A Food Guide to Sri Lanka

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Food is a big part of experiencing a new country. This food guide to Sri Lanka food highlights the best choices. Come for the rice, stay for the short eats.
“Devilled” crab curry served with white rice Photo credit: Anuja De Silva/Cosmopolitan with Kids SheBuysTravel
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Sri Lankan food is a major part of experiencing everything Sri Lanka has to offer. Sri Lanka, a multi-cultural island in South Asia, showcases its influences from both East and West through its cuisine. With rice and curry as staples, Sri Lankan cuisine blends native spices with dishes of Portuguese and Dutch influence from its colonial invaders. One SheBuysTravel who grew up there shares her guide to Sri Lankan dishes. Here are the best “short eats” and unique dishes found in Sri Lanka.

A Food Guide to Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a multi-cultural island nation located in the Indian Ocean. Its strategic location between the East and West made it a significant spot for early explorers and colonial invaders. Sri Lankan cuisine is a unique blend of Indian, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and English food culture. Visitors to Sri Lanka will have much to experience in terms of different types of food. In additional to Sri Lankan food, South Indian and Chinese are the most popular cuisines with a twist of local flavor.

Having grown up in Sri Lanka and now visiting as an expat, I love the cuisine and what it represents. Here is my guide to what I tell my friends to eat when they visit Sri Lanka!

What to Eat in Sri Lanka

Try Rice and Curry

Rice, the staple food in Sri Lanka, comes in a many forms.

Rice & curry: The staple food in Sri Lanka includes rice (white or brown) served with different curries. The Sri Lankan curry is a mix between Indian and Thai flavors. Most traditional curries will have a coconut base with some mild spice. Cashew curry, a special delicacy cooked on special occasions, is a must have. Food in the mountainous Tamil tea highlands area tends to have a heavier Indian influence and be spicier.

Parippu Curry: Similar to Indian dhal, this delicious curry is one vegetarians should look for. This flavorful combination of lentils, curry powder, curry leaves, mustard seed and coconut milk is a staple dish and meat-free.

Ambul Polos Curry: Jackfruit (polos) may be a hip new ingredient here in the United States but it has history in Sri Lanka. Long before meat alternatives popped up on grocery store shelves, Sinhalese people in Sri Lanka were serving jackfruit curry.  This ambul (sour) curry uses goraka, also called Indian tamarind, for the sour element.

SheBuysTravel Tip:  You can request to modulate the spice level in food. This can help kids and those “less spice tolerant” adults enjoy and try local dishes. “Kirata” is a traditional term used to refer to making the curries milder.

Other Rice Favorites

Milk rice (Kiribath): This is a traditional breakfast food or a meal for an auspicious occasion. Rice cooked in a coconut milk base is served up firm accompanied by sweet or spicy flavoring. The spicy flavoring is  “sambal,” a mix of fried onion, dry fish and chili paste.  If you’re wary of spicy food, then watch out for the sambol. There are several varieties with varying degrees of spiciness. The sweet accompaniment called jaggery is a local favorite consisting of unrefined brown sugar, like molasses made from sap of coconut trees.

Lamprais: A Dutch influenced dish, lamprais is rice accompanied by a meat curry, deep fried boiled egg, eggplant curry, and fried onion sambol. The rice and curries are cooked separately and served on to banana leaf. The aroma from the banana leaf wrapping adds to the aroma when the package put together to blend the flavors.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Don’t miss “papadams,”  a crispy seasoned dough that accompanies rice and curry that both kids and adults will love.

traditional Sri Lankan curry rice with variety of sambols and relishes, king coconut
Even at breakfast a variety of sambols and curries are served in Sri Lanka alongside British influences like baked beans. Photo Credit: Hagen Productions by Getty Images

Sri Lankan Pickled Condiments and Sambols

Served as a side dish alongside rice, curry and more Sri Lankan cuisine offers a large variety of exciting condiments. These “pickles” or achcharus are flavorful and you should definitely plan to sample them to discover your favorite!

