Sri Lankan food is absolutely delicious, heavily spiced, and quite varied from kitchen to kitchen. The coastal regions provide abundant fresh seafood, while the Northern and Eastern regions feature certain Tamil specialties. The variety of choices was one of the main reasons I decided to visit the country, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed!
Here’s a list of fun things to try on your next trip:
Hoppers are crepe-like pancakes made from fermented rice flour batter. They’re distinguishable by the unique shape, which resembles a small bowl. The edges are perfectly crunchy and light, while the center is fluffy and chewy from the thick batter sitting in the middle of the conical pan.
Hoppers are generally available in the late afternoon and evening, when they are eaten as a snack or for dinner. The standard hopper is served in a stack (see photo below), with a spicy red chili paste spread. Variations include: egg hoppers (cracked, cooked egg in the middle), panni hoppers (folded in half with sweet coconut cream filling – to die for!), and hoppers served with delicious curries (see #2)
These are hands down my favorite thing to eat in Sri Lanka… don’t miss them!
2. Curries, curries, and more curries
Like its Northern neighbor, Sri Lanka is known for a huge variety of curries. From the classics like chicken curry and dahl (lentil) curry to the more adventurous variations like garlic curry (40 cloves and nothing else!) and jackfruit curry — there’s something for every palate. Everyone will tell you that a homemade rice and curry is the best (and it’s true), but don’t let that stop you from eating out!
In general, curries are most often eaten for lunch as a standard rice and curry. You sit down in a restaurant (or “hotel” in local lingo), check out the curries available that day, and order 3-4 different dishes of either poultry, meat, lentils, or various vegetables. They can also be served for breakfast and dinner.
- Since the curries often sit over a heater all day long, the meat can be dry and stringy. I’ve had much more luck sticking to the vegetarian options.
- Rice and curry is eaten with your fingers. Yes, the rice will fall through… but that’s half the fun! Sri Lankans will claim it makes the food taste better, but I remain skeptical…
- Be warned that some chicken curries are actually chicken parts, not chicken meat.
To provide a sense of the enormous selection of curries….
Typically served as a side dish to accompany curries, sambol is a mixture of shredded coconut, chili, onion, citrus juice, and sometimes dried fish. It can pack some heat, so be careful if you’re sensitive. That said, the spicy and citrus notes go very nicely with the creamy curries.
4. String Hoppers
Don’t be fooled by the name — although these are also made of rice flour, these are not the same as the hoppers above (#1). String hoppers are essentially vermicelli rice noodles that are made by pressing dough through a machine into little rounds.
String hoppers are a breakfast favorite, though they are sometimes eaten as a light dinner.
More breakfast appas for your viewing pleasure. Notice that these hoppers are made from red rice, which some claim is more nutritious than the white varietal.
A mouthwatering breakfast spread….
As one of the Tamil cuisine staples, pittu is served up in the Northern peninsula and the Eastern region as a carb staple, usually with assorted curries. It’s essentially rolled and mashed up rice that’s steamed in a bamboo mold and mixed with dried coconut flakes. The version pictured above is relatively mild in taste, but there’s a darker black rice version that’s much sweeter. Given the heavy coconut content, pittu tends to sit in your stomach for quite some time.
Another Tamil specialty, Upma is like Indian spices meets Middle Eastern couscous. Typically eaten as a breakfast dish, it can contain any of the following ingredients depending on the cook’s preferences: mustard seeds, cumin, ginger, chilis, onions, coconut, curry leaves, and even lemon juice.
Kotthu is a dish you’ll hear from a mile away, before you even see or smell anything. It’s made by banging chopping knives on the metal, wonderfully rhythmic but deafening if you happen to be nearby. The dish itself consists of chopped roti bread, stir-fried with onions, spices, some vegetables, and optional meat. A quick stir-fry, Sri Lankan style, that’s a fairly safe bet anywhere in the country.
Roti comes in many forms. Coconut roti is a flat piece of baked dough with coconut flakes – excellent with chili paste. Egg roti is pulled, oiled dough that’s cooked on the stove with an egg cracked in between the layers; heavenly dipped in some chicken gravy. (Try this at Siri Ramya in Kandy!) Vegetable and fish rotis are usually sealed in a triangular bread pastry on the side of the road. I was told that the best rotis are usually made in Muslim hotels (restaurants), which I found was a pretty good rule of thumb.
7. King coconut
Fresh coconut water…. filled with much needed electrolytes for rehydration! Be sure to ask for the ones with meat (if you like it). R30-40 was normal price as of September 2013.
8. Short Eats
In almost all hotels (restaurants), there is the option of having “short eats” – assorted fried and baked pastries on a platter. The staff brings you a plate like the one below. You eat whatever you want and pay for only those items at the end. Caution: Because the plates are passed around endlessly, the hygienic factor can be very questionable.
9. Wattalapam, Curd & Treacle, and Yogurt
Don’t ask, just eat. They are all delicious. Curd can be found in curd shops, while wattalapam and yogurt are available at nearly all dining establishments.
10. Milk rice
Rice cooked slowly in coconut milk, like a sweet and savory rice porridge. Wonderful comfort food for breakfast.
What should I Drink?
My go-to was coconut water. But if you’re in the mood for a buzz, the following are local options:
- Arak (local liquor from coconut trees);
- Toddy (fermented coconut or palm drink); and
- Lion beer (very drinkable and available countrywide).
Other things to note:
- Rice and curry is eaten with your fingers. Most hotels have a washing basin in the main dining room; otherwise they will have a washing dish on the table. After the meal, the staff will usually bring you another washing basin and some recycled paper for drying your hands.
- Tea is served VERY SWEET. Ask for no sugar if you want to add it yourself.
- Order ahead of time (at least 2-3 hours notice) if you are at a small guesthouse, so they have enough time to prepare.
Got any other favorites from Sri Lanka? Leave a note in the comments!