Table of Contents
- Eating and drinking in Sri Lanka
- Prices and etiquette
- Venues for Dining
- Rice and curry
- Other Sri Lankan specialties
- South Indian cuisine
- Short eats
- Different cuisines
- Vegetarian food
- Desserts and sweets
- Sugary beverages
- Tea and coffee
- Alcoholic drinks
- How can I get a drink?
Eating and drinking in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has a fascinatingly unique culinary tradition because of the unique combination of native items with recipes and spices brought to the island through the years by Indians, Arabs, Malays, Portuguese, Dutch, and English.
Rice and curry, the national dish, is best described as a little feast with conflicting scents. Coconut milk, curry leaves, chiles, cinnamon, garlic, and “Maldive fish,” which is a pinch of strongly perfumed sun-dried tuna, are among the components. These tastes bear witness to Sri Lanka’s origins as one of the first islands to be home to spices. There’s plenty of seafood to be found, but there are also lots of other unique dishes to try, like string hoppers, hoppers, kottu rotty, lamprais, and pittu.
Sri Lankan cuisine has a reputation for being extremely spicy—it can occasionally be hotter than both Thai and traditional Indian cuisine. A lot of the island’s chefs are using lot of spices and chilli powder when they prepare food. That being said, as a guest, you will often be viewed as a whiner who faints at the first whiff of heat. Typically, a “medium” yields results that are neither monotonous nor require the use of a fire extinguisher. People will frequently ask you how hot your cuisine is. If you do happen to overheat during a meal, nothing soothes the misery of a burned palate more than a mouthful of plain rice, bread, or beer.
Prices and etiquette
While visitors are almost always provided cutlery by default, Sri Lankans feel that using your fingers to eat allows you to experience the flavours and textures of the meal to their fullest. Eating is traditionally done with the right hand, like in other countries in Asia, though this custom isn’t always adhered to strictly. You won’t draw attention to yourself if you truly want to eat with your left hand.
Though not as fantastic as they were a few years ago, prices are generally reasonable. A good lunch of rice and curry can be enjoyed for a few dollars at your local café, but the main courses at most guesthouse restaurants cost around $10, and even the most expensive ones usually cost $15 or more. Be advised that many places add a ten percent service charge to the bill; additionally, higher-end restaurants may add different percentages of government taxes (usually between 13 and 15 percent).
Due to the peculiar spelling whims of Sri Lankans, popular dishes such as idlis, vadais, kottu rotty, and lumprice can all appear on menus in a bewildering range of spelling variations. Please take note of this. You will also be offered a number of unintentionally humorous meals, including “cattle fish,” “sweat and sour,” and Adolf Hitler’s favourite, “nazi goreng.”
Venues for Dining
Even though Sri Lanka is home to several top-notch eateries, not many of them do the island’s cuisine justice. There is no particular tradition of eating out, and outside of Colombo, there aren’t many notable independent restaurants. On the island, people eat at home or at one of the many dilapidated little cafés (sometimes mistakenly called “hotels”) that serve full meals for a few bucks, including rough-and-ready portions of rice and curries, possibly with some hoppers or kottu rotty. However, because the cuisine is usually good, dining at local cafés is more of a social event than a fine dining experience.
Most visitors end up eating the most of their meals at their guesthouse or hotel because there aren’t many independent restaurants catering to tourists. The food and atmosphere you experience will vary widely; you can enjoy home-style cooking that is rarely offered on menus at larger hotels in quiet guesthouses in Ella and Galle, or you can dine in huge, sterile restaurants found in beach resorts. All in all, though, the alternatives are limited; the majority of restaurants have a standard menu that consists of rice or fried noodles, a few seafood and meat dishes (usually with a few devilled options), and maybe a couple of curry options.
Most of the island’s independent restaurants may be found in Colombo and, to a lesser extent, in Kandy, Galle, and Negombo, where tourism has encouraged the development of a modest local eating scene. Most independent restaurants serve a combination of seafood, Western food, and Sri Lankan cuisine. They also cater to visitors. There are also a few restaurants in the South Indian style, especially in Colombo.
By 11:00 a.m. If you want to dine like a native, you may buy lunch packs from neighbourhood cafés and street vendors all around the country from noon to two p.m. These usually include a generous portion of steaming rice, along with some vegetables, sambol, and a curry piece of beef, fish, or chicken (vegetarians may use an egg). Although they are the most affordable dining option in Sri Lanka, it’s usually best to avoid them until your stomach and taste senses have had a chance to become used to the local fare.
