Table of Contents
- Sri Lankan cuisine and beverages
- Prices and manners
- Dining Options
- Curry with rice
- Other Sri Lankan specialties
- South Indian meals
- Quick and easy meals
- Cuisines from throughout the world
- Vegetarian cooking
- Desserts and sweets
- Drinking water
- Sweetened beverages
- Tea and coffee
- Alcoholic drinks
- Where can I grab a drink?
Sri Lankan cuisine and beverages
Sri Lanka has a fascinatingly different culinary legacy as a result of the peculiar mingling of local goods with recipes and spices brought to the island over the years by Indians, Arabs, Malays, Portuguese, Dutch, and English.
The national dish is rice and curry, which is best described as a tiny feast of scents that clash. Coconut milk, chiles, curry leaves, cinnamon, garlic, and “Maldive fish,” which is a pinch of strongly perfumed sun-dried tuna, are among the components. These flavours bear witness to Sri Lanka’s history as one of the original spice islands. Along with a plethora of seafood, there are a plethora of other strange specialties to discover and enjoy, such as hoppers, string hoppers, kottu rotty, lamprais, and pittu.
Sri Lankan cuisine can be quite spicy; at times, it can be even spicier than Thai cuisine and much hotter than traditional Indian cuisine. Many of the island’s talented cooks use a lot of spices and add a lot of chilli powder; nevertheless, as a guest, you will usually be viewed as a whining person who faints at the slightest whiff of spice. A “medium” usually gets you something that isn’t uninteresting and doesn’t require the use of a fire extinguisher. You’ll frequently be asked how hot you want your food to be. If you overheat during a meal, a mouthful of plain rice, bread, or beer is significantly more effective than drinking water in easing the anguish of a burned palate.
Prices and manners
Although tourists are almost always provided with cutlery, Sri Lankans feel that eating with your fingers is the only way to completely experience the aromas and textures of food. Eating is traditionally done with the right hand, as it is in other countries in Asia, though this rule is not strictly enforced. You won’t draw attention to yourself if you truly want to eat with your left hand.
Prices are generally reasonable, though not as low as they were a few years ago. A hearty rice and curry lunch can be eaten for a few dollars at a local café, but most guesthouse restaurants demand around $10 for their main courses, and even the most upmarket places charge $15 or more. Be aware that many venues charge a ten percent service charge on top of the bill; additionally, more premium dining establishments may tack on government taxes ranging from 13 to 15%.
Due to the quirks of Sri Lankan spelling, popular dishes might appear on menus in a bewildering range of spelling variations: idlis can become ittlys, vadais can become wadais, kottu rotty can become kotturoti, and lamprais can become lumprice. You will also be served a variety of unwittingly humorous delicacies such as “cattle fish,” “sweat and sour,” and “nazi goreng,” which happens to be Adolf Hitler’s favourite.
Though there are many wonderful restaurants in Sri Lanka, few truly do justice to the island’s food. There is no set dining custom, and there aren’t many notable independent eateries outside of Colombo. Residents of the island usually eat at home or go to one of the innumerable ramshackle little cafés, which are frequently mislabeled as “hotels” and serve full meals for a few dollars, such as rough-and-ready portions of rice and curry, probably with some hoppers or kottu rotty. Dining at local cafés, on the other hand, is more of a social than a gourmet experience because the food is usually decent.
Due to the scarcity of independent tourist eateries, most visitors eat the majority of their meals at their guesthouse or hotel. The cuisine and atmosphere vary widely, from the big, sterile restaurants found in beach resorts to the quiet guesthouses in Ella and Galle, where you can appreciate the kind of home-style cooking that is rarely available on menus at larger hotels. In general, however, choices are limited; most restaurants provide rice or fried noodles, a limited range of fish and meat dishes (typically including a few devilled alternatives), and perhaps a few different types of curry.
The majority of the island’s independent restaurants may be found in Colombo and, to a lesser extent, Kandy, Galle, and Negombo, where tourism has driven the development of a modest local eating scene. The majority of independent restaurants cater to tourists in addition to serving a mix of seafood, Sri Lankan cuisine, and Western meals. There are a few South Indian-style restaurants, mainly in Colombo.
Approximately 11 a.m. If you want to dine like a native, lunch packs are available for purchase in neighbourhood cafés and street vendors across the country from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. These normally include a huge portion of steamed rice, veggies, sambol, and a piece of curried chicken, fish, or beef (vegetarians can substitute an egg). They are the least expensive way to eat in Sri Lanka, but it is best to avoid them until your taste buds and stomach have adjusted to the local food.
