Fresh, local produce is plentiful and widely available in a variety of mouth-watering dishes across Sri Lanka. There are also likely to be many foods you haven’t tried or perhaps even heard of before which alone is one of the many highlights of visiting this beautiful country; making your joyful way through the diversity of indigenous foods & local cuisine.
This A-Z list only touches the surface of Sri Lankan foods, offering an introductary insight in what springs to my mind with each letter- I hope you enjoy, do share your personal favourites in the comments below. As suggested with the image above- place your cutlery to the side and dig in with local style…I can assure you it tastes a whole lot better!
A is for Arrack
Ok, so trust me to start the post with an alcoholic drink…I couldnt miss arrack out as its one of my personal highlights and just so happens to be right at the beginning of the alphabet! Arrack is a coconut based liqueur- strong yet delicious.
Unless you wish to be brave and go straight in on the rocks, mixers such as soda or ginger beer are popular accompaniments. Word of warning, the quality/ brand of arrack you choose will determine the kind of headache you may potentially encounter in the morning, it’s best to choose the mid/higher price range. I like Mendis.
B is for Buffalo Curd
Curd is a tasty, wholesome and healthy staple in Sri Lanka, popularly sweetened with a dash of kithul treacle. It’s traditionally sold in clay pots (known as kiri hattis) at supermarkets/roadside and is common for breakfast or as a pudding.
I tend to buy a bottle of kithul treacle from a supermarket to bring home and enjoy with yoghurt or porridge.
C is for Cashews (Kaju)
Sri Lankan cashew nuts are unlike any in the world; juicy and flavoursome with an amazing creamy texture. They’re grown indigenously across the country- there’s even a village dedicated to them where you can find out how they’re grown and harvested (on route to Kandy from Colombo by car) called Kajugama.
Cashew nuts tend to be sold salted, devilled (with a spicy kick!), burnt or in cooking form. Hotels often serve them hot as a bar snack- enjoyed perfectly with an arrack cocktail. Supermarkets sell cashews in all shapes and sizes- from small rs. 80 bags for snacks on the go to huge 5K jars.
D is for Dhal (parripu)
There’s a saying in Sri Lanka that the dining table is never complete without parripu. Dhal is one of the most common staples of traditional rice and curry which often includes rice, a meat dish and several vegetables- combining textures and flavours best enjoyed by hand.
Compared to most parts of India, Sri Lankan rice and curry tends to incorporate coconut milk instead of ghee, with different key spices such as fragrant cinnamon and tamarind. Goa and Kerala share similarities to Sri Lankan cuisine.
E is for Eggplant (Brinjal)
Eggplant, aubergine, brinjal, wambatu- call it what you wish, there is no denying this vegetable makes a delicious curry!
Bursting with a harmonic blend of caramalised sweetness and spice, brinjal is often served as a curry or drier pickle alongside a selection of other dishes.
F is for Fish (maalu)
As with many countries surrounded by the generous waters of the Indian Ocean, fish & seafood is a thriving industry and tends to be a popular choice on the menu in many forms- I especially recommend trying it ‘devilled’ in Sri Lanka.
Fish tends to be a safe choice and its usually unbelievably fresh. If you hear the cries of ‘maalu maalu’, the local fish seller will be close by (or further depending on his lung capacity!), offering the freshest catch direct from the sea.
G is for Greens (mallum)
As so many vegetables are cooked in curry form, mallum (literally translated as ‘mix up’) is a welcomed addition- a fresh, lightly stir fried dish generally consisting of cabbage leaves and infused with chili, grated coconut and mustard seeds.
Cabbage leaves can also be substituted for any green leafy vegetable or edible leaf and offers great nutritional value to any meal.
H is for Hoppers
Hoppers are one of the most recognised Sri Lankan dishes, served plain, with an egg or even sweet as a dessert with jaggary- made from kithul sap.
The savoury options are delicious with lunu mirris or dipped in the gravy of a flavoursome curry. Egg hoppers were one of the first Sri Lankan dishes I tasted when I was about 10 years old in London- they’re a great option for kids too.
I is for Iddly
Iddly was one of the first Tamil (northern region) foods I tried whilst carrying out charity work with my mother in 2005. We stayed overnight in an Army bungalow soon after the tsunami during the war; sampling an array of local Tamil cuisine.
Tamil food is available across Sri Lanka- my #1 destination in Colombo is Shanmuga’s at the Crescat Boulevard’s food court adjoining the Cinnamon Grand Hotel although they have other outlets too. Here, iddly is just Rs. 80 per piece, with a selection of mouth-watering sambars and chutneys to dip.
J is for Jackfruit
Jackfruit is the largest, heaviest treebourne fruit in the world, often compared to tasting like a blend of pineapple, mango, strawberry and banana in raw fruit form. It is also exceptionally healthy, high in dietary fibre, plentiful in vitamins (especially C) and free from saturated fat.
