11 Groceries My Sri Lankan Aunties Always Have on Hand

published Mar 6, 2022
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Bags of fruit and vegetables delivered at home
Credit: Getty Imagees/ Carol Yepes

The aromas of Sri Lanka evoke some of my earliest memories: the diesel from the tuk-tuks; the spices wafting from the kottu shops and tea stalls; the alluring curries, fragrant fruits, and savory short eats (tea-time treats) calling me to the table. We first visited my father’s side of the family in Kandy, Sri Lanka when I was a baby, and my mother tells the story that they simply washed the hot chilis off the curried meat so I could eat it (no wonder I love spice!).

Credit: Courtesy of Amanda Marikar
Amanda as a baby during her first visit to Sri Lanka, with five of her seven aunties, mother, grandmother, and cousin

I’m fortunate to have many aunties who are excellent cooks (my father has seven sisters), and who have shown me how to make some of their dishes — never with an exact recipe, of course. Here are 11 groceries, gathered from local markets, produce stands, and spice purveyors, that my Sri Lankan aunties always have in their larders. 

Credit: Kalustyan's

1. Native Sri Lankan Spices 

Sri Lanka is known as the “Jewel of the Indian Ocean” for its teardrop shape, its precious gems (particularly sapphires), and its equally precious spices, including black pepper, cardamom, clove, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, mustard seed, turmeric, dried red chilis, and Ceylon cinnamon — all exported worldwide. These seasonings layer my aunties’ rich curry gravies, infuse chutneys, dust underripe fruit, combine in Sri Lankan spice blends, and generally make everything smell and taste wonderful. 

Buy: Sri Lankan Roasted Curry Powder (Raw-Unroasted), $5.99 for 2 ounces at Kalustyans 

Credit: Grocery Lanka

2. Rice 

Sri Lanka boasts more than 2,000 colorful varieties of heirloom rice, from white to deep red, which have been cultivated for thousands of years. Rice is an essential staple of Sri Lankan cuisine, including in traditional rice and curry (accompanied by an array of spicy dishes and condiments), hoppers (crepe-like rice flour pancakes), and kiri bath (coconut milk rice served for auspicious occasions). The rice cooker is always steaming in my auntie’s Kandy kitchen, ready for a rice and curry lunch (followed by a nap). 

Buy: CIC Suwandel Rice, $3.99 for 2 pounds at Grocery Lanka 

Credit: Amazon

3. Tea 

Morning at my family’s home in Sri Lanka begins at dawn with the sounds of the awakening jungle and a cup of my auntie’s strong, sweet, milky tea (powdered milk gives “milk tea” a uniquely rich flavor). Sri Lanka is the world’s fourth-largest producer of tea, although cultivation did not begin until the early 19th century when Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, was a British colony (Sri Lankan cuisine is also influenced by its history as a Dutch and Portuguese colony). The ritual cup of tea, served throughout the day, provides a moment of relaxation and a pick-me-up, typically brewed from Sri Lankan black tea leaves, or enjoyed in herbal, ginger, or green tea varieties. The tradition of afternoon tea, influenced by the Brits but uniquely Sri Lankan — served with short eats (spicy fish cutlets; savory stuffed rolls; vade, or fried lentil patties; and more), sweet buns, biscuits, jalebis, and other delicacies — is not to be missed. 

Buy: Dilmah 100% Pure Ceylon Tea, $9.29 for 100 tea bags at Amazon

Credit: Instacart

4. Coconut Milk 

My auntie’s countertop in Kandy features bowls of homemade coconut milk made daily, ready to enrich curries and puddings. Cracking open the coconut’s dark, hard, hairy-ish shell reveals the sweet, delicately fragrant flesh, pressed to make milk, or shredded for roti (savory pancakes), pittu (steamed rice flour and coconut), pol sambol (mixed with chilis and spices), and more. When fresh is not available, or if you don’t own a coconut scraper or you’re daunted by knocking open the rock-hard shell, rehydrated unsweetened desiccated or dried coconut is one auntie’s substitute. High-quality canned coconut milk is available in most major grocery stores. 

