Sri Lankans like good food and they can make good food too. The staple food in Sri Lanka is rice, while their main dish is rice and curry. All Sri Lankans eat rice and curry at least for lunch, but some even eat it three times per day. It’s a big plate of rice, dressed with different curries, but later more about that. Some people think that the Sri Lankan cuisine is similar to the Indian one. Maybe it has some similarities with the food in Southern India, but Sri Lankan food has its own specific taste. Typical for the Sri Lankan cuisine is that the dishes are prepared with coconut milk, a wide variety of spices (with lots of chili’s and especially cinnamon) mostly prepared in coconut oil. The Sri Lankan cuisine is very suitable for vegetarians. There are so many delicious dishes for them available.
However, apart from the famous rice and curry, there are so many other great dishes which are added to the Sri Lankan cuisine, either taken for breakfast or for dinner, such as stringhoppers, roti, noodles, hoppers, Kaddele, Kottu, kiribath, etc. You can read about all these delicious foods down below in this chapter.
Sri Lanka has a different eating culture than many other countries. This will be very obvious when you are invited with the Sri Lankans in their homes. Preparing a wonderful meal for their guests is a great honour for the Sri Lankan host. The best of the best will be given to you because it is an expression of Sri Lankan hospitality. Don’t miss the opportunity whenever you get an invitation. While treating guests with an excellent meal as a token of hospitality and friendship, they don’t celebrate the meal as a social gathering like in many countries in the world, especially in the Mediterranean countries, where the whole family eats together with their guest, exchange stories and enjoy the time; the gathering is more important than the food. When you are invited in a Sri Lankan family, the host will offer you a seat at the table. The housewife cooks the meal and the host serves the guest. The visitor mostly eats alone at the table. In some cases the (male) host and his sons join at the dinner table, but don’t eat together with the guests, in some cases the adult males do. They want you to eat as much as possible and enjoy all the delicacies the women have prepared for you backstage. The women usually eat afterwards with their family members after the guest has left. Guests are rarely invited just for a coffee or tea like in Western countries. You can bring a small present for the host; a souvenir from your country is highly appreciated. Sri Lankans eat most foods with their hands; they are not used to eat with cutlery. However they always provide cutlery to their foreign guests. In case you also want to eat with your hand, mind that you are supposed to eat with the fingers of your right hand and don’t lick your fingers.
Something about the various Sri Lankan dishes
Rice and curry
There is no dish in Sri Lanka that has the importance of rice and curry. You can say that this is the national dish of Sri Lanka and you can hardly find any Sri Lankan who doesn’t like to eat it. Rice and curry is, as the name already indicates, a full plate of steamed or boiled rice, dressed with several different curries. Curries are condiments consisting of different ingredients, depending on the type of curry. The basic ingredients of a curry are the spices, onions, garlic, tomatoes, salt and pepper, fried in coconut oil and mixed with the main ingredients, being fish, meat, chicken, soya, potatoes or vegetables, leaving the curry to simmer for some time, preferably on a wood fire. It is being served with dried, fried chilies and papadan, a thin fried flour cracker. Rice and curry is a spicy dish, preferably eaten with your hand, which is the best way, because the different curries and rice must be mixed with the hand, so that the flavours can blend. There is a large variety of curries and each hotel and each home has its own way of preparing a curry.
Pol Sambol is very popular among foreigners, they love it. It’s made of its main ingredient grated coconut, red onions, chili’s or chili powder and lime juice mingled to a pink mass. It can be eaten with bread, paratha and string hoppers.
With almost every rice and curry dahl is added. It’s a lentil which is orange in colour before cooking and yellow after preparation. There are different ways in which dahl can be prepared, each house and hotel has its own way of preparing. The protein rich dahl is not only tasty, but also very healthy and certainly in a vegetarian dish always there.
