Like many of the best cuisines, Sri Lanka’s food has been influenced by history, culture and exploration. Merchants and traders introduced this naturally beautiful destination to new ingredients, spices and traditions from other parts of the world and neighbouring countries. As a result, Sri Lankan cuisine is an amalgamation of local flavours and influences from Indian, Indonesian and even Dutch cuisines.
Indian and Thai food find it easy to hog the limelight as crowd favourites, but if you want to take your tastebuds off-the-beaten-path, you’ve come to the right place. Sri Lankan cuisine doesn’t need to scream and shout to steal your breath away, the dishes simply do the talking. Steaming vats of perfectly cooked rice, recipes laced with coconut milk and roasted spices may be familiar to your palate, but they taste exquisite here. The following dishes will give you an introduction to this country’s amazing cuisine. Here is your Sri Lankan food guide!
1. Pol sambol
Coconuts are an integral part of Sri Lankan cuisine. Coconut oil is used for cooking, the milk is used to add body and silk to gravies, and the flesh is used to create a great many dishes. Your introduction to this essential ingredient should come courtesy of pol sambol.
It’s a simple dish but this relish often served with rice, curry, roti, string hoppers or just mopped up with bread encompasses what’s distinctive about this country’s food. Freshly grated coconut is combined with red onions, dried chillis, zingy lime juice, salt and Maldive fish.
Prepared on special or auspicious occasions, kiribath is made with rice and salted coconut milk. The rice is cooked down until it resembles a sticky risotto or porridge-like consistency. Coconut milk is added just before cooling the rice down after which it is cut into thick diamond-shaped slabs and served with lunu miris (a spicy concoction of ground onions, red chillis, lemon juice, salt and Maldive fish).
Every country has a version of the pancake and in Sri Lanka, hoppers, a.k.a appa is it. A fermented runny batter mostly consisting of rice flour and coconut milk is pan-fried or steamed to make sweet or savoury hoppers. Savoury hoppers are often served with eggs or sambol, while sweet renditions are made with jaggery (a local sweetener).
A variation of hoppers is string hoppers, made with a thicker batter, where the dough is pressed through a mould to form thin noodle strands.
4. Ambul thiyal
There is no shortage of fish curries in Sri Lanka thanks to its location in the Indian Ocean, and you’ll most likely try more than one fish curry. However, ambul thiyal — a dry sour fish curry — is your launchpad and one of the most beloved varieties to begin with. Firm cubes of tuna are sautéed with a blend of spices and most importantly, a sticky black paste of goraka, a local fruit that gives this fish curry a distinct sour trait.
Kottu or kottu roti is Sri Lankan street market fare at its best. The rhythmic sound of blades hitting the grill over tooting horns and growling motorbikes is part of the country’s soundtrack. Roti is chopped and combined with your selection of ingredients, which could be anything from poultry to eggs and fish. The result is a mouthwatering marriage of fried shredded roti, and spicy, blistering hot protein served with sauces.
This Dutch Burgher dish is a wonderful example of Sri Lanka’s cultural diversity. Lamprais is a combination of two Dutch words that mean lump and rice. Traditionally, rice cooked in stock, mixed meat curry, frikkadels (Dutch meatballs), an aubergine curry that’s known as brinjal and sambol is placed in the centre of a banana leaf and cooked again in the oven. Because of the dedication required to produce this meal, it is often eaten when gathering with loved ones or friends.
7. Rice and curry
We’ve shown you there’s more to Sri Lankan cuisine than rice and curry, but you cannot leave without having one of it’s most comforting meals. A hearty robust curry with a hero ingredient of either chicken, fish, mutton, lentils or local fruit like jackfruit or lotus root is dolloped on top of rice and served with pickle, chutney, or sambol. There are so many different types of curry in Sri Lanka, you’ll have a hard time eating the same one with twice.
Some of our favourites include:
- Kukul mas curry (chicken)
- Jaffna crab curry (a great example of Tamil influences in Sri Lanka)
- Polos (green jackfruit curry)
- Parippu (lentil curry)