Buy: Thai Kitchen Coconut Milk, $4.69 for 13.66 fl oz. at Instacart 

Credit: Weee!

5. Dal 

Masoor dal (red lentils), cooked down in coconut milk with tempered spices and curry leaves to porridge-like consistency, offers a comforting and hearty companion to rice or hoppers. My aunties serve it daily, sometimes warmed in the morning alongside bits of last night’s curry, a fried egg, buttered toast, tropical fruit jam, Kraft Cheddar, and pol sambol. Trust me — curry for breakfast is the best! 

Buy: Laxmi Masoor Dal Split Red Lentils, $5.99 for 4 pounds at Weee!

Credit: Grocery Lanka

6. Pickle 

This salty, spicy, piquant condiment is not your European or deli-style pickle. Instead of brined cucumbers and vegetables, Sri Lankan pickle consists of sour fruit, citrus, or vegetables preserved in oil, hot chilis, and spices. Pickle balances the savory and starchy elements of a rice and curry meal. It’s also excellent with breakfast. 

Buy: MD Mango Pickle, $3.99 for 365 grams at Grocery Lanka 

Credit: Grocery Lanka

7. Maldive Fish 

Deployed like anchovies or fish sauce, but with the texture of finely shredded jerky, salty, umami-rich, pungent maldive fish elevates the flavor of any dish. Maldive fish peppers various spicy sambols like pol (coconut), katta (chili), and seeni (onion) sambol served with roti, hoppers, string hoppers, pittu, or rice and curry. Although sambols can be made without this flavor-booster, my aunties (and I) would say it’s not quite the same. 

Buy: MD Maldive Fish Chips, $5.99 for 7 ounces at Grocery Lanka 

8. Fresh Seafood 

Sri Lankan cuisine capitalizes on local seafood, and my aunties’ menus often feature seer fish curries and fried sprats. As a small island-nation, in Sri Lanka the daily catch is never far away. Although some of the varieties of seafood are different in Sri Lanka (their lobsters are spiky and rainbow-colored!), finding the freshest seafood from your local fishmonger yields the most delicious curries and cutlets. 

Buy: Wild-Caught Yellowfin Tuna, $29.99 for 1.5 pounds at Thrive Market

Credit: Weee!

9. Jackfruit 

Growing in popularity in the U.S. in recent years as a meat substitute, polos (young jackfruit) has long been a mainstay on my aunties’ tables, served curried or, when matured, in its raw form. Jackfruit soaks up spices, and its shredded-pork-like texture and subtle sweetness satisfies as well as any protein. While its large size makes for an impressive display at the grocery store, if you’re unable to find it fresh, it is now widely available canned. 

Buy: TAS Green Jackfruit in Water, $3.29 for 27 oz. at Weee!

Credit: Target

10. Tropical Fruit 

My uncle, a professor of Greek and Latin and great raconteur, always brought back treasured fruits and tales from his daily trip to the market in Kandy. He’d sit at the dining table, peeling finger bananas, slicing papaw (papaya), or chewing on the pit of the mango (the best part!), while recounting stories of his travels as a diplomat or tidbits of local history and family lore. If you can get your hands on a fresh rambutan or mangosteen, I’d highly recommend it — the perfumed sweetness of a truly ripe in-season tropical fruit bears no equal. Several companies ship exotic fruit worldwide (at high cost), but I’d suggest heading to your local market, buying a mango, patiently waiting for its peak ripeness, and gnawing on that pit.

Buy: Premium Mango, $0.99 each at Target

Credit: Grocery Lanka

11. Jaggery 

The more nuanced cousin of brown sugar, jaggery (kithul palm sugar) flavors favorite Sri Lankan sweets, including my auntie’s watalappan, steamed coconut milk pudding infused with cardamom. I tried to write down the recipe and failed, as she effortlessly made it from memory with few instructions to impart — well worth the stories and shared laughs, as I watched her magically concoct the perfectly jiggly, deeply delicious custard. I’m going to practice before my next visit to Sri Lanka! 

Buy: AMK Kithul Jaggery, $5.99 for 500g at Grocery Lanka

Don’t see your auntie’s grocery staple above? Tell us about it in the comments below!