String hoppers (idiyappam)
Instead of rice and curry Sri Lankans regularly eat string hoppers for breakfast or dinner. It is a dish made from rice flour, pressed with force through a mould, so that thin strings are formed. They are gently draped into round bamboo mats and steamed during a short time. The best way is to eat them is with your fingers, together with a light curry, such as egg curry, fish curry, fried onions and covered with a layer of pol sambol. With your fingers you softly mingle the string hoppers with the curries and sambol and bring it to your mouth. It is a delicious substitute for the regular western breakfast, as well as for the traditional rice and curry breakfast.
Hoppers can be eaten for breakfast and dinner, as well as a snack in the late afternoon. It is a crispy thin pancake, made in a bowl shaped covered frying pan, sometimes with a bulls-eye egg on the bottom. A selection of curries is served as condiments. Hoppers need to be served hot and fresh and are commonly eaten in a cafeteria or as a take-away.
Kothu is a topper substitute for the rice and curry as a dinner dish. It is typical food, which is mostly obtained from the cafeterias (in Sri Lanka called: hotels). The basic ingredient for kothu is Sri Lankan bread, called roti or godhamba, It is cut into small pieces and mixed with vegetables, onions, spices, eggs and meat or chicken. You can also order only with eggs. This meal is called ‘kothu roti’. The roti can also be replaced by string hoppers. All ingredients are mixed on a hot steel plate and continuously being mixed and cut with two blunt metal blades, which gives a distinctive sound that marks the kothu maker.
Milk rice (kiribath)
‘Kiri’ meaning milk and ‘bath’ meaning rice is a traditional Sri Lankan dish for special events and eaten on the first of each month as well, being served as a breakfast. It is a simple, but tasty food, boiled twice: the first time in water and next in coconut milk. After evaporation a sticky substance is left, which is cut into diamond shaped pieces. It is eaten with lunu miris, a composition of red onions mixed with spices. Some people eat it with hot egg curry or fried onions. It is also the first meal eaten after the New Year.
Another breakfast or dinner dish is pittu. It is a mixture of steamed rice flour and wheat flour, mixed with water and dry coconut, steamed in a metal cylinder, put on a pressure cooker. After about 5 minutes the pittu is ready, the cylinder being opened and the pittu roll can be put on the plate. It is tasty, but dry and thus absorbing a lot of salted coconut milk, served to it, together with lunun miris.
Paratha and egg roti (egg paratha)
Paratha is a flat, multi layered bread, baked on a iron plate, mostly the same plate which is being used for kothu roti. It is mostly served as breakfast and eaten with dahl curry, beef curry, and pol sambol. Egg roti is basically made in the same way as paratha, but added with a composition of eggs, onions, spices and ginger. It is also made taken for breakfast, but for dinner too. It can also easily be made in a frying pan as well.
Short eats (shortees) are snacks which can be obtained from early morning till midnight from cafeterias’ (in Sri Lanka called hotels). The snacks are paratha’s in a triangle shape, filled with vegetables, crumbed egg rolls, rolls and pastries. They are eaten through the entire day, sometimes as breakfast. A disadvantage is that because of the high quantity of oil, eating too many short eats might be harmful for your health.
Chick peas (kadela)
Chick peas can be eaten stir fried for breakfast, but also as a nice snack. Sri Lankans are fond of different spices, so they prepare the chick peas with several spices and it is therefore a tasty food item, which is quite healthy as well. They can also be made as a curry and as an ingredient of salads in combination with corn and tuna fish. It’s healthier to eat them with olive- or sunflower oil instead of coconut oil.
One of the most popular desserts in Sri Lanka is Wattalappam, in origin a Muslim sweet, but appreciated all over Sri Lanka. It is a dark brown custard like substance made from coconut, eggs, jaggery (dark palm sugar) and spices, an uncommon, but delicious dessert. If possible you should try the home made ones. Sometimes they also add crumbed cashews.