Curry with rice
Rice and curry, the basic meal of practically every Sri Lankan man, woman, and child, is the island’s signature dish and is served at nearly every café and restaurant in the country. A great Sri Lankan curry and rice dish can make for a truly memorable supper; however, it should be remembered that the cuisine is fundamentally dissimilar to classic North Indian curries. Traditional Sri Lankan curry sauces, known as “milk gravy” or “kiri hodhi,” are made from coconut milk that has been infused with chillies and other spices; they resemble Thai green or red curry far more than anything you’ll find in India.
Basic rice and curry (not “curry and rice” because rice is the major ingredient) is served in local cafés across the island as a plate of rice topped with a few dollops of vegetable curry, a slice of chicken or fish, and a spoonful of sambol. In more sophisticated versions, there is an unavoidable mound of rice and up to fifteen side dishes. This style of mini-banquet is thought to be influenced by Indonesian nasi goreng, which the Dutch transformed into the customary rijsttafel, or “rice table,” and brought to Sri Lanka in the seventeenth century. A beef or fish curry is typically served with dhal, curried pineapple, potatoes, eggplant (brinjal), sweet potatoes, and okra (lady’s fingers). You will most likely encounter more unusual local vegetables. Curried jackfruit and “drumsticks” (murunga, which looks like okra) are both popular dishes. You might also come across ash plantain (alu kesel), snake gourd (patolah), bitter gourd (karawila), and breadfruit (del), in addition to many more strange and unpronounceable species of indigenous veggies. Mallung, or shredded green veggies stir-fried with spices and grated coconut, is another favourite side dish.
Rice and curry are typically served with a side dish of sambol, which is supposed to be mixed into your meal to add spice. Sambols come in a variety of flavours, but the most common is pol sambol, also known as coconut sambol. This meal contains chilli powder, chopped onions, salt, grated coconut, and “Maldive fish,” which is shredded sun-dried tuna with a strong flavour. It is often visually pleasing. Handle it with care. There’s also the milder lunu miris, which is made of onions, salt, Maldive fish, and chilli powder, and the softer, sweet-and-sour seeni sambol, often known as “sugar sambol.”
Ironically, the rice itself is typically extremely bland; don’t expect to find expertly seasoned North Indian biryanis and pilaus. Though many varieties of rice are grown in Sri Lanka, the rice served in restaurants is often of poorer quality. However, nutrient-dense, tasty red and yellow rice (which taste and feel similar to brown rice) produced in select sections of the island can be found on occasion.
Other Sri Lankan specialties
The most delightful snack in Sri Lanka is the endearingly named “hopper” (appa), a little, bowl-shaped pancake made with a batter of coconut milk and palm sugar. It is usually eaten for dinner or brunch. Because they are cooked in a small wok-like skillet, the majority of the ingredients settle to the bottom, resulting in soft, doughy centres with a thin, crispy edge. Different components can be poured into the hopper. Egg hoppers are prepared from an egg that has been fried in the centre, sometimes with the addition of sweet ingredients such as honey or yoghurt. Alternatively, you might serve basic hoppers with curry as a side dish. String hoppers (indiappa), which are tangled little nests of steamed rice vermicelli noodles, should not be confused with hoppers. Breakfast is usually served with a dash of curry or dhal.
Pittu, a combination of flour and grated coconut steamed in a bamboo mould that resembles coarse couscous, is another rice substitute. Lamprais, a delicacy of rice baked in a plantain leaf with an egg or bit of chicken, as well as other veggies and pickles, is another feature of the area. The term is derived from the Dutch word lomprijst.
Muslim restaurants are the best place to get roty (or roti), a delicate, doughy pancake. It’s thrilling to watch the chefs form small dough balls into vast, nearly transparently thin sheets. The rotty is folded up around a dollop of curry meat, vegetable, or potato in the centre. The final shape is up to the cook; some prefer squares that look like crepes, others triangles that look like samosas, and still others spring rolls. Kottu rotty is a dish that is produced by chopping up rottys and stir-frying them with meat and vegetables. Kottu Roty is preparing because of the loud noise it is making. The components are often cooked and chopped simultaneously on a hotplate using a large pair of meat cleavers, creating a cacophony that is equal parts advertisement and musical performance.
Devilled meals are also popular and, on occasion, quite excellent. Though the completed dish is not always as fiery as you might expect (unless you eat the chilies), these are often cooked with a thick, spicy sauce and huge pieces of onion and chilli. Chicken, hog, fish, and beef are common devilled meals; the latter is considered the original and is frequently enjoyed on heavy drinking occasions. Buriani is yet another regional specialty. This is simply a pile of rice topped with a bit of chicken, a bowl of curry sauce, and a boiled egg; it bears little resemblance to the traditional, saffron-scented North Indian biryani. Nonetheless, it’s a great lunchtime snack that’s usually milder than a conventional meal of rice and curry.
