Table of Contents
- Sri Lankan cuisine and beverages
- Prices and manners
- Local Restaurants
- Rice and curry
- Other Sri Lankan specialties
- Typical South Indian Dishes
- Short eats
- Cuisines from throughout the world
- Plant-based eating
- Desserts and other sweets
- Drinking water
- Sugary beverages
- Tea and coffee
- Drinking alcohol
- Where can I get a drink?
Sri Lankan cuisine and beverages
Sri Lanka’s fascinatingly different culinary legacy is the result of the unique mingling of indigenous goods with recipes and spices brought to the island by Indians, Arabs, Malays, Portuguese, Dutch, and English over the years.
Rice and curry are the national dishes, and they make for a little feast with contrasting scents. Coconut milk, chilli peppers, curry leaves, cinnamon, garlic, and “Maldive fish,” which is a little amount of highly aromatic sun-dried tuna, are all used in the recipe. These tastes are evidence that Sri Lanka was one of the first spice islands. Hoppers, string hoppers, kottu rotty, lamprais, and pittu are just a few of the unique specialties that may be found and enjoyed alongside the region’s plethora of seafood.
There are occasions when Sri Lankan food is much spicier than Thai food and far hotter than standard Indian fare. Most talented cooks use enormous amounts of spices and chilli powder when they cook. Visitors are often stereotyped as whining people who faint at the mere mention of spice. What you get when you settle for the “medium” option is typically somewhere in between boring and flaming hot. How spicy you want your cuisine to be is a common question. If you happen to overheat while eating, a mouthful of plain rice, bread, or beer is much more useful than drinking water for soothing the pain of a scorched palate.
Prices and manners
Sri Lankans feel that using your fingers to eat is the best way to experience the full range of flavours and textures in food, despite the fact that foreigners are typically served with cutlery. Eating with the left hand is considered rude, as it is in the rest of Asia, though this rule is rarely strictly enforced. It won’t seem weird to use your left hand to eat if that’s how you prefer to do it.
Pricing is reasonable, though not as advantageous as it was a few years ago. A few dollars will get you a filling rice and curry lunch at a local café, but the going rate for main courses at most guesthouse restaurants is around $10, with even the most posh places charging $15 or more. Keep in mind that many businesses tack on a 10% service charge and that more upmarket eateries may impose additional government taxes of varying percentages (typically 13%–15% of the total).
Be aware that the typical quirks of Sri Lankan spelling sometimes cause popular meals to appear on menus with misleading variations in spelling, such as idlis becoming ittlys, vadais becoming wadais, kottu rotty becoming kotturoti, and lamprais becoming lumprice. Not only will you be offered “cattle fish,” “sweat and sour,” and “nazi goreng,” which just so happens to be Adolf Hitler’s favourite dish, but you’ll also be served a bunch of other foods with hilariously unfortunate names.
There are a lot of great restaurants in Sri Lanka, but few that do justice to the island’s food. There isn’t a culture around going out to eat, and there aren’t many great restaurants outside of Colombo that stand on their own. The locals either cook for themselves or venture out to one of the island’s innumerable shabby little cafés, often mistaken for “hotels” and serving hefty meals for a few dollars, such as rough-and-ready portions of rice and curry, and maybe some hoppers or kottu rotty. Neighbourhood cafés, on the other hand, are better for socialising than for gourmet dining because the cuisine is usually adequate.
Since there aren’t many places for tourists to eat out, many of them end up making their lodgings their primary dining location. You’ll find a wide range of eateries, from the huge, soulless chains at beach resorts to the small, charming inns in Ella and Galle, where you can enjoy the kind of home-style food that’s hard to find at chain hotels. However, most restaurants just provide the standard fare of rice and fried noodles, a few seafood and meat dishes (sometimes including devilled alternatives), and maybe a few of different kinds of curry.
Most of Sri Lanka’s locally owned restaurants may be found in the island’s commercial capital, Colombo, as well as the popular tourist destinations of Kandy, Galle, and Negombo. Most of the country’s independent eateries focus on providing seafood, Sri Lankan cuisine, and Western meals to visiting tourists. There are also a few restaurants in Colombo that serve food typical of South India.
To eleven in the morning, about 2 p.m., you may buy lunch boxes from neighbourhood cafés and street vendors across the country and dine like a native. A typical dish includes a generous helping of steaming rice, a selection of vegetables, sambol, and a serving of curried chicken, fish, or beef (or an egg, for vegetarians). Although they are the cheapest option, you should avoid them until your stomach and taste senses have adjusted to Sri Lankan food.