Young jackfruit known as ‘pollos’ is often cooked in curries (a favourite of mine), whilst when ripe, the bright yellow bulbs of the fruit known as ‘waruka’ can be enjoyed fresh from the tree. Jackfruit is widely considered a superfood in Sri Lanka.
K is for Kottu Rotti
They say that food should stir all the senses- if so Kottu Rotti is right up there! With the melodic, noisy chopping action to achieve a perfect consistency of roughly chopped strips of rotti bread combined with vegetables, egg and meat (if so desired), you can be sure to hear the dish well before you see it.
Kottu Rotti is the local fast food of Sri Lanka- just tastier and a whole lot healthier than Mcdonalds or KFC! If you see a sign that says ‘dolphin kottu’ don’t be alarmed, it’s not actually dolphin! Just a different way of preparing it.
L is for Lime
Not only is lime delicious squeezed over fruit or served in local favourite fresh lime juice -a combination of lime, water and sugar syrup- it’s also extremely healthy, promoting good digestion and even weight loss alongside a balanced diet.
Introduced by the Sri Lankan Dutch Burgher community many moons ago, lamprais is wonderful dish- a combination of sweet, salty, spicy and peppery flavour; slow cooked and served in a banana leaf. The contents within the leaf traditionally include ‘samba’ rice cooked in stock, meat, ‘frikkadels’ (cutlet), ‘blachan’ (shrimp paste), aubergine and ash plantain- a little like potato but creamier and more dense.
It isn’t the most attractive or photogenic of dishes by any means but if cooked to precision, should be infused with a perfect balance of flavour.
M is for Mangosteen
Mangosteen is a wonderfully strange, tasty fruit; the fleshy white vesicles inside offering a mild creamy flavour. Mangosteen season is typically between May-September. Just remember, the outer skin is not edible!
O is for Okra
Okra (also known as ladies fingers) is a vegetable often used to make curry- also a popular dish in neighbouring India. The health benefits are plentiful- high in fibre and antioxidants in addition to vitamin c, potassium and calcium. It’s a skilled vegetable to cook as the texture varies quite dramatically depending on how long it’s cooked.
P is for Papaya & Pineapple
The two most popular breakfast fruits alongside bananas. Ask for a couple of lime slices to squeeze over the platter, it sharpens the flavour and adds a touch of extra nutrition.
R is for Rambutan
Rambutan is by far my favourite fruit in Sri Lanka, although I always seem to visit when it’s out of season! The fruit needs to be perfectly ripe to enjoy fully, the soft lychee-esque contents inside removing the flesh clean from the inner seed- if it’s not ripe it will likely bring the outer coating off with it which isn’t pleasant.
S is for Spice
Spices are plentiful in Sri Lanka, filling many a home with heavenly notes. Amongst the most popular spices for traditional Sri Lankan curry include chilli, turmeric, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, pepper, fenugreek and cummin.
Spices are also used for Ayurvedic products such as soap, massage oil and herbal toothpaste.
T is for Thambili
Thambili coconuts are inexpensive to buy roadside (around 30 rs)- usually 3/4 times the price in hotels.
The top is taken off with a machete and you either drink with a straw, or without- the latter more so roadside kiosks. Once the sweet water is finished, ask the seller to cut it in half, revealing the delicious fleshy fruit inside.
Thambili coconuts are available across the island and are one of the safest drinks to avoid illness from water. To find out more please visit Superdrinks of Sri Lanka.
Parripu vaddai is my favourite short eat in town. The best I’ve ever tasted were on a 2nd class train to Galle (vendors aren’t invited into 1st), which must have quite literally arrived direct from the pan as they were piping hot and an ideal consistency- crisp on the outside, soft inside.
The best part? They’re often served with a side of crispy salted red chilli, pretty spicy but delicious if you can handle it. If the vaddais are particularly oily I blot them lightly with a tissue. Ulundu are nice too, of a softer dough like consistency, perfectly complimented by spicy (green chilli) coconut chutney or sambar.
V is for Varaka (correct Sinhala spelling waraka- pronounced varaka)
A lot of the words that begin with a w are pronounced with a v in Sri Lanka- such as wade (short eat) and waraka (ripe jackfruit) so I found it a little tricky to find something that actually begins with v.
This fruit has a strong, distinctive smell and is bright yellow in colour, with a fibrous and sticky texture- probably unlike anything you’ve tried before!
W is for Woodapple
Woodapple is one of the most celebrated fruits of Sri Lanka, praised by the locals in both its natural state and juice form. The smell is very distinctive, pungent in fact, however the taste isn’t quite so strong. I’m going to be honest in saying that I’m not a fan but don’t knock it till you’ve tried it- there is a likelihood it may arrive as a welcome drink.
There are so many health benefits of woodapple- aiding digestion, lowering cholesterol, boosting the immune system amonst many others. If you want to stay healthy on your travels, this is the go to fruit.
Z is for Zzz
After all that food you’re going to need a serious sleep!