Sri Lanka is truly a gastronomic wonderland and no visit would be complete without sampling the cuisine. So, if you’re a foodie like me and game to try something new then check out our list of Sri Lankan taste sensations below… but be warned, you may lose yourself in the multitude of exciting new flavours and spices. Seven months after my trip, I’m still dreaming of a good Sri Lankan curry complete with sambal and hoppers!
To really appreciate Sri Lankan food you have to like coconut. Coconuts are a staple in the Sri Lankan diet and form the basis of most dishes. And in cooking, all parts of the coconut are used, from the milk, to the flesh, to fermented coconut juice. Despite coconut being the key ingredient in most dishes, the flavours are so diverse that no two dishes are the same.
While travelling through this wondrous country we fell in love with the following dishes:
- Young or green jackfruit curry (Polos)
This is a savoury curry made on chunks of unripe jackfruit cooked until tender. The texture somewhat resembles that of tuna and the unique blend of spices means you’ve probably never had a curry like this one before.
- Ripe jackfruit curry (Kiri Kos)
Unlike Polos, Kiri Kos curry is made on ripe jackfruit making it a sweet curry. It is typically made on coconut milk and is a really nurturing and satisfying dish.
As the name suggests the main ingredient in this curry is beetroot, cooked to perfection on a coconut milk base. The flavour is subtle, the colour is bright and the texture silky. While it may not sound like it would be your first choice, this curry is a much overlooked gem.
Each time we ordered dhal it was never the same, but always delicious. Typically, dhal is made on coconut milk using red lentils and a variety of spices, resulting in a thick, creamy delicious dish unlike any dhal I’ve tasted before.
Pol Sambol is a spicy dish made from a perfectly balanced blend of finely chopped coconut meat, chilies, red onions, spices and tomato. It is served with any or all of the main meals and if you like things spicy, you’ll end up going back for more.
- Eggplant relish (Wambatu Moju)
This dish is like a caramelised eggplant condiment in a tasty thickish sauce. Others might describe it as more of a relish or pickle. Either way, it’s good. It’s a nice addition to any meal.
Rotti is a soft-textured round, flat bread usually served warm with your curry. You’ll also find Rotti advertised with a variety of enticing fillings both sweet and savoury. They look like warm, doughy parcels of yumminess, and can be eaten as a snack or a meal in their own right.
Kottu rotti like the name suggests is a dish from Rotti, chopped and quickly fried on a metal hot plate together with either vegetables, egg or meat. It sort of resembles fried rice. You can find this anywhere: at street stalls, cafés and restaurants. Watching the Kottu Rotti being prepared is half the fun and you’ll hear the clanging of metal everywhere you go, as this dish is being cooked. It’s definitely one of the signature sounds of Sri Lanka.
- Coconut Rotti (Thengappu)
Coconut Rotti is a round bread though considerably thicker due to the coconut meat which is mixed into the dough before it is cooked. Mouth-wateringly delicious but it must be eaten fresh off the hot plate.
- Plain hoppers (Appa)
Plain hoppers are made using slightly fermented coconut nectar added to a rice batter. Once cooked, they look a little bit like a small bowl-shaped crispy crepe with a soft crumpet-type bottom. Great for putting curry, dahl or sambal in. You can also order your hopper with an egg in it if you prefer (a.k.a. Egg Hopper).
String hoppers are thin noodles made from rice flour, interwoven into a circular shape and steamed. They are a popular breakfast dish, even if only for their appearance. In my opinion, they really don’t have much flavour – it’s what you eat them with and their patterned appearance that makes them special.
- Milk Rice (Kiribath)
Kiribath is a white rice cooked in coconut milk until it’s sticky in texture. It’s often pressed into triangles and served warm. A popular breakfast option, it usually accompanies a sambal or curry but it can be eaten on its own.
Pittu is another popular breakfast dish. It is made with rice flour, mixed with coconut meat, rolled into cylinders and steamed. Surprisingly good!
- Jaggery dessert (Watalappan)
This sweet treat was being sold in big trays on the sidewalk by a local lady who happily cut off whatever sized portion we wanted. It’s guaranteed to satisfy even the sweetest tooth. While it’s not traditionally served with coconut cream drizzled over the top, I think it would really compliment the dessert and help to tone down the sweetness a little.