Rice and curry
Rice and curry, the staple meal of almost every Sri Lankan adult, child, and woman, is the food that defines the island and is offered in almost every café and restaurant. A really memorable dinner can be had with a delectable curry and rice dish from Sri Lanka; however, it should be emphasised that the food is entirely unrelated to the traditional curries of North India. Common Sri Lankan curry sauces, often called “milk gravy” or “kiri hodhi,” are made from coconut milk that has been infused with chillies and other spices; they taste a lot more like Thai green or red curry than anything you’ll find in India.
Simple rice and curry, not “curry and rice,” is served out as a plate of rice topped with a few dollops of vegetable curry, a bit of chicken or fish, and a spoonful of sambol in small cafés all across the island. More sophisticated versions usually come with an inescapable mound of rice and up to fifteen side dishes. The Indonesian dish nasi padang, which the Dutch transformed into the classic rijsttafel, or “rice table,” and brought to Sri Lanka sometime in the eighteenth century, is thought to have influenced this style of mini-banquet. Typically, side dishes such as dhal, curried pineapple, potatoes, eggplant (brinjal), sweet potatoes, and okra (lady’s fingers) are served with a piece of beef or fish curry. You’ll probably find more unusual, locally grown vegetables. Both “drumsticks” (murunga, like okra) and curried jackfruit are reasonably well-liked. The native veggies include the ash plantain (alu kesel), snake gourd (patolah), bitter gourd (karawila), and breadfruit (del), among many other strange and unpronounceable types. Another well-liked accompaniment is mallung, which is simply shredded green veggies with a gentle stir-fry of spices and grated coconut.
Sambol, a side dish typically served with rice and curry, is supposed to be mixed into your meal to add a little extra flavour. Sambols come in a variety of shapes, but the most common is the pol sambol, sometimes referred to as the coconut sambol. Spicy powder, chopped onions, salt, grated coconut, and “Maldive fish,” which is strongly flavoured, sun-dried tuna that has been shredded, are the ingredients used to make this dish. It often has a pleasing appearance. Treat it with caution. The softer, sweet-and-sour seeni sambol, sometimes called “sugar sambol,” and the milder lunu miris, which is made of onions, salt, Maldive fish, and chilli powder, are other possibilities.
Ironically, the rice itself is often extremely bland; don’t anticipate well-seasoned North Indian pilaus and biryanis. Even though Sri Lanka grows a wide variety of rice, the rice that is served in restaurants is usually of poorer quality. But sometimes you can discover the delectable, nutrient-dense red and yellow rice that are grown in particular parts of the island; they taste and feel a lot like brown rice.
Other Sri Lankan specialties
The aptly named “hopper” (appa), a little, bowl-shaped pancake fried with a batter including coconut milk and palm sugar, is the most delightful snack in Sri Lanka. It is usually eaten for breakfast or dinner. Owing to the fact that they are cooked in a small dish resembling a wok, most of the mixture descends to the bottom, giving the hoppers a crispy edge and a soft, doughy interior. Different substances can be added to the hopper. Egg hoppers are produced with a fried egg in the middle, sometimes with sweet ingredients like yoghurt or honey added. Or you may have curry as a side dish and some simple hoppers. Do not confuse hoppers with string hoppers (indiappa), which are tangled little nests of steamed rice vermicelli noodles. Usually, they are had for breakfast with a small amount of dhal or curry.
Pittu, a mixture of flour and grated coconut cooked in a bamboo mould that resembles coarse couscous, is an additional substitute for rice. 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 word “lomprijst” is Dutch in origin.
The greatest places to have roty (or roti), a delicate, doughy pancake, are Muslim restaurants. It’s fascinating to watch the chefs form little dough balls into massive, almost translucently thin sheets. The rotty is folded up around a dollop of curried meat, vegetable, or potato that has been placed in the centre. The final shape is up to the cook; some like their crepe-like squares, some like samosa-like triangles, and some like spring rolls. Rotties are chopped up and stir-fried with meat and vegetables to make kottu rotty. The loud noise that is produced during the preparation of kottu rotty is indicative of its preparation. The components are usually chopped and cooked at the same time on a hotplate with a large pair of meat cleavers, producing a sound that is similar to both a musical performance and an advertisement.
Devilled meals are also popular and occasionally rather good. These are usually made with huge chunks of onion and chilli and a thick, spicy sauce, yet the ultimate meal is often not as fiery as you may think (unless you eat the chilies). Typical devilled foods are pig, poultry, fish, and beef (the latter is thought to be the original and is usually had with celebratory drinks). Another traditional dish in the area is buriani. This isn’t anything like the classic, saffron-scented North Indian biryani—it’s basically a pile of rice with a piece of chicken, a bowl of curry sauce, and a boiled egg. Even so, it’s a great midday snack and is typically milder than a meal of rice and curry.
