When I first visited Sri Lanka I knew nothing about Sri Lankan cuisine.
(ignorant – huh!)
3 weeks, 2 cooking classes, and a LOT of eating out later I had fallen in love with the subtle complexity of this country’s cooking.
Now I’m always on the lookout for Sri Lankan restaurants wherever I go (which proves a little hard down here in New Zealand / Australia)
But enough about me – in this article I’m going to share the must-try foods you’ll experience when you go to Sri Lanka. From different coconuts to an eight-dish curry, to roti kottu, to the boozy arrak.
I’ve also included as many photos as possible (because yes, I’m the sort of person to take photos of every meal I eat while traveling!)
Table of Contents
Overview of Sri Lankan Cuisine
Sri Lankan cuisine is a fascinating blend of flavors and textures. Boasting an array of dishes, the culinary heritage of this island nation is shaped by its history, geography, and cultural influences, and showcases a distinctive use of spices and other ingredients.
At the core of Sri Lankan cuisine is rice, which acts as the foundation and vehicle for the various flavors on the plate.
Curry is the next essential component, with a wide range of vegetable, meat, and fish varieties cooked in rich, fragrant sauces. Herbs like curry leaf and pandan leaf play a role in most curries.
When it comes to spices, Sri Lanka is renowned for its use of cinnamon, which is native to the island. Other spices commonly used include cardamom, black pepper, cloves, nutmeg, and turmeric.
As an island nation, Sri Lanka is blessed with access to a wide variety of fresh seafood. Fish, especially tuna and the local specialty, seer fish, are essential components of many dishes.
Coconut is another vital ingredient, adding richness to curries and side dishes alike. Its milk and coconut oil are frequently used to soften the spicy flavors and impart a unique, velvety texture to dishes. \
Popular Sri Lankan Foods
1. Rice and Curry
In my experience, one of the most popular Sri Lankan foods is rice and curry. It is a staple dish that consists of steamed rice accompanied by a variety of curries, such as vegetable, chicken, fish, pork, beef, or mutton. Additionally, the meal includes side dishes like pickles, chutneys, and sambols like the famous pol sambol.
I was blown away when my first curry came out with about 10 separate dishes! It makes for exciting eating.
2. Kottu Roti
When roaming the streets of Sri Lanka, I always enjoy indulging in kottu roti, a scrumptious street food. It is made by stir-frying chopped roti (a type of flatbread) with an array of vegetables, meats like chicken, beef, or mutton, and a blend of delicious spices.
This picture is of my first and favorite Kottu I had while in Sri Lanka.
It looks TERRIBLE but tastes AMAZING.
This was a cheese and chicken kottu 🙂
Hoppers, known locally as appa or appam, are a distinct Sri Lankan dish. They are bowl-shaped, crispy pancakes made from a fermented batter of rice flour, coconut milk, and a hint of sugar. One of my personal favorites is the egg hopper, which features a cracked egg cooked right in the center.
4. Fish Ambul Thiyal
As an island nation, Sri Lanka is blessed with an abundance of seafood, and fish ambul thiyal is a prime example of this bounty. This dish features fish, usually tuna, marinated in a blend of spices and then cooked until it’s tender and flavorful.
Kiribath, or milk rice, holds a special place in Sri Lankan cuisine and culture. It is often prepared for celebrations and special events. The dish consists of rice cooked with thick coconut milk, giving it a creamy consistency and rich flavor.
A delightful mix of Sri Lankan and Dutch influences, lamprais is a unique dish comprised of rice, curry, and various side dishes like cutlets and sambols, all wrapped in a banana leaf and baked. The packaging infuses the meal with a delightful aroma that enhances its flavor.
7. String Hoppers
String hoppers, or idiappam, are a must-try when sampling Sri Lankan cuisine. These thin, steamed noodles made from rice flour are often served at breakfast alongside curries, dhal, and sambols.
You’ll want to try them fresh, as they go soggy quickly after being cooked.
8. Pol Sambol
No Sri Lankan meal is complete without pol sambol, a popular coconut-based condiment. It is a spicy blend of grated coconut, chili, onion, and an array of seasonings that add a burst of flavor to any dish.
For dessert, I highly recommend watalappan, a creamy, steamed custard made from jaggery, coconut milk, and a variety of spices like cardamom, nutmeg, and cloves. It is the perfect sweet treat after a satisfying and flavorful Sri Lankan meal.
10. Dhal Curry
A fragrant and flavorful dhal curry is another essential part of Sri Lankan cuisine. It consists of red lentils simmered with an array of spices and coconut milk, creating a comforting and delicious dish.
