The tear-shaped Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka is a true culinary treat. Through years of colonisation and trade, many cultures have influenced its cuisine. Sir Lankan food has influences from Dutch, Portuguese, English, Malay, Indian and indigenous flavours to tantalise the taste buds. Here is our list of the best Sri Lankan foods you need to try on your trip to this beguiling isle.
The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to Sri Lanka, your essential guide for visiting Sri Lanka.
There’s certainly no shortage of fish, seafood, vegetables and spices to turn into tempting curries. Coconut plays a key role in dishes, as well as arrack, the potent homegrown spirit distilled from the sap of coconut flowers. There’s always thambili, or sweet king coconut water, for the morning after.
Traditionally eaten at breakfast, the savoury, bowl-shaped Sri Lankan take on pancakes are delicious any time. You'll find them everywhere, from street food stalls to restaurant menus. cooked in a small, high-sided pan, they are made from a batter of fermented rice flour, coconut milk, coconut water and a sprinkling of sugar. An egg is broken into the dish while it cooks. Typically it’s enjoyed with a spicy sambol.
The archetypal Sri Lankan meal consists of a mini-banquet of fragrant seasonal curries, each one bursting with flavour. Some curries feature potatoes, carrots and pumpkin. Other more rare varieties include meaty-textured young jackfruit, long okra-like drumsticks and bitter gourd, which resemble lumpy cucumbers.
Always served with rice – white, brown or red – Sri Lankans prefer to eat it with their fingers.
Part soup, part herbal porridge, this traditional nutritious green concoction is Sri Lanka’s age-old natural answer to a sugar-filled energy drink. It is made from wild leafy greens – including medicinal herb gotu kola and hathawariya, part of the asparagus family – and rice. It’s believed to have many health-giving properties, including aiding digestion, reducing cholesterol and boosting the immune system.
Rice and curry are usually served with a helping of sambol, designed to be mixed into your food to give it a bit of extra kick. Sambols come in various forms, the most common being pol sambol (coconut sambol), an often eye-watering lethal combination of chilli powder, chopped onions, salt, grated coconut and Maldive fish. Treat it with caution.
You might also come across the slightly less overpowering lunu miris, consisting of chilli powder, onions, Maldive fish and salt; and the more gentle, sweet-and-sour seeni sambol (“sugar sambol”).
Seafood plays a major role in the country’s diet, and Sri Lanka’s lagoon crabs are justly famous the world over for their succulent sweet meat. Colombo’s Ministry of Crab – which makes a regular appearance on Asia’s best restaurant lists – celebrates this iconic crustacean.
The catch of the day comes in a range of sizes, from half a kilo to the whopping two-kilo Crabzilla, in time-honoured recipes, including chilli crab, pepper crab and curry crab.
The go-to Sri Lankan food is a delicious stir-fry made out of leftovers. With a rhythmic clatter, the kottu maker deftly wields two large metal cleavers, finely slicing roti flatbread together with meat or vegetables, garlic and spices on a large iron skillet. Another favourite roti is the sweet pol roti, made with shaved coconut. Eaten for breakfast, it’s perfect with lunu miras and dhal.
Dhal, or lentil curry, is a traditional Sri Lankan side dish, often eaten two or three times a day. Red lentils are cooked in coconut milk, with onions, piquant green chillies and spices such as cinnamon, cumin, fenugreek and pandan leaves. Thinner than its Indian counterpart, it is made to be extremely flavourful. It’s extra tasty when made in a traditional clay pot.
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Unique to Sri Lanka, lamprais is a savoury delicacy often served for Sunday lunch. The authentic recipe is labour intensive. It includes frikkadels (Dutch-style meat balls), a three-meat curry infused with spices such as cinnamon and cardamom, and seeni sambol. It is all mixed with rice boiled in a spicy stock, before being wrapped in a banana leaf parcel and slowly oven baked.
