Thursday 12 December 2013

Rice Balls – Sri Lankan Version

Today is a special day for me and my wife. On special days like this we prepare ‘kiribath’ (milk rice). It is the traditional food that most Sri Lankans make on auspicious days and for special occasions. This morning we made kiribath to celebrate our 23rd wedding anniversary. My wife cooked kiribath and I shaped it to make imbul kiribath emulating my maternal grandmother.

Almost every female member of my family had a specialty dish. Imbul kiribath was the specialty of my grandmother. Usually the traditional form of kiribath takes diamond shape. Imbul kiribath is a rugger ball shaped lump with a filling in the center. If the traditional one is delicious, imbul kiribath is heavenly delicious. My taste buds tingle when I remember the taste of my grandmother’s imbul kiribath. My mother inherited some of my grandmother’s skills but she could not emulate her. Then I can only dream of matching either of their culinary skills.

My grandparents were living in a village about 3km from ours. I still remember my grandfather bringing some sweets or few pieces of imbul kiribath for me and my brothers. He used to come in his bullock drawn cart (thirikkale). When the steel rimmed wheels of the cart and bull’s shoe plates hit the tar macadamized road it creates a rhythmic musical sound. We knew that grandfather was coming to our house carrying something for us when we hear that music. Most often it was a sweetmeat that our grandmother has prepared for us but on special occasions it was definitely milkrice.

The closest to the milkrice that I have tasted in another country is “Nasi Lemak”. It is normally long grained white rice cooked in light coconut milk. It is very fragrant. The fragrance is a concoction of smells coming from sweet coconut milk, pandan leaves (rampe) and ginger used in cooking rice. Nasi Lemak is usually served with shrimp paste sambal, deep fried anchovies, hard-boiled egg, roasted peanuts and few slices of cucumber. I always look for nasi lemak in the breakfast buffet if I happen to stay in a hotel in Indonesia, Malaysia or Singapore. Who need toast or cereal or noodle soup if nasi lemak is served.

The similarity of kiribath and nasi lemak does not limit only to the coconut flavor in rice. While nasi lemak is served as a heap, milk rice is served as a cake or a lump. Like shrimp paste sambal for nasi lemak, milk rice is coupled with katta sambal (a grinded paste of dried chili, salt, lime juice and maldive fish) or lunu miris (a grinded paste of shallots, dried chili, salt, lime juice and maldive fish). A piece of palm sugar (hakuru) may be added as an accompaniment to balance hot and acidic taste of the sambal with a sweet taste.

Rice cakes are found in some other food cultures as well. For example, rice cakes and rice balls are omnipresent in Japanese, Korean and Chinese cuisine. They are made of short-grained and sticky Japanica type rice or rice flour. There is always a sweet or savory filling in the center. I am quite fond of triangular shaped Japanese rice cakes filled with shredded meat and wrapped in sea weed (kaiso). They are perfect for snacking. In Thailand and Lao glutinous rice is used to make many different types of rice cakes and balls. My favorite rice cake in Thailand is sticky rice wrapped in banana leaf and grilled on charcoal fire (called khao niew ping). It has shredded meat, taro or banana as filling.

Imbul kiribath is not like any of the rice balls or cakes found in other food cultures. It is much larger in size and shape. Unlike Japanese or Thai rice balls or cakes that can be eaten at any time, imbul kiribath is normally eaten at the breakfast. It is also eaten as a warm food but for me the best taste come when it is eaten late in the morning after several hours from making.

My grandmother used a dried plate part of an arecanut leaf (kolapatha) to get the perfect shape of imbul kiribath.  She put some steaming kiribath on an arecanut leaf plate and flattens it using the back of a coconut shell spoon to form an oval shape. Then she put some fried onion, chili and tamarind paste mixture on the center of the circle. After that she roles the plate so as to enclose the onion mixture with kiribath. Finally she holds the two ends of the role and twist her hands, one clockwise and the other counter clock wise, as if wrapping a candy using a piece of cellophane. Once the arecanut plate is opened one can see the rugger ball shaped imbul kiribath

In a foreign country it is very difficult find such plates to make imbul kiribath. Therefore, we used banana leaf to take the shape. Ours did not look so authentic. They ended up looking like flattened comforter pillows than rugger balls but they still could cheer-up the mood of our special occasion.

Making Imbul Kiribath in a foreign kitchen
First prepare the filling and let it cool down.

Ingredients for filling
25Og big red onion
3 green chilies
A sprig of curry leaves
1 tbsp red chili flakes
2 tbsp tamarind pulp (take out seeds and seed cover)
3 small pieces of pandan leaves (optional)
Salt to taste
3 tbsp coconut oil ( or substitute)

Slice onion length wise. Thinly cut green chilies. Fry onion, green chili, curry leaves and pandan leaves until onion is half brown. Add red chili flakes and mix well. Add tamarind pulp and salt and fry for few more minutes. Take off from heat and let it cool.   
Then make milk rice.

Ingradiants for milk rice
500g medium grain raw white rice or red rice (We used Thai jasmine rice when in Thailand)
2 cups of coconut milk (We diluted Thai coconut cream to make thick coconut milk)
Salt to taste

Cook rice as usual in a pot with adequate amount of water. Do not use the electric rice cooker. When the rice is just cooked add the coconut milk and salt and cook further until rice getting stickier and coconut milk is cooked. Stop the cooking process.

Keep a banana leaf on a flat surface and coat a thin layer of coconut milk to make it slightly wet. Even water will do. Then take one big spoonful of milk rice and flatten it on the banana leaf. Take a table spoon full of fired onion mixture and spread on the center of the flattened milk rice. Then roll the banana leaf to form an elongated ball of milk rice. Make sure that the onion filling is completely covered by milk rice. You can use another piece of banana leaf to get the shape if rolling is difficult. Once shaped like a rugger ball, it is called imbul kiribath. Leave the rice ball to cool down. Repeat the balling process until all milk rice and onion mixture is over. It is best to serve when the rice balls have lost most of its heat. A piece of palm sugar can be served as an accompaniment.  


  1. Oh, my. I did not know that you had such deep knowledge on food. I still remember the special Sri Lankan rice that I ate at your house. I looked for that when I went to Sri Lanka, but could not find..... Can you write about that rice as well?
    In Japan, we eat Ozoni (rice cake in soup) on New Year Day. Our family's is my grandmother's version, who is from the south of Japan. I thought all Ozoni is the same, till later on in life, I have discovered that there is a very wide variation in this, depending on where one is from in Japan.

    1. Thanks Kyoko for the nice comment. My intention is to learn about each others culture, food, architecture etc. I can't remember the rice dish that you mentioned. Is it a short grain white rice?

    2. I think it was long grain. Not sticky, but it was very fragrant and sweet. You told me that those rice are steamed, and then, dried, and then cooked again.

    3. Perhaps I gave you par boiled rice.

  2. Can you write about par boiled rice as well?

    1. Yes, I have a story. I will write one day. Thanks for your interest.

  3. Hello Ranjith. I was reading about a Sri Lankan tradition of feeding rice balls to crows. Would that follow the same recipe for cooking the rice? If not, do you know how it would be done? A Sri Lankan poet I know wrote a poem about it, that is how I found out. Many thanks in advance,


  4. Hmm is anyone else having problems with the images on this blog
    loading? I'm trying to figure out if its a problem on my end
    or if it's the blog. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.