Rice and curry
Rice and curry, the staple food of practically every man, woman, and child in Sri Lanka, is the island’s signature cuisine and can be found on the menus of nearly every eatery in the country. While a Sri Lankan curry and rice supper can be genuinely unforgettable, it’s important to keep in mind that the food has no connection to the traditional curries of North India. Sri Lankan curry sauces, often called “milk gravy” or “kiri hodhi,” are typically made from coconut milk that has been infused with chillies and other spices. These sauces are more similar to Thai green or red curry than they are to Indian curries.
Basic rice and curry (not “curry and rice” because the rice is the major ingredient) is a dish offered in local cafés all across the island. It consists of a plate of rice topped with a few dollops of vegetable curry, a slice of chicken or fish, and a spoonful of sambol. The hallmark of the fancier preparations is a mountain of rice accompanied by anywhere from ten to fifteen different kinds of condiments. Sometime in the eighteenth century, the Dutch brought the traditional rijsttafel, or “rice table,” which is based on the Indonesian nasi padang, to Sri Lanka. As a side, you might have dhal, curried pineapple, potatoes, eggplant (brinjal), sweet potatoes or okra (lady’s fingers) with your beef or fish curry. You’ll probably find a wider variety of unusual regional vegetables. “Drumsticks” (murunga, which resembles okra) and curried jackfruit are two of the most well-liked dishes in the region. Ash plantain (alu kesel), snake gourd (patolah), bitter gourd (karawila), and breadfruit (del) are just few of the native crops you might come across. Another common side dish is mallung, which consists of shredded green vegetables stir-fried briefly with spices and grated coconut.
Sambol is typically served on the side of rice and curry and is designed to be mixed in for additional flavour. Although there are several types of sambols, the most common is the pol sambol, sometimes called the coconut sambol. “Maldive fish,” which is actually shredded sun-dried tuna, adds a bold flavour to this dish together with chilli powder, sliced onions, salt, grated coconut, and other ingredients. It’s usually pretty to look at. Take extra caution with it. As an alternative, you might try the milder lunu miris, which consists of onions, salt, Maldive fish, and chilli powder; or the sweet-and-sour seeni sambol, often known as “sugar sambol.”
Surprisingly, the rice is sometimes rather tasteless; North Indian biryanis and pilaus are not known for their expert seasoning. There are many different types of rice grown in Sri Lanka; unfortunately, the rice most restaurants use is of a lower grade. Red and yellow rice (which have a flavour and texture similar to brown rice) are grown in limited quantities on the island but are worth seeking out for their higher nutritional content.
Other Sri Lankan specialties
The “hopper” (appa) is Sri Lanka’s most popular snack food. It is a small, bowl-shaped pancake that is often made with a batter including coconut milk and palm sugar. It’s common to eat it for both breakfast and dinner. The majority of the mixture settles to the bottom of the little wok during cooking, leaving the hoppers with a soft, doughy interior and a thin, crispy exterior. The hopper can accept a variety of substances. A fried egg in the middle, sometimes sweetened with honey or yoghurt, is the main ingredient of egg hoppers. You could also have hoppers with a side of curry. String hoppers (indiappa) are not the same thing as hoppers; they are tangled little nests of steamed rice vermicelli noodles. They go great with a little curry or dhal for breakfast.
Pittu, similar to coarse couscous, is a substitute for rice that is made by boiling a mixture of flour and grated coconut in a bamboo mould. Lamprais, a dish made of rice baked in a plantain leaf with an egg or bit of poultry, veggies, and pickles, is another local specialty. The word “lomprijst” originates from the Dutch language.
Muslim restaurants are the best places to get roty (or roti), a thin, doughy pancake. The chefs’ transformation of tiny dough balls into massive, paper-thin sheets is fascinating to observe. The rotty is folded over a dollop of curried meat, vegetable, or potato placed in the middle. The crepe-like squares, the samosa-like triangles, and the spring roll-like rectangles are all acceptable end shapes. Chopped rotties are stir-fried with meat and vegetables to create a dish called kottu rotty. The preparation of kottu rotty is noisy, so you can always know when it’s happening. The components are often cooked and chopped simultaneously on a hotplate using a large pair of meat cleavers, resulting in a sound that is half advertisement and part musical performance.