Brinjal Moju: This pickle features eggplant fried with turmeric, green chili, red onion, garlic paste, ginger paste, clove, mustard paste, salt, curry leaves, soy sauce, sugar and vinegar.

Gotu Kola Sambol: Sambols mix fried onion, dry fish and chili paste. The Gotu Kola sambol is a mix of green chilli, Maldive fish flakes, tomato, shallots, fresh coconut, lime juice, salt and gotu. Gotu kola is a pennywort herb. It is believed to have healing properties and is also used in an herb gruel called Gotu Kola Kanda. It tastes way better than it sounds!

Pol Sambol (Coconut Sambol): Think of this one as a coconut relish. Freshly grated coconut is ground up with Maldive fish, shallot and chilies. Fresh lime juice is added. It’s often served with hoppers.

Lunu Miris: A traditional Sri Lankan sambol, lunu miras is made up of chili pepper, shallot, Maldive fish, salt, pepper and lemon juice. It is served with almost every meal.

Kesel Muwa: SheBuysTravel Nasreen fell in love with this “salad” during her time in Sri Lanka. Utilizing banana flowers, onion, garlic, curry seeds, red chilies, mustard seeds, cumin, and coconut it’s a flavor unique to the island.

Heading to Sri Lanka? Here’s the packing list you need! 

Don’t Forget Seafood

Seafood: With Sri Lanka being an island, fish is a big part of the local cuisine. Fried seer fish (a white fish high in omega 3 fatty acids and mild in taste) is one I typically offer my kids. If you’re a fan of shellfish, “deviled” (means prepared with spice and chili) prawn crab curries are a must-try.

Note: Vegetarians may want to ask if food contains Maldive fish. Maldive fish is a dried tuna product that is used in Sri Lankan cooking instead of shrimp paste or fish sauce.

hoppers and hopper with egg with sambol on the side Sri Lankan food
Hoppers, a type of crepe-like bowl, are popular in Sri Lankan cuisine. Photo Credit: bonchan Getty Images Pro

Watch Hoppers Being Cooked

Hoppers: Made from a batter of rice flour and coconut milk, this dish is a mix between a crepe and a pancake. I love to watch hoppers (Appa) being made. The cooks move the small wok pan deftly in a circular motion as to enable the edges to be crusty while keeping the bottom dense. Adding a sunny side egg to the middle can form an “egg hopper.”

String Hoppers: Though they share the hopper name and rice flour base, string hoppers have different taste and texture.  The dough is pressed out in circlets from a string mold onto small wicker mats, and then steamed. This is eaten with a curry and sambol as accompaniment.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Both hoppers and string hoppers in their plain form or with butter are ideal non-spicy options for kids. It is not unusual to serve sausages or bacon with traditional food so if that’s what your kids want don’t hesitate to ask.

What are “Short Eats”?

The term “short eats” is common is Sri Lanka. It refers to appetizers or snack foods eaten in between meals.  Pies with meat/vegetable fillings, bacon and egg pastries, Chinese rolls and cutlets are a few of the popular savory items. These items have evolved from a mix of influences using European baking techniques with spicy flavor. There are several coffee shops that offer these items throughout the day. Green Cabin, The Sponge, and The Fab are a few pastry shops in Colombo that I recommend  for picking up these foods for a picnic or a road trip.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Tea sandwiches are also a common snack in Sri Lanka. Sandwiches with cucumber, cheese or egg fillings are easy to find kid-friendly snacks.

samosas and beer
Samosas are a popular Sri Lankan street food. Grab some as you catch the train from Kandy to Ella. Photo Credit: vm2002

Sri Lankan Food- Street Eats

They say if you want to taste the soul of a country eat street food. In Sri Lanka, street food is everywhere. Head to Galle Street Green if you’re in Colombo. Start with chicken kottu roti. This is a dish born of leftovers. Chopped flatbread (godamba roti) is mixed with chicken, vegetables, eggs, spices, and sauce. The makeup can vary based on who is making it and what is available. The chef’s  acrobatics (similar to a hibachi experience) along with the noise of  shredding roti on a metal surface will entertain the kids.