South Indian meals
Furthermore, Sri Lanka has a good selection of “pure vegetarian” South Indian restaurants (vegetarian here means no meat, fish, eggs, or alcohol); these restaurants are largely concentrated in Colombo, but they may be found around the island anywhere there is a sizable Tamil population. These joyful eateries serve a delightful selection of South Indian-style cuisine at rock-bottom prices, primarily to the local populace. The dosa, a crispy rice pancake that can be eaten plain, with onion, ghee (clarified butter), or, most commonly, as a masala dosa, which is folded up and stuffed with curried potatoes, is the main meal. Idlis, which are steamed rice cakes served with curry sauces or chutneys, and uttapam, another (thicker) form of rice pancake that is often eaten with some sort of curry, are also available.
Some South Indian eateries (particularly in Colombo) provide an interesting range of strongly spiced and vibrantly coloured sweets.
Quick and easy meals
The vadai, also called wadai, is a spicy doughnut made of deep-fried lentils that is a famous Tamil savoury meal in Sri Lanka. No train or bus ride is complete without hawkers yelling “Vadai-vadai-vadai!” as they march up and down the carriage or vehicle.”
Cuisines from throughout the world
Although the food, which is primarily Cantonese-style, is typically spiced up for Sri Lankan palates, genuine restaurants are frequently good, with Colombo offering the most variety.
The most popular Indonesian dishes served in tourist restaurants are gado gado (salad and cold boiled eggs in a peanut sauce) and nasi goreng (fried rice with meat or seafood and topped with a fried egg), but these dishes rarely taste like the original Indonesian dishes.
Other culinary traditions are limited to Colombo; while Japanese cuisine is moderately popular, Thai food has only recently gained popularity; and, along with a few top-notch European eateries, Colombo is also home to Sri Lanka’s surprisingly few good North Indian eateries.
Unsurprisingly, fish frequently replaces meat in Sri Lankan cuisine, which places a strong emphasis on seafood. Popular fish include pomfret, bonito, shark, and the exquisite melt-in-your-mouth butterfish, as well as tuna, seer, and mullet. Crab, prawns, lobster, and cuttlefish (calamari) are also abundant.
If you’re trying to avoid spicy foods, seafood is usually a good choice. The most common ways to prepare fish are frying it (often in breadcrumbs), grilling it, and serving it with a little garlic sauce or a twist of lemon. However, you’ll also find some quite common chilli seafood meals (chilli crab is a particular favourite) and some really spicy fish curries.
It’s surprising that, in a predominantly Buddhist country, vegetarianism hasn’t taken off in Sri Lanka; however, a sizable portion of the country’s cuisine consists of meatless dishes such as string hoppers, hoppers, and vegetable rottys, in addition to the bewildering array of fruits available. There are lots of delicious South Indian restaurants that serve only vegetarian food in Colombo, and if you enjoy seafood and fish, it’s easy
Desserts and sweets
Curd, a buffalo milk-based yoghurt, is a traditional Sri Lankan dessert. It is typically served with either kitul, a sweet syrup derived from the kitul palm, or honey. Boiling kitul and allowing it to solidify creates jaggery, a versatile Sri Lankan confection or sweetener. Other notable sweets include wattalappam, a Malay egg custard with a flavour somewhat reminiscent of crème caramel but a smoother, sweeter texture. Kiribath is a traditional wedding dessert consisting of rice cakes cooked in milk and served with jaggery. It’s also common for newborns to be fed solid food for the first time. Faluda, a vibrant concoction of milk, syrup, jelly, ice cream, and ice served in a tall glass resembling an Indian knickerbocker, is a South Indian delicacy that you may encounter. Most ice cream is manufactured in factories and is safe to consume. There’s also a huge assortment of cakes, many of which come in bright hues and an odd range of curried flavours.
A dizzying array of fruits, both well-known and less so, can be found in Sri Lanka. These include some traditional Southeast Asian fruits that the Dutch brought over from Indonesia. The months listed below in brackets denote the times of year when each is in season; in the absence of a month, the fruit is accessible year-round. Common fruits include pineapple, avocados (April–June), mangoes (April–June and November–December), coconuts, and a large assortment of bananas, ranging in size from tiny, pleasant yellow ones to massive, red monsters. The papaya, also known as pawpaw, is a fruit with a distinct sweet and pulpy texture that is often found in fruit salads. However, the jackfruit (available from April to June and from September to October) is the most popular fruit in Sri Lanka. It is the largest fruit in the world, a massive, elongated, dark green monster that resembles a giant marrow. Its fibrous flesh can be consumed raw or cooked in curries. Other oversized specimens include the Durian (July–Sept.), a big green beast with a spiny outer shell. It’s definitely an acquired taste; despite the flesh’s peculiar stench—that of clogged drains, for example—many people find it to be incredibly delicious and even aphrodisiac. The rambutan, which is available from July to September and tastes like lychees but with a brilliant red skin wrapped in tentacles, is the strangest-looking fruit.