It's one of the more elaborate dishes that make up traditional Sri Lankan food, and definitely worth a try.
There are plenty of fish curries but ambul thiyal, or sour fish curry, is one of the best. Cubes of firm fish, usually tuna, are cooked in a blend of spices, including turmeric, black pepper, cinnamon, garlic and curry leaves. The secret ingredient is dried goraka, a tamarind-like superfruit that gives the dish its sour flavour.
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Watalappan is one of the country’s most popular sweets, and is a must-have for special occasions. This Malay-influenced dessert is similar to egg custard, with the addition of coconut milk, cardamom, nutmeg and dark kithul jaggery, or palm sugar. Bubbles of air keep this rich dish from getting too heavy, and a sprinkling of chopped nuts on top adds a crunch to its otherwise silky texture.
Pol sambol is a traditional Sri Lankan food that is made with grated coconut, red onions, chillies, and a variety of spices. It is often used as a topping for rice and curry dishes, and it adds a spicy and flavorful kick to the meal.
The ingredients for pol sambol are typically ground together using a mortar and pestle. This helps to release the flavours of the spices and create a smooth, paste-like consistency. It is a versatile condiment that can be used in a variety of dishes, and it is a popular choice for adding flavour and heat to Sri Lankan cuisine.
Kiribath is a dessert of rice cakes cooked in milk and served with jaggery. It's traditionally made for weddings, and is often the first solid food fed to babies. It is made by cooking rice with coconut milk and a small amount of salt until the grains are soft and sticky. The cooked rice is then molded into a cake or loaf and cut into slices for serving.
Kiribath is often served on special occasions such as weddings and religious festivals, and it is often accompanied by spicy curry dishes. It has a creamy and slightly sweet flavour and is a staple Sri Lankan food.
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Wood apple juice is a beverage that is made from the fruit of the wood apple tree, which is native to South Asia. The wood apple, also known as the elephant apple, is a large, round fruit with a tough, woody outer shell and a soft, sweet pulp inside.
Wood apple juice is often enjoyed as a refreshing drink, and it is believed to have various health benefits due to its high nutrient content. It is a popular choice in Sri Lanka, and it can be found at street food stalls and markets throughout the region.
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Sri Lankan love cake, also known as "love cake" or "spice cake," is a traditional Sri Lankan dessert that is made with a blend of aromatic spices and coconut milk. It is a dense, moist cake that is flavored with spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom, and it is often garnished with a sprinkle of coconut on top.
Love cake is a popular choice for special occasions such as weddings and celebrations, and it is known for its rich and aromatic flavor. It is a unique and flavorful dessert that is characteristic of Sri Lankan cuisine.
Gotu kola sambol is a traditional Sri Lankan condiment that is made with gotu kola, a type of leafy green vegetable. The leaves of the gotu kola plant are ground together with a variety of ingredients such as chilies, onions, and coconut, to create a spicy and flavorful paste.
Gotu kola sambol is often used as a topping for rice and curry dishes, and it adds a spicy and fragrant flavour to the meal. It is a popular choice in Sri Lanka, and it is often enjoyed as a condiment with traditional Sri Lankan foods.
Godamba rot is a traditional Sri Lankan food that is made with wheat flour and coconut milk. It is a type of flatbread that is typically served as a snack or as a side dish with a meal. To make godamba rot, the wheat flour is mixed with coconut milk and a small amount of salt to form a dough. The dough is then rolled out into a thin, circular shape and cooked on a griddle until it is golden brown and crispy.
Kukul mas curry, also known as chicken curry, is a traditional Sri Lankan food that is made with chicken, coconut milk, and a variety of spices. The chicken is usually marinated in a mixture of spices such as turmeric, cumin, and coriander, and then cooked in a sauce made with coconut milk and other seasonings. Kukul mas curry is often served with rice and a side of vegetables, and it is a popular choice for a hearty and flavorful meal.
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