Foods that have been devilled are also rather popular and can be quite delectable. These are often prepared with a thick, spicy sauce along with huge pieces of onion and chilli, yet the resulting meal is often not as fiery as you may think (unless you eat the chillies). Beef devilled is considered the original and is usually served at parties with a lot of alcohol. Chicken, hog, fish, and vegetarian versions are also popular. The local cuisine also includes buriani. The traditional saffron-scented North Indian biryani has little in common with this heap of rice with some chicken, a dish of curry sauce, and a boiled egg. It’s milder than your typical rice and curry, but still a great lunchtime option.
Typical South Indian Dishes
Colombo is home to the majority of Sri Lanka’s South Indian “pure vegetarian” restaurants (where vegetarianism means no meat, fish, eggs, or alcohol), but you can find them all around the island anywhere there is a substantial Tamil community. These cheerfully simple restaurants, which largely serve locals, provide a wide variety of South Indian dishes at rock-bottom prices. Dosa, a crispy rice pancake, is the main food. It can be eaten simple, with onion and ghee (clarified butter), or rolled up with curried potatoes to make a masala dosa, which is quite popular. You can also find uttapam, a (thicker) rice pancake that is often eaten with some form of curry, and idlis, steamed rice cakes served with curry sauces or chutneys.
Spicy and brightly coloured sweets can be found in several South Indian eateries (again, notably in Colombo).
The vadai, often spelled wadai, is a deep-fried doughnut mixed with lentils and spices; it is a traditional Tamil savoury meal that has gained popularity in Sri Lanka. Cafés often serve platefuls of vadais, rottys, and bread rolls under the name “short eats,” where you help yourself and pay for what you eat. However, keep in mind that these plates are not very hygienic because everyone politely prods their contents.
Cuisines from throughout the world
Although many of the Chinese restaurants on the island are merely upscale watering holes serving noodle dishes and fried rice, the authentic restaurants in Colombo, where the Chinese population is the largest, are consistently good places to eat.
Gado gado, a salad and cold boiled eggs in a peanut sauce, and nasi goreng, fried rice with meat or seafood and topped with a fried egg, are the most popular Indonesian dishes offered in tourist restaurants; however, they rarely taste anything like the original Indonesian dishes.
Colombo is the only place in Sri Lanka where you can find good North Indian and European restaurants. More upscale hotels across the island try to serve European food, with wildly varying results.
Fish is often substituted for meat in Sri Lankan cooking, given the country’s emphasis on seafood. Popular fish include pomfret, bonito, shark, and the exquisite melt-in-your-mouth butterfish, as well as tuna, seer, mullet, and calamari.
Fish is commonly prepared by frying it (often in breadcrumbs), grilling it, and serving it with a little garlic sauce and a twist of lemon. However, you will also find some very common seafood dishes that are chillied (chilli crab is a particular favourite) and you will also find some really spicy fish curries.
Vegetarianism is not widely practised in Sri Lanka, which is surprising given the country’s Buddhist majority and the prevalence of vegetarian dishes like string hoppers and hoppers as well as the bewildering variety of fruits available.
Desserts and other 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 to 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 glory, is a South Indian delicacy that you may encounter. Most ice cream is manufactured in factories and is safe to consume; Elephant House is the most popular brand. 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 all year round. Common fruits include pineapple, avocados (April-June), mangoes (April-June & Nov-Dec), 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 a 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.
It is recommended that you do not drink the tap water in Sri Lanka. Instead, purchase bottled water, which is widely available and comes from various sources in the hill country and is sold under a bewildering variety of labels.
Traditional favourites like cream soda and ginger beer, as well as distinctive regional brands like the extremely sweet, lollipop-flavored Necta and Portello, which has a rum base, can be found in Sri Lanka, but discovering the amazing array of bizarre soft drinks made in Sri Lanka by Olé, Lion, and Elephant is much more enjoyable and beneficial to the country’s economy.
Thambili, or coconut water, is said to be a great hangover treatment due to its combination of potassium and glucose, and it’s also a nice beverage to have if you’re experiencing diarrhoea. However, not everyone enjoys the slightly sour taste.
Tea and coffee
Tea is commonly served as “milk tea,” and if you prefer to add your own, ask for “milk and sugar separate” to avoid getting a cup full of overly sweet bilge. Coffee is sometimes preferred, and either Nescafé or locally brewed coffee are typical breakfast room deliveries.
Beer was brought to Sri Lanka by foreign captives during the Kandyan period, 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, 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 get a drink?
Most people drink in the bar of their guesthouse or hotel. While Colombo, Kandy, and some tourist resorts have some good bars and English-style pubs, most local bars are dark, shady, and largely the domain of men. Supermarkets in larger towns may sell alcohol, while smaller locations may only have a few pretty, shady-looking liquor stores.