Throughout my travels in Sri Lanka I found that many of the dishes above varied depending on who made them and in what region they were being made. So, it’s definitely worthwhile trying a few of them in different places to fully appreciate them. You’ll soon have your own list of favourites. The above list is also far from exhaustive and you’ve probably already realised that they’re all vegetarian. That’s because Nic and I prefer a mostly plant-based diet. However, if you’re a meat eater then you needn’t worry as I’m confident you’re still going to enjoy them. Sri Lanka is renowned for its many seafood and meat dishes, so there’s plenty more out there for you to try.
I had so much fun in Sri Lanka sampling all the different foods. I quickly learned that if you want to try real Sri Lankan food you don’t have to venture far. Most hotels have restaurants that serve the local cuisine and if you’re in Colombo a great one to try is Nuga Gama at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel. This authentic Sri Lankan restaurant is set among enormous banyan trees and furnished in the style of a traditional village, a perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of Colombo. The majority of guesthouses are also willing to cook for you, you just have to ask. On numerous occasions our hosts would offer to make whatever it was that we wanted to try. There are also plenty of excellent restaurants around. One I highly recommend is Dewata Villa in Habarana – if you get the chance make sure you call in for a fantastic dining experience. You’ll also find there is an abundance of markets and street food vendors everywhere you go. Good food is never far away!
Some other things we recommend trying on your Sri Lankan holiday are:
Toddy is a drink made from the fermented nectar of coconut flowers and traditionally drunk for its perceived health benefits. It’s typically served in the morning as it becomes increasingly bitter throughout the day. This drink wasn’t as easy to come by as I’d initially thought and in the end I asked the staff at the small hotel where I was staying where I could find it. They offered to source it for me and sure enough it was waiting for me at breakfast the next morning. I personally liked the tanginess of the drink but like many things you might say it’s an acquired taste.
Arrack is an alcoholic drink also made from the nectar of coconut flowers. The liquid is fermented then distilled before being stored in barrels. There is a wide range of Arracks available so I’d recommend trying a few of the more popular ones at a bar before committing to buying a whole bottle from a wine store. Some are definitely nicer than others and they can vary in price considerably. Essentially Arrack tastes like rum, so if you’re not a fan of rum then this might not be the drink for you.
The most popular beer by far is Lion Lager. It’s an easy drinking average strength beer with a light refreshing flavour and is readily available everywhere you go. However, for something a little different, I’d recommend trying one of Sri Lanka’s other beers such as Lion Strong, Lion Stout, Baron’s Strong Brew, Bison XXXTRA strong just to name a few. These are all around 8% in strength and are not as easy to find as Lion Lager, unless you go to one of the many local bottle shops.
Sri Lanka is famous for a cup of perfectly brewed Ceylon tea. It’s often offered as a complementary welcome drink when you check into your accommodation in the tea growing areas. Even if you’re not a tea drinker it’s worth trying at least one cup to see what it’s all about.
If by some unfortunate chance you are offered Nescafe at breakfast time don’t feel it’s your only option. Most guesthouses and hotels offer pots of ground Sri Lankan coffee but you may need to ask. The Sri Lankan coffee is quite palatable not to mention strong and is guaranteed to keep the caffeine headache at bay. There was only one morning where our host didn’t have any coffee and since we’d asked for it, they went out especially and bought some that afternoon!
You can find street sellers selling coconuts practically everywhere and they make for a cheap refreshing drink on a hot day. We found that the smaller the coconut the sweeter they seemed to be.
We tried our first Sri Lankan beedi and a Sri Lankan cigar over a relaxing drink at Nuga Gama. Even as a non-smoker, these were quite enjoyable. Beedi can at times be difficult to find as you travel around the countryside. Only a few places stock them so it is best to ask around with the locals. And, you’ll be shocked at how cheap they are once you get away from the tourist areas.
Sri Lanka is a great country to visit and not just for the food. No matter how you choose to spend your time there, you’re bound to have a ball. And, it’s an easy country to travel around – see our post on Getting Around Sri Lanka for more info.