tourist-friendly promenades of the Galle Fort and see the young guys jumping in to the water.
There’s wildlife viewing in Sri Lanka too, national parks filled with elephants and leopards and the like..
Go to Sri Lanka for the food, go for the beaches, go for the beautiful high country, go for the adventure and go for the charm.
Go for the people, who will inevitably give you a warm welcome, who will want to know where you’re from, what you’re doing there, and where you’re planning to go.
And, if you’re lucky, they might just steer you towards their favourite crab curry.
Here are a couple of simple Sri Lankan Crab Curry Recipes
Reduce the heat and stir in the garlic, ginger and chillies and cook for 2 minutes.
Add the cumin seeds, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, turmeric, fenugreek, curry leaves and cinnamon
Cook for a further 2 minutes.
Pour the coconut milk into the pan and stir in the salt, lime juice and 500ml/18fl oz of water.
Leave to settle and rest for 30 minutes.
Heat up really hot and serve with fresh white rice cooked with 6 pieces of cardamon.
SRI LANKAN MUD CRAB CURRY
2 live mud crabs, about 1.2kg (2lb 12 oz) each
400 ml (14 fl oz) coconut milk
1 ball of tamarind golf ball size
1 tablespoon Jaffna curry powder
1 table spoon chilli powder
2 teaspoons cumin seeds,
½ cup fresh grated coconut
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
50 g (1 ¾ oz) ghee
1 Spanish onion sliced
1 sprig curry leaves, leaves picked
3 small green chillies, finely chopped
½ litre water
1 sprig of drumstick leaves
Juice of ½ limes
Put the crabs in the freezer for 1 hour to immobilise them. Pull off the top shells, pull out the spongy grey gills and remove the guts. Chop the crab into 6 pieces, then crack the large claws but leave them attached.
Roast the cumin seeds, coconut and pepper till the coconut is golden brown. Grind to a smooth past and put aside
Heat the ghee in a large heavy-based saucepan over high heat, add the mustard seeds till they start to pop, then add the fennel seeds till they brown, add onions, curry leaves, chillies and cook for a few minutes or until the onions are golden
Add the curry powder, chilli powder and turmeric mix in and add the crab and cook for another 3 minutes, at this stage you need to stir it a lot so the spices don’t burn.
Then add the coconut mixture, stir and add the water. If the curry is too dry add more water.
Cover and simmer for 12 minutes or until crab is just cooked through and sauce has thickened. Stir in the drumstick leaves, lime juice and season to taste with salt.