Lauren Razavi rounds up the best culinary options Sri Lanka has to offer its visitors.
Sri Lankan cuisine is defined by spice, fragrance and richness; full of layered flavours and unexpected combinations. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the island’s curry dishes. If you ask a local person what they eat, they’ll simply reply with “rice and curry”— a description that doesn’t do justice to the incredible taste experiences on offer.
Curry is found in hotels and guesthouses, in rough-and-ready local cafes, at roadside stops and, of course, in homes island-wide. Curry sauces are made with a combination of coconut milk, chillies and spices such as coriander, turmeric, cloves and cinnamon. Sour fish curry is Sri Lanka’s most popular, and it’s eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Other favourites include chicken, mutton and beef, as well as vegetarian curries like jackfruit, beetroot or lentil.
Sri Lankan cooking as a whole has developed around rice as its staple, and white samba rice is used most widely. This grain is smaller and more oval-shaped, and has a starchier, corn-like flavour. More than 15 varieties are grown on the island and curries are often served with the wonderfully fragrant and highly nutritious red rice.
As well as the majority Sinhalese Buddhist population, Sri Lanka is home to many South Indian Muslims who introduced their own types of curry in the early 1900s. Biryani is the most widespread, and the Sri Lankan variety is much spicier than its Indian counterpart.
The national favourite for breakfast is the hopper. The batter resembles a thick pancake mixture made from rice flour, fermented coconut milk and palm toddy. The mixture is poured into a bowl-shaped, cast-iron pan and cooked until crispy and golden. Egg hoppers are a popular variation, made by breaking an egg into the hopper. Both are typically served with curries and spicy sauces, especially katta sambol made from ground chilli relish. String hoppers are another delicious breakfast dish made from steamed rice noodles.
Kiribath (milk rice) is eaten on the first day of the month in Sri Lankan homes. Fresh coconut milk is mixed with rice and boiled until glutinous. It’s then flattened and cut into diamond-shaped pieces, and is usually served with fish curry.
If there is one dish that defines Sri Lankan street food, it would be roti, a flatbread made from wheat flour, served plain or with sweet or savoury fillings, as well as shredded, mixed with vegetables and stir-fried in a delicious dish called kottu roti.
Chickpeas, garnished with fresh coconut, chilli and spices, known locally as kadala thel dala, are often sold outside sporting events. Wellawahum — turmeric-infused pancakes with cloves, coconut, cardamom and treacle — are a traditional dessert.
Sri Lanka is the home of Ceylon tea (the island’s namesake until 1972) and its an ubiquitous part of island life. For locals, days start and end with a cup of the sweet brew, and it’s available everywhere: from street corners to upscale hotels, restaurants to the plantations themselves. As the island’s biggest export, tea is a staple part of Sri Lanka’s economy and the industry employs over one million people.
Fruit juices are also readily available across the island. Mango, watermelon and pineapple are popular, but the most distinctive is wood apple juice. Wood apples look a bit like round mushrooms and the smaller the fruit, the more sour it is. The pulp is combined with milk and sugar to create a slushy, sweet and acidic juice.
Saffron-coloured king coconuts are everywhere in Sri Lanka. Street vendors hack off the top and hand you the whole coconut with a straw. Coconut palms, and other varieties, are used in palm toddy, a mild, sour wine made from palm tree sap.