Sri Lanka may be just a tiny nation in the Indian Ocean, but Sri Lanka has a lot to offer: white sandy beaches, green hills covered in tea and rice plantations, diverse wildlife and a rich culinary tradition.
Whilst it bears similarities with South India, Sri Lankan cuisine can stand alone because of its fiery and unique food. Because of the hot climate there is an abundance of tropical fruits, like coconut and jackfruit, which heavily feature in Sri Lankan cuisine together with fresh seafood and spices like ginger, cardamon, cinnamon and pepper.
Unfortunately authentic Sri Lankan food isn’t so easy to find when you are a tourist, especially if you choose to stay in an all-inclusive beach resort.
The real Sri Lankan cuisine can be found from local food joints (called “hotels”), street food vendors and homestays.
Rice and curry is the traditional Sri Lankan staple, cooked and eaten everyday. It consists of several curries (a minimum of three or four, but up to six or more) made with vegetables, fish or meat and a large portion of rice – of which Sri Lanka is a big producer. Other condiments like sambol and chutneys are also brought to the table. One of the signature dishes is a spicy coconut relish called Pol sambol. It is made from a simple blend of finely grated coconut, red onions, dried whole chilies or chili powder, lime juice and salt.
My favourite Sri Lankan food discovery was Kotthu Roti, the local “fast food”: a stir-fry made with pieces of flaky roti (similar to Indian paratha) mixed together with meat or vegetables, spices and garlic. The ingredients are stirred and shredded using two metal cleavers with a wooden handle, whilst getting cooked on a flat iron skillet. Kotthu can be found all day long from small restaurants or roadside cafes and is served as a main dish. You rarely see foreigners venturing inside these restaurants, though they are usually worth a try. Don’t forget to ask for mild dishes if you are not used to spicy food, the Sri Lankan curries can be fiery!
Hoppers (bowl-shaped pancakes) are the breakfast staple food. The batter is made the night before from fermented rice flour, coconut milk, coconut water and a little sugar. Hoppers are cooked in a rounded pan shaped like a small wok (traditionally, hoppers were cooked over coconut-shell embers). While staying in a guesthouse in Sigiriya, my host invited me in the kitchen and thought me how to cook hoppers, which was an incredible opportunity! Hoppers can be plain and eaten with spicy sambol or coconut relish, but the most popular version is topped with a fried egg. It’s absolutely delicious and you cannot leave Sri Lanka without tasting it at least once.
Ask the locals to recommend you their favourite places to eat and don’t be afraid to try the country’s staple dishes.
You will find cheaper and tastier food on the street and you will get to experience the real Sri Lanka.