Eating and drinking in Sri Lanka
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Sri Lanka boasts a fascinatingly idiosyncratic culinary heritage, the result of a unique fusion of local produce with recipes and spices brought to the island over the centuries by Indians, Arabs, Malays, Portuguese, Dutch and English.
The staple dish is rice and curry, at its finest a miniature banquet whose contrasting flavours – coconut milk, chillies, curry leaves, cinnamon, garlic and “Maldive fish” (an intensely flavoured pinch of sun-dried tuna) – bear witness to Sri Lanka’s status as one of the original spice islands. There are plenty of other unique specialities to explore and enjoy – hoppers, string hoppers, kottu rotty, lamprais and pittu – as well as plentiful seafood.
Sri Lankan cuisine can be incredibly fiery – sometimes on a par with Thai, and far hotter than most Indian cooking. Many of the island’s less gifted chefs compensate for a lack of culinary subtlety with liberal use of chilli powder; at the same time, as a tourist you’ll often be seen as a weak-kneed individual who is liable to faint at the merest suspicion of spiciness. You’ll often be asked how hot you want your food; “medium” usually gets you something that’s neither bland nor requires the use of a fire extinguisher. If you do overheat during a meal, remember that water only adds to the pain of a burnt palate; a mouthful of plain rice, bread or beer is much more effective.
Sri Lankans say that you can’t properly enjoy the flavours and textures of food unless you eat with your fingers, although tourists are almost always provided with cutlery by default. As elsewhere in Asia, you’re meant to eat with your right hand, although this taboo isn’t really strictly observed – if you’d really prefer to eat with your left hand, you’re unlikely to turn heads.
Costs are generally reasonable (though no longer the bargain they were some years ago). You can get a filling rice and curry meal for a few dollars at a local café, while main courses at most guesthouse restaurants usually cost around $10, and even at the island’s poshest restaurants it’s usually possible to find main courses from $15. Note that many places add a ten percent service charge to the bill, while more upmarket restaurants may add additional government taxes of varying amounts (usually 13–15%) on top of that.
Be aware that the typical vagaries of Sri Lankan spelling mean that popular dishes can appear on menus in a bewildering number of forms: idlis can become ittlys, vadais turn into wadais, kottu rotty transforms into kotturoti and lamprais changes to lumprice. You’ll also be regaled with plenty of unintentionally humorous offerings such as “cattle fish”, “sweat and sour” or Adolf Hitler’s favourite dish, “nazi goreng”.
Although Sri Lankan cooking can be very good, few restaurants really do justice to the island’s cuisine. There’s no particular tradition of eating out and, except in Colombo, few independent restaurants of note. Locals either eat at home or patronize the island’s innumerable scruffy little cafés, often confusingly signed as “hotels”, which serve up filling meals for a dollar or two: rough-and-ready portions of rice and curry, plus maybe hoppers or kottu rotty. However as the food is usually pretty ordinary, eating in local cafés is more of a social than a culinary experience.
Given the lack of independent tourist restaurants, most visitors end up taking the majority of their meals in their hotel or guesthouse. The sort of food and setting you’ll encounter varies wildly, from the big bland restaurants at the coastal resorts to the cosy guesthouses of Ella and Galle, where you can experience the sort of home cooking that rarely makes its way onto menus at larger hotels. In general, however, choice is limited, with most places offering a standard assortment of fried noodles or rice, a small range of seafood and meat dishes (usually including a couple of devilled options) and maybe a few kinds of curry.
Most of the island’s independent restaurants can be found in Colombo and, to a lesser extent, Kandy, Galle and Negombo, where tourism has inspired the growth of a modest local eating scene. The most common independent restaurants are aimed at tourists, with a mix of Sri Lankan, seafood and Western dishes; you’ll also find a few South Indian-style places, especially in Colombo.
If you want to eat like the locals, you’ll find lunch packets on sale at local cafés and street stalls all over the country between around 11am and 2pm. These usually include a big portion of steamed rice along with a piece of curried chicken, fish or beef (vegetarians can get an egg), some vegetables and sambol. They’re the cheapest way to fill up in Sri Lanka, although probably best avoided until your stomach and tastebuds are properly acclimatized to the local cooking.
The island’s signature dish is the ubiquitous rice and curry, the staple food of almost every Sri Lankan man, woman and child, served up in just about every café and restaurant across the land. A really good Sri Lankan rice and curry can be a memorable experience, although it’s worth noting that the dish bears zero resemblance to the classic curries of North India. Typical Sri Lankan curry sauces (known as kiri hodhi, or “milk gravy”) are made from coconut milk infused with chillies and various other spices – much more like a Thai green or red curry than anything you’ll find in India.
Basic rice and curry (not “curry and rice” – the rice is considered the principal ingredient), as served up in local cafés islandwide, consists of a plate of rice topped with a few dollops of veg curry, a hunk of chicken or fish and a spoonful of sambol. More sophisticated versions comprise the inevitable mound of rice accompanied by as many as fifteen side dishes (a kind of miniature banquet said to have been inspired by Indonesian nasi padang, which was transformed by the Dutch into the classic rijsttafel, or “rice table”, and introduced to Sri Lanka sometime in the eighteenth century). These generally include a serving of meat or fish curry plus accompaniments such as curried pineapple, potato, aubergine (brinjal), sweet potatoes, okra (lady’s fingers) and dhal. You’ll probably also encounter some more unusual local vegetables. Curried jackfruit is fairly common, as are so-called “drumsticks” (murunga – a bit like okra). Other ingredients you might encounter include ash plantain (alu kesel), snake gourd (patolah), bitter gourd (karawila) and breadfruit (del), along with many more outlandish and unpronounceable types of regional produce. Another common accompaniment is mallung: shredded green vegetables, lightly stir-fried with spices and grated coconut.