Another delicious dessert is curd. In Sri Lanka curd (a kind of quark) is made from buffalo milk, which is better than cow milk, because it contains more fat, which makes the substance more solid. It is usually sold in clay pots, covered with paper. Mingled with kitul syrup (liquid jiggery, palm sugar) creates a tasty dessert.
Sweet Pancakes (pani pol)
Really popular among tourists are pani pol or sweet pancakes, a specialty of Sri Lanka. Thin pancakes filled with a mixture of coconut, jaggery and spices. They taste best when they are hot and are usually taken at tea time.
In Sri Lanka food from other countries is available, but mainly in the capital Colombo. You will find outlets of the big fast food chains in most of the cities. Moreover, dishes like tapa’s, suchi and real Chinese food, as well as Italian, Thai, western, and Indian foods can be enjoyed sufficiently. In Colombo there are so many high quality specialty restaurants. The 5 star hotels regularly organize weeks where they serve food from various countries worldwide. More about this subject you can find in the header ‘Restaurants’.
Arack is a coconut-based liquor which is very popular among Sri Lankan males. Its alcohol percentage is about 36%. In some areas you may find heavy drinkers, such as fishermen and people in the cool areas, drinking has become a culture among these groups and you can see a large crowd assembling at the wine shop in the late afternoon. Be cautious when invited for a drink with them, because a drinking-session may easily end up in a fight. Men also drink in what they call ‘bars’, but they are not like bars in western countries. Mostly it’s a hall with many tables where men drink alcoholic beverages, which are always accompanied with bites (snacks), because Sri Lankans hardly ever drink alcohol without bites. It’s common to have dinner after the drinking session. It’s noisy there and some are also not suitable for foreigners to go there. Sri Lankans drink to get drunk, Sophisticated drinking for the taste and atmosphere is uncommon in Sri Lanka except for the middle and upper classes.
Women are not supposed to drink alcohol and smoke, but habits are changing among those in the middle class and mainly in the capital Colombo. The most suitable places to drink alcohol for foreigners are the hotels, tourist bars, casinos, nightclubs and restaurants in tourist resorts.
Fruit drinks and Falooda
Sri Lanka is a paradise for excellent fresh tropical fruits, which can be used to make a fine non alcoholic fruit drink. Be aware that when you order a fruit drink it is rarely 100% fruit juice; it is mostly mixed with water. As the water is not always safe to drink, ask to mix it with mineral water or if you want pure fruit juice emphasize that when you order, you will have to pay more for your juice of course, but it is still a fraction of that what you are used to pay in your own country. Most common fruit juices are mango, papaya, pineapple, melon, pineapple/banana, passion fruit and mixed fruit, depending on the season.
Another very popular drink in Sri Lanka is falooda, originally a very sweet Muslim drink, but widespread popular among many Sri Lankans. It consists of rose syrup, vermicelli, pieces of jelly pudding, kasa-kasa and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It is usually served between meals.
Toddy (palm wine)
Palm wine or toddy is mostly drunk in rural areas of Sri Lanka. A cut in the stem of the flower of the Palmhyra or Kitul palm is made and a clay pot is fixed underneath to collect the white milky sap seeping out of the wound. Some fermenting products are put in the clay pot, so that the basically non alcoholic liquid becomes slightly alcoholic. Toddy tappers get the pots out of the high palm trees, which is a risky job, because in several cases, after drinking the toddy, the tapper gets drunk and not seldom this ends up in tragic accidents.
Many establishments in Sri Lanka have no license to serve alcoholic beverages. However, the big hotels have, but smaller hotels and many restaurants not, although some of them serve, despite the restrictions. If you like a beer or liquor and you notice that it is not available around your accommodation you can get some bottles from the local liquor store (in Sri Lanka called ‘wine shop’), although they mostly don’t sell wine. Mind that drinking in public spaces, as well as smoking, is not allowed. On Poya days and public holidays alcohol is not served.