11. Fish Curry
I find fish curry to be another mouthwatering seafood dish in Sri Lanka, made using a variety of fish like tuna, seer, or pomfret, cooked in a delectable spicy coconut gravy. It is well-loved throughout the island.
12. Jackfruit Curry
Lastly, jackfruit curry is an exceptional, flavorsome dish utilizing tender, young jackfruit. It is cooked with spices, coconut milk, and sometimes meat, creating a succulent and satisfying meal.
If you haven’t tried jackfruit before, it has an amazing meat-like texure – almost like you’re eating brisket or pulled pork.
Sri Lankan Beverages
Sri Lanka offers a variety of unique and delicious beverages that are not only refreshing but also closely associated with the country’s rich culinary traditions. In this section, I will discuss a few of these authentic Sri Lankan beverages, specifically Arrack, Wood Apple Juice, and Coconut Water.
Arrack is a traditional Sri Lankan distilled alcoholic beverage made from the sap of coconut flowers or palm. The sap is collected and then fermented, producing a drink that has an alcohol content ranging from 30% to 60%. Arrack is widely enjoyed across the island and can be consumed neat, on the rocks, or mixed with other beverages. Although it contains sugar, the levels are relatively low due to the natural fermentation process. In recent years, Arrack has gained popularity outside Sri Lanka, with many bars and restaurants worldwide adding it to their menus.
14. Wood Apple Juice
Wood Apple Juice is a popular Sri Lankan beverage made from the pulp of the wood apple fruit, also known as elephant apple. The fruit has a hard shell that is cracked open to reveal a tangy, aromatic pulp. The pulp is blended with water or milk to make a refreshing juice that is often sweetened with palm jaggery or sugar. Wood Apple Juice is rich in vitamins and minerals, making it a nutritious choice for those looking to enjoy an authentic Sri Lankan drink.
15. Coconut Water
Coconut Water is an essential part of Sri Lankan culture and cuisine. With an abundance of coconut trees across the island, it is no surprise that this natural, hydrating drink is widely enjoyed. Coconut Water is obtained from the center of green, young coconuts and can be consumed directly from the fruit itself or poured into a glass. It is rich in electrolytes and has a natural sweetness, making it an ideal choice for a refreshing and healthy beverage. Coconut Water is often used as a base for smoothies, cocktails, and other drinks in Sri Lanka, adding a tropical twist to various recipes.
If there’s one thing Sri Lanka is well known for it’s tea – in fact, it’s the home of Dilmah tea which is one of the worlds largest tea brands.
Make sure to try the local teas on your travels around Sri Lanka, but also i’d totally recommend doing a tour of one of the tea plantations. These are mostly located up in the highlands near Ella or Nuwara Elya.
Ingredients and Spices Used in Sri Lankan Cuisine
16. Coconut in Sri Lankan Cuisine
In my experience, coconut is an integral part of Sri Lankan cuisine. It contributes to the rich flavor, texture, and aroma of many dishes. Coconut milk, for example, is a key ingredient in curries and gravies, giving them a creamy consistency and a subtle sweetness. Additionally, coconut oil is often used for frying and sautéing foods, imparting a distinct coconutty aroma to the dishes.
17. Spices in Sri Lankan Cuisine
Sri Lankan cuisine uses a wide variety of spices to create its characteristic flavors. Some common spices I often use in my cooking include:
- Turmeric: This yellow spice is responsible for the vibrant color in many Sri Lankan dishes and adds a warm, earthy flavor.
- Cardamom: This aromatic spice brings a sweet, floral essence to both sweet and savory dishes.
- Mustard seeds: Used whole or ground, mustard seeds provide a pungent flavor that complements many Sri Lankan dishes.
- Cumin and fennel seeds: These spices add a warm, aromatic depth to dishes.
- Fenugreek: With its slightly bitter taste, fenugreek is used to balance and enhance other flavors in the dish.
- Cloves, cinnamon, and lemongrass: These spices are often used to create a fragrant and flavorful base for curries and other dishes.
18. Fruits in Sri Lankan Cuisine
Fruits play a prominent role in Sri Lankan cuisine, not only as dessert or snack but also as an essential ingredient in many dishes. In my experience, fruits like mangoes, papayas, and pineapples are often used to add natural sweetness and tanginess to curries. Additionally, fruits like goraka (dried garcinia) are commonly used in fish curries, providing a unique sour flavor.
19. Vegetables in Sri Lankan Cuisine
Sri Lankan cuisine also features a diverse range of vegetables. Some popular choices I have seen and cooked with include:
- Curry leaves: Often used fresh, curry leaves provide an aromatic and distinct flavor to many Sri Lankan dishes.
