Sri Lankan cuisine is full of vibrant colours and fragrant spices. Cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, vanilla and nutmeg are just a few of the spices you will find growing in the many spice gardens, as well as featuring in almost all the dishes you will try. Sri Lankan cuisine is one of the most complex cuisines of South Asia. Due to its proximity to South India, some of the Sri Lankan dishes have striking resemblance to dishes from Kerala. As a major trade hub in the past centuries, Chinese, Malay and Arabian traders’ ingredients and cooking techniques gradually influenced the local gastronomy. The colonial period saw the Portuguese, Dutch and English adding elements of their cuisines to the mix.
The most common meal in Sri Lanka is referred to simply as “rice and curry“, which belies the wide range of delicious dishes served. While many Sri Lankan specialities are vegetarian – such as the delicate sweetness of pumpkin curry with crunchy mustard seeds, or beetroot curry with freshly grated coconut and cinnamon – the island has a longhistory of seafood and mutton dishes. “Rice and curry” is generally eaten for lunch. In the evenings you can enjoy a beer with some typical Sri Lankan “bites”. The hot buttered cuttlefish (crispy fried squid), or “devilled” fish, prawns or chicken (spicy!), or roasted cashew nuts are available at most bars.
„Rice and Curry“ is the main daily meal for most Sri Lankans and is often served for lunch as a buffet or, as a lunch packages. Apart from a huge portion of rice, you can expect at least two or three different vegetable curries, and your choice of meat, seafood or fish. Meals also usually include malum, a salad of chopped leafy greens and coconut, crispy poppadoms (a large circular piece of thin, spiced bread), dal (a type of lentil stew), coconut sambal (a grated coconut with chilli), and homemade chutney. If you are not a great fan of spicy food, this staple food may seem a bit daunting, but read on to find some suggestions to avoid the heat!
Dhal or Paripu – red or yellow lentil stew, normally not spicy.
Potato Curry, mild, milky curry, often accompanied by beans.
Beetroot Curry – a mild, earthy curry.
Pumpkin Curry – sweet, mild curry with fragrant fenugreek and mustard seeds. There are a number of vegetables that you may never have tried before, be brave and try some of these curries: Jack Fruit Curry or Bread Fruit Curry both of these curries use fruits which taste similar to potato in a mild curry. Lotus Flower Stems and Banana Flower Leaves are also used to make a tasty compliment to the „rice and curry“
Meat Curries include Chicken / Beef / Pork and Mutton Curry – careful, the meat dishes are normally very, very spicy. The darker the colour of the „gravy“ sauce, the spicier the dish will be. Seafood and Fish Curries depending on the day’s catch you may be able to try some delicious fish or seafood curry. Crab or Prawn Curries are messy to eat, but are delicious. Mild fish and seafood curries are yellow, spicy ones are red.
If you can smell the rice will seem unattractive, then it is a kind of traditional village, which is the most commonly offered in Sri Lanka – it is the kind of Samba. But do not worry, although not appetizing smells, tastes good. Try a taste of red rice.
A note about the – the local short grain rice, called Samba rice, is not as fragrant as Basmati Rice and may sometimes have a slightly fishy smell when cooked. But it tastes lovely and fluffy, and not at all fishy.
Kotthu Roti – Roti is flat bread that is sometime served with curries instead of rice. In the evenings these rottis are thrown on a hot cast-iron griddle and fried with vegetables, egg, spices and your choice of chicken or beef (sometimes you can even add cheese). The ingredients are chopped and mixed by repeated pounding using a heavy iron spatula. You will quickly learn to recognise this loud chop -chop sound as the sound of a good dinner.
String Hoppers – White or red rice noodles (similar to vermicelli), often served with curries instead of rice. Plain or Egg Hoppers – A crispy „bowl“ made from a fermented batter of rice flour and coconut milk. Egg hoppers have an egg steamed within the “bowl”. Served for breakfast or in the evenings, often accompanied by lunu miris (a mix of red onions and spices).
Paan tasty bread with a nice crust that you can buy in small bakeries (not in supermarkets). Roast Paan is individual slices of this bread, which have been “roasted” on both sides.
Roti – flat bread used to create a number of stuffed „pockets“. Egg Roti (not spicy), Meat or Fish Roti (spicy), and Vegetable Roti (can be a little spicy), are some of the usual fillings.
Samosas – deep-fried dough parcels containing vegetables or chicken or beef and fragrant spices. Best eaten around 5 pm when you get them hot from the frying pan.
Try Coconut and Kithul Pancakes for breakfast. Kithul is made from the sweet sap of the palm tree and is like a fragrant honey. It is the basis for a favourite dessert in Sri Lankan – Wattalapan, which is similar to a treacle pudding. Further treats include Curd, which is rich buffalo yoghurt, served with kithul. You can find a variety of cakes, biscuits and ice creams in the supermarkets too. Coconut biscuits and ginger biscuits from Munchees are worth a try. Elephant house does a few interesting flavours such as tropical fruits or faluda.
As soon as you land in Sri Lanka you will see colourful tropical fruits growing everywhere. You will spot large green cooking Plantains as well as sweet, small Bananas. You will recognise Pineapples, Mangoes, Watermelonsand Papaya, but it might be the first time you taste Mangostines, Rambutan, Dragon Fruit, Wood Apple or Jambu. There are a number of fruits and leaves that are said to be very beneficial for your health such as Soursopfruit and Gotukola leaves.
Arrack – local spirit made from sap of the coconut flower. Taste like a fiery, sweet rum. Toddy – palm wine, best avoided as it is normally made illegally. Beer – locally produced Lion Lager or Lion Stout. Carlsberg Beer is also sold as a „local beer“. All other beer brands are priced as „foreign beer“.