Mangosteen (July–Sept) is another highly sought-after delicacy from Sri Lanka. It resembles a purple tomato and has a tough skin that becomes softer as the fruit ripens. The flesh is delicate and tasty, with a subtle citrus flavour that makes it taste something like a grape. The wood apple is also rather unique. It is an apple-sized, spherical fruit with crimson pulpy flesh that is packed with seeds and has a bitter taste. The fruit is coated in an unbreakable grey bark. On occasion, it is served with honey drizzled on top. You may also encounter guavas, which are smooth, round, yellow-green fruits, usually smaller than apples, with slightly sour flesh surrounding a central core of seeds; and custard apples, which are greenish, apple-sized fruits with knobbly exteriors (they resemble artichokes). Soursop, lovi-lovi, sapodilla, rose apple, and beli fruit (not to be confused with nelli fruit, a form of Sri Lankan gooseberry) are some more strange fruits you might come across. Lastly, keep an eye out for the little gulsambilla (Aug-Oct), which is the oddest fruit in Sri Lanka. It resembles a big, fuzzy green seed with a tiny, acidic kernel within.
There is bottled water everywhere in Sri Lanka; it originates from all over the Sri Lanka hill country and is sold under an absurd array of brands. Make sure the seal hasn’t been broken, but bear in mind that they’re normally all fairly dismal.
While familiar and inexpensive international soft drink brands such as Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and Sprite are widely available, discovering the amazing array of bizarre soft drinks made in Sri Lanka by Olé, Lion, and Elephant is far more enjoyable and beneficial to the country’s economy. These include traditional favourites such as cream soda and ginger beer, as well as distinctive regional brands such as the extremely sweet, lollipop-flavored Necta and Portello, which has
Though it has a sour taste, thambili, or coconut water, is harmless because it is kept inside the coconut. Not everyone enjoys this taste. It’s also said to be a great hangover treatment due to its combination of potassium and glucose. It’s also a nice beverage to have if you’re experiencing diarrhoea.
Tea and coffee
Even though Sri Lankan tea is well-known, the majority of the food is typically somewhat tasteless, and you won’t find the amazing masala teas of India here. Common tea is referred to as “milk tea”; if you like to add your own, ask for “milk and sugar separate” to avoid getting a cup full of overly sweet bilge. Simply put, “bed tea” is regular tea delivered to your room for breakfast.
Foreign captives brought beer to Sri Lanka during the Kandyan era, and the islanders have never looked back. As a result, the country has a robust drinking culture. Lager and arrack are the two main alcoholic beverages on the island. Draught beer is uncommon; large (625 ml) bottles are typically used to sell lager. The selection of brands is limited to those with an alcohol concentration of somewhat less than five percent. The omnipresent Lion Lager, the quintessential national beverage, is unremarkable but absolutely drinkable. Better-tasting beers include the lightly malty Three Coins, the excellent wheat beer Three Coins Riva, and Carlsberg (produced in Sri Lanka under licence). Another beer that is gaining popularity is Anchor, which is mild, creamy, and somewhat boring. Lion also brews Lion Strong (eight percent abv), a favourite among the area’s inebriated, and Lion Stout, an extremely dense stout that is almost a meal in and of itself. Lager is reasonably priced in Sri Lanka, as one might anticipate; it costs less in a liquor store and a little more in most taverns and restaurants. When you do locate imported beers, they are usually heavily marked up.
The flexible coconut is the source of two additional uniquely local varieties of alcohol. When fresh, toddy (tapped from the coconut flower) has no alcohol content but ferments to produce a drink that tastes a little like cider. It is available in villages all over the country, although finding it might be challenging if you don’t speak Sinhala. A group of boisterous Sri Lankan men gathered over a bottle of arrack (33% proof), the country’s official beverage for the strong-willed, which is produced when toddy is fermented and polished. Arrack is served plain, combined with coke or lemonade, or used as the foundation for drinks in eateries and bars catering to tourists. The smoother, double-distilled arrack tastes slightly like rum. It comes in several grades and is often a deep brown colour, though there are also distinct brands like White Diamond and White Label. Although widely accessible, imported spirits are inevitably pricey. Along with several types of very pleasant lemon gin, there are also locally made versions of other spirits, including rather rough whisky, brandy, rum, and vodka.
Where can I grab a drink?
Most people drink at their guesthouse or hotel bar. While Colombo, Kandy, and certain tourist resorts have a few good bars and English-style pubs, the majority of local bars are dark, shady, and largely the domain of men. Larger towns will have supermarkets selling alcohol. Smaller towns will typically have a few pretty, shady-looking liquor stores. These typically take the form of a little kiosk that is crammed full of beer and arrack bottles and