While Sri Lanka’s reputation as a tropical paradise attracts plenty of surfers and beachgoers alike, travelers – especially the particularly culinary-conscious – would be remiss not to indulge in the island’s diverse and delicious cuisine. Drawing from its multi-ethnic makeup, rich history, and abundance of fresh, flavorful ingredients, Sri Lanka’s food is as colourful and fascinating as the island itself. Read on to see SISL’s top 10 reasons why Sri Lanka is every foodie’s dream!
- Nearly any dietary choices or restrictions can be accommodated.
No matter your dietary preferences or intolerances, Sri Lankan food has you covered. Plant-based curries like beetroot, jackfruit, and cashew (just to name a few) are sure to satisfy vegetarians and vegans, while meat-eaters can enjoy those as well as beef, chicken, lamb, pork, and seafood curries. Allergic to shellfish? No problem! Stick to other seafood, meats, and vegetables. Gluten-intolerant foodies will delight in the fact that traditional hoppers and string hoppers are made with rice flour, and can also enjoy rice and curry – the most popular Sri Lankan lunch – risk-free. Dairy is not a prominent feature of Sri Lankan cuisine either, as coconut milk is much more widely-used. If you have questions about your own personal diets and what Sri Lankan foods you can eat, leave us a comment below.
2. Some of the best meals are also the most affordable.
While metropolitan areas like Colombo and tourist favorites like Galle have their fair share of pricey, high-end restaurants, some of the stars of Sri Lankan cuisine are the “cheap eats.” Kothu is perhaps the most popular of this bunch. Thinly-sliced godhamba roti is stir-fried with a mix of Sri Lankan spices and other ingredients like vegetables, eggs, and meats or fish. Fans of this flavorful and filling dish don’t just enjoy eating it, but watching its rhythmic preparation by masterful chefs who expertly chop up the ingredients. Another must-try are “short-eats” – snacks sold by vendors and in small shops all around the island. Chinese rolls, patties, and cutlets are staples, as well as malu pan (fish buns): tender, perfectly-spiced fish ensconced in pockets of light dough. In general, keep your eyes peeled for smaller “hole in the wall” restaurants populated with locals – these are where you’re likely to find some of the best food at the lowest prices.
3. Restaurants are assorted and plentiful.
Whether you are looking for luxurious restaurants with high-end cuisine or more low-key, budget-friendly options, Sri Lanka has it all. Colombo and Galle are two particular areas experiencing restaurant booms; the old favorites are still thriving, but recent additions by aspiring young chefs are breathing new life into the restaurant scene. If you find yourself seeking something other than Sri Lankan food (difficult to believe, but certainly possible!) you are likely to find many other options, particularly in Colombo.
4. Sri Lankan food is healthy.
For health-conscious eaters, Sri Lankan food is a dream come true. Simple differences – using coconut milk instead of ghee (clarified butter used often in Indian cooking), for example – make a huge impact on the healthful nature of the cuisine. Ingredients are fresh and locally-sourced, and commonly-used spices like cardamom, fenugreek seeds, and turmeric contain a number of health benefits. Karapincha (the curry leaf) is used in many Sri Lankan curries as well as in Ayurvedic healing for its medicinal properties. Cafés specializing in healthy options are also gaining traction in some areas of the country, so make sure to do your research!
5. Street food is generally a safe and affordable alternative to restaurants.
Street food tends to be quite reliable in Sri Lanka, and is by no means limited to kothu. Isso vadai (fried lentil patties with prawns) and hoppers are very common. A personal favorite is roadside corn – full cobs boiled in log-burning cauldrons of salted water sold along rural roadsides. Purchasing street food from vendors is also a fantastic way to support & connect with local Sri Lankans and learn more about the country and its people.
6. The country’s diversity is reflected in the variation of its food.
Sri Lankans are a diverse group – most people are familiar with the Sinhalese and Tamil ethnic groups, but there are also Moors, Malays, Burghers, Colombo Chetties, and more. Each ethnic group in Sri Lanka has their own recipes and ways of preparing food. Sometimes similar but often very different, the common thread between them is they’re all equally delicious.
In a similar fashion, dishes vary based on region. Crab curry in the northern city of Jaffna will taste very different to crab curry in the western city of Negombo, for instance – the flavors and tastes essentially depend on demographics and ingredient availability in the area. Be sure to ask about regional specialties wherever you are and make it a priority to try those. And no meal is complete without a cup of tea to wash it down!
7. You can customize your meal with condiments.
If you’ve eaten Sri Lankan food before, perhaps you’ve noticed some smaller dishes accompanying the usual spread of curries. These are likely a handful of the hundreds of Sri Lankan condiments – mostly pickles, chutneys, and sambols – all designed to add even more depth and flavor to certain dishes. Pol sambol is a must-try: a blend of fresh coconut, chilis, lime juice, and Maldive fish (optional – leaving out the fish makes the dish vegan-friendly). It can accompany nearly any Sri Lankan dish, including rice, string hoppers, and hoppers. Lunu miris – a paste consisting primarily of chilis, onions, and maldive fish – pairs perfectly with kiribath. Don’t miss out on seeni sambol (a spicy relish made of caramelized onions), ambarella chutney, lime pickle, or brinjal (eggplant) pickle, either. Bottom line: try them all!
8. Fresh, seasonal ingredients are the norm.
Everywhere in Sri Lanka, you will encounter markets and stalls bursting with the freshest local produce. Bunches of tiny green & yellow bananas and bright orange king coconuts hang from the ceilings, dipping into bins overflowing with mangoes, pineapples, and rambutan. Not to be outdone, the equally-vibrant vegetables include the health-packed herb gotu kola, the appropriately-named bitter gourd, and of course an assortment of chili peppers! Fish markets display a similar setup, showcasing gleaming seafood caught just minutes earlier. Raw ingredients hardly last a day at the market before re-emerging as dinner that evening, so fresh food is an absolute guarantee everywhere on the island.
9. Many recipes are easy to learn how to make.
While making Sri Lankan food is known to be a labor-intensive process, several recipes are not too difficult to learn. One example is kiribath, a Sri Lankan classic often eaten on special occasions. This popular dish uses just four ingredients: rice, coconut milk, salt, and water. Try taking a cooking class, which are offered all over the country in places like Colombo, Negombo, Galle, and Unawatuna, and impress your friends back home with your newfound skills!
10. Dessert is always an option.
Sri Lankans have quite the sweet tooth, perhaps to offset the spiciness of most of their food! In any case, dessert-lovers are sure to enjoy trying the different sweets available around the island. If you’re sticking to healthier options, try a traditional dessert of buffalo curd and treacle. There’s also watalappam, a coconut custard pudding with jaggery, cashews, and spices. Smaller treats like two-tone marshmallows, coconut rock, and milk toffee are great options for anyone craving a quick burst of sugar. Many Sri Lankans also have a particular liking for chocolate cake, and will have a strong opinion of where to find the best one. Our suggestion? Try them all!
We hope this post inspires you to explore all the incredible culinary options that Sri Lanka has to offer. More and more Sri Lankan restaurants are popping up in cities like London and New York, but nothing compares to the experience of grabbing a cutlet on the go, sampling homemade rice and curry with locals, or sipping from a coconut that was hanging from a tree just minutes before. Foodies: book your tickets to Sri Lanka now!
What are your favorite Sri Lankan foods? Comment below!
Author bio: This guide is written by contributing writer Isa Spoerry; a junior studying Social & Cultural Analysis at New York University. Born to a Sri Lankan mother and raised by her parents in the States, she is always looking for new ways to engage with her Sri Lankan heritage and culture.