4 April 2019
Sri Lanka’s food trail – 13 must try dishes and foods in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has always been famous for its array of spices. Merchants from the Middle East to the Dutch and Portuguese who crossed oceans in search of spices just portray the importance of Sri Lankan spices in a global platform, both past and present. The entire political and economic history of the country too has developed around the spice trails.
Sri Lankan cuisine is distinct, influenced by the country’s history including colonisation by three nations, and varies regionally within this small island. Spices and coconut lay the foundation to the local cuisine creating a paradise for food lovers and culinary fanatics. The varied spices, vegetables, seafood and the different styles of cooking that are unique and special to each region make for a special culinary journey in Sri Lanka.
So is Sri Lankan food hot and spicy? What food can you expect to eat and enjoy during a tour of Sri Lanka? What are the must try dishes of Sri Lanka?
Let us take you through Sri Lanka’s food trail, with this guide on what to eat and what you must try during your Sri Lankan holiday.
#1 Traditional Sri Lankan Food – everyday eats
Let’s start with traditional Sri Lankan food: the word traditional implies the kind of food the locals eat every day and those that you will find in most homes. They are also served in almost all hotels now including upmarket boutique properties.
Sri Lankan Rice and Curry
Sri Lankan rice and curry is the stable diet in every Sri Lankan household, generally consumed for lunch by all, and you may find some having this for dinner as well, especially in the villages. There are a few things you must know about this staple diet.
Rice (red rice or white local rice) is generally accompanied by two or more cooked vegetable curries – one is usually mallun – a fresh green salad or cooked greens with grated coconut. Then there’s fish or chicken curry and a few accompaniments such as fried sprats (a type of fried small fish) or fried red chillies, pappadams, and in some instances with a local pickle fondly referred to as “ achcharu”- the rice puller. (Achcharu is a pickle with shallots, green chillies, raw thinly sliced papaya, thin strips of carrots etc, that’s fermented in vinegar and mustard.)
An array of breakfasts fit for a king
#2 ‘Kiri Bath’ – Milk Rice (Rice cooked in thick coconut milk) served with ‘lunu miris’ (red chillies grinded with onions, flakes of dried fish, salt and lime to taste) and fish in thick dark curried sauce.
#3 String Hoppers (Indi Appa) – Another traditional dish made out of rice flour and served with Kiri Hodi – cooked coconut milk in green chillies, curry leaves, pandan leaves and a mix of spices and coconut sambol (spiced freshly grated coconuts).
#4 Pol Roti – A flat bread made with wheat flour, flaked coconut and water. The original version is a mix of wheat flour and finger millet flour. This is a common and a delicious breakfast and a dinner option served with coconut sambol, fish or chicken curry.
#5 Hoppers (Aappa) – Our firm favourite, hoppers come in different variations. The plain hopper, the egg hopper, the honey hopper (pani aappa). Hoppers are served with local chili paste (lunu miris), plus either fish or chicken curry.
# 6 Unique array of Vegetables in Curry
No Sri Lankan traditional breakfast, lunch or dinner is complete without curried vegetables. Sri Lankan’s are not big meat eaters although, fish and other seafood (prawns, crabs, cuttlefish/ squid) and chicken are commonly found in most meals. The original rice and curry consists mostly of vegetables and dried fish or fish dried in salt for long period of time for preserving purposes. If you go back into the history of Sri Lanka, you will find that salt and fish have been the most recognised and valued form of trading up to the time of British colonisation. Vegetables have always been part of the staple diet in the Sri Lankan cuisine. We found that the vegetable curries fall into two main categories. The cooked – usually in coconut milk or tempered (Malluns) with coconut flakes and spices, and the fresh salads that are referred to as sambal – again mixed with freshly grated coconuts. You may find the vegetable in curry form to be less spicy than let’s say for instance fish curry or the chicken curry and may well suit a delicate palate better.
Our favourites vegetable curries include:
The ones we love most are – the potato curry, long bean curry, drumstick curry (‘Murunga’), Luffa Curry, the malluns (varied green leaves tempered in flaky coconuts and mix of spices), coconut sambal, and gotukola sambal (Gotu kola is a herbaceous, frost-tender perennial plant).
We also love the tempered potato curry with a chilli flakes and curry leaves, Sri Lankan dhal curry (not necessarily a vegetable but most popular and appears in almost every meal), the stuffed capsicums (capsicums stuffed with a moderately spicy filling of tuna and mash potato curry, and fried in batter and breadcrumbs).
What are the top foods to try when travelling in Sri Lanka? Here are some of suggestions for the best things to eat in Sri Lanka.
#7 Fruits and Fruits
The tropical climatic conditions together with prosperous land help to produce a vast array of delicious fruits. Interestingly we find that some fruits are consumed as both a vegetable in curry form as well as fruit. The most diverse one being the jackfruit and green jackfruit. They are made into beautiful dishes that accompany rice or as a meal on its own. It’s the same with ambarella, a fruit that’s recognised more as vegetable.