- Pandan leaves: These long, slender leaves are used to infuse a subtle, floral aroma in dishes such as rice and curries.
- Chilies: Both green and red chilies are used extensively in Sri Lankan cuisine to add heat and depth of flavor.
In addition to these key ingredients, I use various spice blends like curry powder and chili powder to enhance and balance the flavors in my dishes. To create a more authentic experience, many traditional dishes are served on banana leaves, which impart a light, fresh scent to the food. With such a rich variety of flavors and ingredients, Sri Lankan cuisine is sure to satisfy any palate.
Sri Lankan Cooking Techniques
In my experience, Sri Lankan cooking is a delightful blend of flavors and aromas. As I’ve learned more about this culinary tradition, I’ve discovered a variety of techniques that make these dishes so unique and delicious.
Tempering cocnut milk
One of the staple ingredients in Sri Lankan cooking is coconut milk, which plays a significant role in adding a rich and creamy texture to dishes. For instance, tempering, a technique involving the frying of spices and herbs in oil or ghee, is often followed by adding the coconut milk to the mixture. This method allows the flavors to infuse the milk, enhancing the overall taste of the dish. A study on the in vitro accessibility of β-carotene mentions traditional cooking methods in Sri Lanka incorporating coconut milk in vegetable dishes.
Another technique I’ve found intriguing is slow-cooking. Many Sri Lankan dishes, particularly curries, benefit from being cooked slowly over low heat. The prolonged cooking time allows the ingredients to break down and release their flavors, creating a harmonious blend of tastes.
Roasting is another common technique in Sri Lankan cuisine. Spices like cumin, coriander, and fennel seeds are dry-roasted before being ground into a powder. Roasting enhances the spices’ natural flavors and also removes any excess moisture, ensuring a longer shelf life. These freshly ground spice mixes contribute to the characteristic flavor profiles of Sri Lankan dishes.
Using Banana Leaf
A distinctive technique in Sri Lankan cooking is the use of banana leaves. Dishes such as lamprais, a type of rice and curry, are wrapped in banana leaves and baked in an oven. The leaves add a subtle flavor and aroma to the dish while also keeping the food moist and tender as it cooks.
Lastly, fermentation plays an essential role in preparing certain Sri Lankan dishes. For example, hoppers, a type of pancake, require the batter to ferment overnight before cooking. This process aids in digestion and lends a slightly tangy flavor to these delectable snacks.
Regional Variations in Sri Lankan Cuisine
Sri Lanka, being a diverse country with a rich cultural heritage, boasts a variety of unique dishes that change depending on the region. The regional variations in Sri Lankan cuisine are influenced not only by the ingredients found in each area but also by the traditions and tastes of the local people.
In the North:
In the northern region of Jaffna, the cuisine is heavily influenced by the Tamil culture, making it quite distinct from other parts of the country. Coconut milk is frequently used in Jaffna dishes, adding a rich and creamy texture to the curries.
Some of the popular dishes in this region include the Jaffna crab curry, spicy mutton curry, and the unique odiyal kool, a flavorful seafood soup made with a mix of fish, prawns, and crab. The use of ingredients like tamarind, curry leaves, and various local spices gives Jaffna dishes their distinctive tangy and aromatic flavors. To further enhance the flavors, I recommend enjoying these dishes with a side of string hoppers or parboiled rice.
Moving down to Southern Sri Lanka, the cuisine takes on a different character. The dishes are often spicier than those from Jaffna, owing to the abundant use of chili, pepper, and other spices. A famous dish from this region is the Southern-style fish curry, made with a tamarind-based sauce and cooked until the fish is perfectly tender.
Another popular dish is the pol sambol, a flavorful coconut relish made with grated coconut, chili, lime, and onions. The combination of these ingredients gives the Southern dishes their unique spicy tang. Best enjoyed with rice and curry, these dishes are a must-try for those who relish the authentic tastes of Sri Lanka.
Vegan and Vegetarian Food in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has many delightful options to offer.
The island nation boasts an array of flavorsome, satisfying, and healthy dishes made from fresh, locally sourced ingredients.
One of my favorite Sri Lankan vegetable dishes is Mallung, a simple yet delicious mixture of shredded greens, coconut, and spices, sautéed to perfection. The dish is packed with nutrients, and its flavors are often enhanced with the addition of lime juice.
Another classic Sri Lankan vegan dish is Parippu, a creamy, coconut-rich dhal curry that pairs well with rice or bread. Made from lentils, this dish offers a good source of protein for vegans and vegetarians.
