Food is a big part of experiencing a new country. 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 Traveling Mom who grew up there shares her food guide for tasting your way through Sri Lanka. She lists the best “short eats” and unique dishes which you can only find 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 must eat local delights .
What to Eat
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.
TravelingMom 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: This is a traditional breakfast food or a meal for an auspicious occasion. Rice cooked in a milk base is served up firm accompanied by sweet or spicy flavoring. The spicy flavoring is “sambol,” 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.
TravelingMom Tip: Don’t miss “papadams,” a crispy seasoned dough that accompanies rice and curry that both kids and adults will love.
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.
While in Europe you devour baked goods such as baguettes and croissants, in Sri Lanka you will experience a mix of flour-based foods that are made on stove top. They will be typical offerings for breakfast and dinner.
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 being made. The cooks move the 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.
TravelingMom 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.
Kottu: This a spicy stir-fry of shredded ‘roti,’ tortilla type bread with vegetables, meat or eggs. The chef’s acrobatics (similar to a hibachi experience) along with the noise of shredding roti on a metal surface will entertain the kids.
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.
TravelingMom 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.
Save Room for 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. Most common ones are smaller in size compared to their American counterparts.
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.
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.
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.
TravelingMom 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 is a common drink of freshly squeezed lime juice mixed with sugar, typically served chilled. Great choice for meal times if you’re looking for something other than water.
TravelingMom 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.
King coconut (Thambili): This is a type of a coconut that is common in Sri Lanka. The outside of this is orange and you can drink it off the fruit.
Typical takeout food in Sri Lanka includes South Indian and Sri Lankan version of Chinese food. You can order for pick up or delivery in most major cities such as Colombo, Kandy or Galle.