The fruits are seasonal but you will find a huge variety of bananas, papaya and pineapple year around. Some you must not miss are mangosteen, rambutan, guava, jambu, nelli and wood apple. You certainly will find in these in any local market you visit in Sri Lanka.
(Make sure they are washed well before eating especially those that do not have a skin to peel.)
#8 Seafood Galore!
Being an island surrounded by water, fresh seafood is plentiful. However, delicacies like crabs, prawns are sold at higher prices. Sri Lanka exports a considerable amount of seafood, another reason for price hikes. Most of the Colombo upmarket restaurants have great choices of dishes in every form where global and fusion cuisine are adopted to bring out the flavours.
Some of our favourites are Sri Lankan crab curry, Sri Lankan style prawn curry in white thick coconut curry and Maalu Ambul Thiyal (tuna fish in thick black curry sauce cooked in clay pots for flavour and preservation).
#9 Street Food – Sri Lankan Way
Street food has always been popular among locals, however today it has taken a more elaborate form where the star class hotels produce the elegant versions of these street foods. Street foods in their original form are still available in a number of places across the country.
Street foods of Sri Lanka you must try include:
– Patis – a small pattie filled with a mixture of tuna/ potatoes / vegetable, wrapped in dough – fried or baked.
– Chinese rolls – this is a kind of a stuffed spring role made out of soft pancake, covered in batter and breadcrumbs and deep-fried. Generally served with tomato ketch up.
– Maalu Paan – soft bun stuffed with tuna and potato.
– Kimbula Banis – a small Vienna roll sprinkled with sugar.
– Tea buns – Soft sweet buns.
#10 Sweets (Sweet meats)
The Sri Lankans sweets (referred to as sweet meats) have been heavily influenced by many other cuisines including South Indian, Dutch and Indonesian etc. A large variety of these sweets are made in homes during Sinhala/Tamil New Year (annually in mid-April) where plates of these are shared with neighbours and served to visitors. Most of these are made out of rice flour, kitul treacle and ground mung beans.
What is really interesting is that from region to region the variety and the techniques use to make them are significantly different. Sadly, the old traditions are dying as most urban folk prefer to buy them than make due to the cumbersome process in production. The good news is that they are available year around in large retail food outlets. Our favourites sweets of Sri Lanka to try include:
Undu/ Pani Wallallu – a honey soaked ring-shaped sweet.
Dodol – jelly like sweet made out of honey, coconut and cashew nuts.
Kavum – oil cakes of varied forms.
Kokkis – fried chip like in texture, not sweet.
One of the things we recommend to do in Kandy is to visit and sample the sweets made locally there. You can read more about the best things to see and do in Kandy in Sri Lanka in our recent travel blog here.
Global Influence on local food.
Finally, on the Sri Lankan food trail we bring you some unique dishes that you will find only in Sri Lanka:
#11 Lamprais – a Dutch influenced dish originally known as lump rice. The original version had three meats in one curry however today it is a single curry, ash plantain, aubergine boiled and fried egg, Seeni sambol (sweet onion sambal) and a chilly passed all wrapped in a banana leaf and baked. Delicious!
#12 Breudeur – influenced by the Dutch, this is a Sri Lankan buttery yeast cake and a firm favourite at the Christmas breakfast table.
#13 Sri Lankan Kotthu – A parata roti sliced into thin strips, soaked in thick meat gravy and mixed with cooked, meat, fish. There are number of variations to Kottu including cheese and the sweet version. The beauty of it is all in the making! The cooks use two flat knives and chop the rotis in a rhythm in an action station.
Those are some of our tip for dishes you must try when you travel in Sri Lanka – we hope they have whetted your appetite to visit and eat your way around the country! We can design a culinary tour of Sri Lanka for you that will introduce some of the authentic regional flavours and most famous Sri Lankan dishes. We can also weave food into any of our suggested Sri Lankan itineraries if you like to experience a local cuisine when you travel.
If you’d like to know more about how a private tour of Sri Lanka works – you can discover more details here.
You may also like to read our other travel blogs:
Top ten places to visit in Sri Lanka in 2019
Six of the best luxury hotels in Sri Lanka to splurge on
Sixteen things about Sri Lanka you should know before you go
If you are after a general introduction to Sri Lanka – two of our most popular suggested itineraries for travel in Sri Lanka include: Classic Sri Lanka and Quintessential Sri Lanka.
To speak to one of our expert Sri Lankan tour planners you can email email@example.com or call our office toll free from anywhere in Australia on : 1300 449 709
If you a travelling solo as a woman or are women travellers looking for a tour of Sri Lanka for women only – our upcoming small group tour Sri Lankan Discovery may suit you. This 14 day tour of Sri Lanka has been designed by expert female travellers planners especially for women travellers. For more details about this tour – download the trip PDF here.