Those who like vibrant flavors will enjoy dishes such as Sri Lankan Eggplant Curry (Wambatu Moju), where eggplant is cooked in a spicy and slightly sweet sauce made with vinegar, sugar, and various spices. This dish provides a unique balance of taste and texture that keeps the palate engaged.
Green Jackfruit Curry
Polos (green jackfruit) Curry boasts a fibrous texture that emulates meat, making it ideal for vegans seeking a heartier option. Served with rice or bread, Polos Curry will satisfy your hunger while immersing you in authentic Sri Lankan cuisine.
When it comes to snacks or accompaniments, vegan and vegetarian food enthusiasts can enjoy “short eats”— street food that includes vegetable roti, samosas, and vadais. These small bites are perfect for a quick snack on the go, offering a burst of flavor without compromising dietary preferences.
Finally, an essential element of Sri Lankan food culture is the wide variety of rice dishes available. From red rice to fragrant basmati or hearty rice noodles, I find that Sri Lankan cuisine has the ability to elevate simple grains to delectable, satisfying meals that cater to vegans and vegetarians alike.
In conclusion, the Sri Lankan vegan and vegetarian food scene caters to a spectrum of taste preferences, and the island’s unique fusion of flavors and spices are sure to delight and satisfy all who try them. So for food lovers looking to explore the vibrant plant-based cuisine Sri Lanka has to offer, I say prepare your taste buds for a delicious journey!
Dining in Sri Lankan ‘Hotels’
The first thing you’ll notice (or maybe not) is that the local restaurants in sri lanka are known as “hotels” .
They provided a more intimate and immersive experience of Sri Lankan cuisine. In these settings, I interacted with locals and fellow ‘brave’ food enthusiasts while enjoying some seriously delicious and affordable meals.
For fans of seafood, Sri Lankan cuisine does not disappoint. Being a tropical island, there is an abundance of fresh fish, prawns, and crab dishes to enjoy. I particularly loved the Jaffna crab curry, which combines the natural sweetness of the crab meat with a rich and spicy curry sauce.
If you have a sweet tooth like me, don’t miss the chance to try some local desserts such as watalappan, a steamed coconut custard spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, or kavum, deep-fried sweet rice flour cakes made with treacle.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q. What are the most popular main courses in Sri Lanka?
Some of the most popular main courses in Sri Lanka include rice and curry, string hoppers (idiyappam), and kottu roti. Rice and curry consists of steamed rice, typically served with a variety of curries featuring vegetables, lentils, and meats. String hoppers are steamed rice noodles that are a common accompaniment to curries. Kottu roti is a street food favorite, made by chopping and stir-frying flatbread with vegetables, meats, and spices.
Q. Which dishes are typically served for breakfast in Sri Lanka?
For breakfast, Sri Lankans often enjoy dishes like hoppers (appam), which are bowl-shaped pancakes made from a fermented rice flour batter. They can be served plain, with an egg cooked inside, or sweetened with coconut milk and jaggery. Another popular breakfast dish is kiribath, a rice pudding made from coconut milk and rice, often served with a spicy onion relish called lunu miris.
Q. What are common ingredients found in Sri Lankan cuisine?
Common ingredients used in Sri Lankan cuisine include rice, coconut, and a variety of spices like cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves. Herbs such as curry leaves and pandan leaves are also frequently used to add flavor and aroma to dishes. Vegetables, legumes, and fruits are staples in most Sri Lankan meals, along with various meats and fish.
Q. What are some healthy Sri Lankan food recipes?
Some healthy Sri Lankan food recipes that I recommend are mallung (stir-fried greens with coconut), dhal curry (spiced red lentil curry), and pol sambol (a spicy coconut relish). These dishes are rich in nutrients, as they contain a variety of vegetables, legumes, and spices with health benefits.
Q. How does Sri Lankan food compare to Indian food?
Sri Lankan food and Indian food share many similarities, as both cuisines are influenced by the use of spices, rice, and legumes. However, Sri Lankan cuisine tends to incorporate more coconut products, such as coconut milk and coconut oil, and features a distinct set of spices like cinnamon, black pepper, and tamarind.
Overall, I believe Sri Lankan food is more focused on blending complex flavors, while Indian food often highlights the bold flavors of individual spices. (but i’m sure others will beg to differ with me on that!)
Q. What are some popular Sri Lankan desserts?
Popular Sri Lankan desserts include watalappan, a spiced coconut custard made with jaggery, eggs, and aromatic spices like cinnamon and cardamom. Another favorite is kavum, which are deep-fried sweet rice flour and treacle fritters. These desserts showcase the unique flavors and ingredients of Sri Lankan cuisine, with a focus on sweet and aromatic spices.