You can grab a hopper with chutney for about 26 cents US. Samosas are sold far and wide particularly on trains and around train stations. Manioc chips are even crunchier than potato chips. They are made out of cassava. Spicy and plain versions exist and you can buy them in stores as well.

Here’s our list of Must-See Spots in Sri Lanka.

Food Guide to Sri Lanka: Desserts

Fresh fruits: It is as a local custom to offer a banana after each meal. Sri Lankans are very proud of their variety of bananas and will take every opportunity to describe the value of each type. These bananas are much smaller in size than the ones you’ll find in American supermarkets.

Papaya is another fruit that is available year around. Mangoes, rambutan, and mangosteens are other native fruits that are available seasonally.

We stick to fruits that have an outer covering (such as bananas) or use bottled water to wash and cut the fruit.

array of desserts at Sri Lanka buffet
Dessert buffet featuring fresh fruit, caramel and chocolate biscuit pudding. Photo credit: Anuja De Silva

Wattalapan: A coconut custard pudding made of coconut milk or condensed milk with its roots in the Sri Lankan Malay community. It contains lot of nuts and spices such as  cardamom, cloves and nutmeg.

Caramel pudding: This is the Sri Lankan version of flan, inherited from the Portuguese colonial influence.

Chocolate biscuit pudding: Another Portuguese influenced dessert made with Maria (popular English tea biscuit) biscuits layered with chocolate flavored cream and topped with nuts.

Curd and Treacle: Although this is considered more of a breakfast food by Sri Lankans it appears at hotel buffets in dessert spreads as well. The curd (meekiri) is usually made from buffalo milk. You top the curd with treacle, a syrup made from toddy palm sap. Think of treacle (kithul peni) as the maple syrup of Sri Lanka.

village roadside shop in Sri Lanka selling bananas and coconuts.
A village roadside shop selling fruits and king coconuts on the way to Jaffna.
Photo Credit: Anuja De Silva

Sri Lankan Beverages

Tea: Known for its world famous Ceylon tea, having a cup of black tea with milk and sugar is one of the ultimate Sri Lankan experiences. How frequently the locals drink hot tea in the tropical weather came as a big surprise to my American travel party. But for locals – despite the hot temperature – tea provides a much needed energy boost.

Served with short eats and dessert items in the late afternoon, high tea is a must-have experience.

SheBuysTravel Tip:  Booking high tea at any upscale hotel such as  The Cinnamon Grand, The Galadari Hotel or the Kingsbury in Colombo would be worth the splurge.

Sri Lankan iced coffee: Refreshing and sweet, this is a drink similar to “Thai iced coffee.”

Lime juice: This chilled drink combines freshly squeeze lime juice with sugar. Great choice for meal times if you’re looking for something other than water.

SheBuysTravel Tip:  Most restaurants use bottled water for prepared drinks. I never had an issue with my kids but it is good practice to confirm while placing your order.

Woodapple Juice: You may never have seen a woodapple. You know how durian gets a bad rap as a stinky fruit? Woodapple is Sri Lanka’s stinky fruit.  It looks a little like a mini coconut. The juice of this fruit has a sour and sweet flavor similar to tamarind.

King coconut (Thambili): This is a type of a coconut that is common in Sri Lanka. The outside of the coconut is orange. Many street vendors sell king coconuts. They’ll put a straw in first for you to drink the coconut milk and then cut it open when you are finished so that you can get to the coconut meat.

Sri Lanka is a beautiful country with lots to offer, including a variety of food that melds many cultures. What will you try first? 

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