South Indian cuisine
Furthermore, there’s a good selection of “pure vegetarian” South Indian restaurants in Sri Lanka (vegetarian here means no meat, fish, eggs, or alcohol); these restaurants are largely in Colombo, but you can find them all across the island anywhere there’s a significant Tamil community. Mostly serving the local community, these jovially unpretentious businesses offer a delicious assortment of South Indian-style cuisine at deeply discounted prices. The dosa, a crispy rice pancake filled with curried potatoes and served plain, with onions, or with ghee (clarified butter), is the main dish. However, it is also commonly consumed as a masala dosa. There’s also uttapam, another (thicker) form of rice pancake that’s usually eaten with some kind of curry, and idlis, which are steamed rice cakes served with curry sauces or chutneys.
Again, particularly in Colombo, certain South Indian eateries serve an intriguing assortment of strongly spiced and vibrantly coloured sweets.
Commonly referred to as wadai, vadai is a spicy, deep-fried lentil doughnut that is a staple of Tamil cuisine and 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, be aware that these plates are shared and their contents are politely prodded by everyone, so they’re not very hygienic. No train or bus ride is complete without the sound of hawkers yelling “Vadai-vadai-vadai!” as they march up and down the carriage or vehicle.”
As usual, Colombo has the most variety of these places. There are plenty of Chinese restaurants on the island, but many of them are really just fancy local watering holes that serve noodles and fried rice. The food, mostly Cantonese-style, is usually spiced up for Sri Lankan palates, but authentic restaurants are usually good.
Though these dishes rarely taste anything like the original Indonesian dishes, 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) are the most popular Indonesian dishes offered in tourist restaurants.
Other food traditions are confined to Colombo. There are a few excellent European restaurants, a surprising number of excellent North Indian restaurants, and more upscale hotels all over the island that attempt to serve European cuisine, though with rather different results. Thai food has become somewhat more popular.
It should come as no surprise that fish often takes the place of meat in Sri Lankan cuisine, which places a strong emphasis on seafood. Popular fish include pomfret, bonito, shark, and the delicious melt-in-your-mouth butterfish, along with tuna, seer, and mullet. Crab, prawns, lobster, and cuttlefish (calamari) are also plentiful. The Negombo lagoon, which is located north of Colombo, is home to some of the most sought-after seafood, including huge jumbo prawns that resemble well-fed crabs.
Seafood is usually a good option if you’re trying to avoid overly spicy food. The most popular ways to cook fish are frying it (usually in breadcrumbs), grilling it, and serving it with a little garlic sauce or a squeeze of lemon. You can also find some fairly common seafood dishes that are chillied (chilli crab is a particular favourite), as well as some extremely spicy fish curries.
Though it’s surprising that vegetarianism hasn’t taken off in this mostly Buddhist country, there are plenty of delicious South Indian restaurants in Colombo that serve only vegetarian food, and if you like seafood and fish, it’s easy to find somewhere to eat, especially along the ocean. A significant portion of the country’s cuisine consists of meatless dishes like string hoppers, hoppers, and vegetable rottys, in addition to the bewildering array of fruits available.
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; 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 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.
Avoid tap water in Sri Lanka; bottled water is available everywhere, coming from all over the hill country and sold under the most bizarre labels (make sure the seal hasn’t been broken, though they’re usually a little gloomy).
A popular and refreshing beverage is ginger beer; the Elephant brand includes genuine ginger, which is supposed to aid in digestion. While the ubiquitous and affordable international soft drink brands, such as Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and Sprite, are easily accessible, exploring 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 like cream soda and ginger beer, as well as distinctive regional brands like the extremely sweet, lollipop-flavored Necta and Portello, which tastes like Vimto.
Because it is stored inside the coconut, thambili, or coconut water, has a slightly sour taste that is harmless, though not everyone likes it. Its potassium and glucose combination makes it a great hangover cure. It’s also a nice drink to have if you’re having diarrhoea.
Tea and coffee
While Sri Lankan tea is very popular, most dishes are a little bland, and you won’t find the incredible masala teas of India here. Common tea is called “milk tea”; if you like to add sugar, ask for “milk and sugar separate” to avoid getting a cup full of sickly sweet bilge. Basically, “bed tea” is just regular tea brought to your room for breakfast. Occasionally, coffee is a better option. Usually, either Nescafé or locally brewed coffee is served here; the latter is generally bland but still quite acceptable, even though it has a thick layer of silt at the bottom of the cup.
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.
How can I get a drink?
In their guesthouse or hotel bar, most people drink. 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 locations 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 is secured by sturdy security bars. On full moo