Rice and curry is 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 combination of chilli powder, chopped onions, salt, grated coconut and “Maldive fish” (salty, intensely flavoured shreds of sun-dried tuna). 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”).
Funnily enough, the rice itself is often fairly uninspiring – don’t expect to find the delicately spiced pilaus and biryanis of North India. Sri Lanka produces many types of rice, but the stuff served in restaurants is usually fairly low-grade, although you may occasionally come across the nutritious and distinctively flavoured red and yellow rice (a bit like brown rice in taste and texture) that are grown in certain parts of the island.
Sri Lanka’s tastiest snack, the engagingly named hopper (appa) is a small, bowl-shaped pancake traditionally made from a batter containing coconut milk and palm toddy, and is usually eaten either at breakfast or, most commonly, dinner. Hoppers are cooked in a small wok-like dish, meaning that most of the mix sinks to the bottom, making them soft and doughy at the base, and thin and crisp around the edges. Various ingredients can be poured into the hopper. An egg fried in the middle produces an egg hopper, while sweet ingredients like yoghurt or honey are also sometimes added. Alternatively, plain hoppers can be eaten as an accompaniment to curry. Not to be confused with the hopper are string hoppers (indiappa), tangled little nests of steamed rice vermicelli noodles, often eaten with a dash of dhal or curry for breakfast.
Another rice substitute is pittu, a mixture of flour and grated coconut, steamed in a cylindrical bamboo mould – it looks a bit like coarse couscous. Derived from the Dutch lomprijst, lamprais is another local speciality: a serving of rice baked in a plantain leaf along with accompaniments such as a chunk of chicken or a boiled egg, plus some veg and pickle.
Muslim restaurants are the place to go for rotty (or roti), a fine, doughy pancake – watching these being made is half the fun, as the chef teases small balls of dough into huge sheets of almost transparent thinness. A dollop of curried meat, veg or potato is then plonked in the middle and the rotty is folded up around it; the final shape depends on the whim of the chef – some prefer crepe-like squares, others opt for samosa-style triangles, some a spring roll. Rottys can also be chopped up and stir-fried with meat and vegetables, a dish known as kottu rotty. You’ll know when kottu rotty is being made because of the noise – the ingredients are usually simultaneously fried and chopped on a hotplate using a large pair of meat cleavers, producing a noisy drumming sound – part musical performance, part advertisement.
Devilled dishes are also popular, and can be delicious. These are usually prepared with a thick, spicy sauce plus big chunks of onion and chilli, though the end product often isn’t as hot as you might fear (unless you eat the chillies). Devilled chicken, pork, fish and beef are all common – the last is generally considered the classic devilled dish and is traditionally eaten during drinking binges. Another local staple is the buriani. This has little in common with the traditional, saffron-scented North Indian biryani, being nothing more than a mound of rice with a hunk of chicken, a bowl of curry sauce and a boiled egg, but it makes a good lunchtime filler and is usually less fiery than a basic plate of rice and curry.
Sri Lanka also boasts a good selection of “pure vegetarian” South Indian restaurants (vegetarian here meaning no meat, fish, eggs or alcohol); they’re most common in Colombo, although they can be found islandwide wherever there’s a significant Tamil population. These cheerfully no-nonsense places cater to a local clientele and serve up a delicious range of South Indian-style dishes at giveaway prices. The standard dish is the dosa, a crispy rice pancake served in various forms: either plain, with ghee (clarified butter), onion or, most commonly, as a masala dosa, folded up around a filling of curried potato. You’ll also find uttapam, another (thicker) type of rice pancake that’s usually eaten with some kind of curry, and idlis, steamed rice cakes served with curry sauces or chutneys.
Some South Indian places (again, particularly in Colombo) serve a fascinating array of sweets, luridly coloured and heavily spiced.
Another classic Tamil savoury which has entered the Sri Lanka mainstream is the vadai (or wadai), a spicy doughnut made of deep-fried lentils – no train or bus journey is complete without the sound of hawkers marching up and down the carriage or vehicle shouting “Vadai-vadai-vadai!”. Platefuls of vadais, rottys and bread rolls are often served up in cafés under the name of short eats – you help yourself and are charged for what you eat, though be aware that these plates are passed around and their contents indiscriminately prodded by all and sundry, so they’re not particularly hygienic.
There are plenty of Chinese restaurants around the island, though many are just glorified local drinking holes serving up plates of fried rice and noodles. Genuine places are often good, although the predominantly Cantonese-style dishes are usually spiced up for Sri Lankan tastes. As usual, Colombo has easily the best range of such places.
Indonesian dishes introduced by the Dutch are also sometimes served in tourist restaurants – most commonly nasi goreng (fried rice with meat or seafood, topped with a fried egg) and gado gado (salad and cold boiled eggs in a peanut sauce), although these rarely taste much like the Indonesian originals.
Other cuisines are restricted to Colombo. Thai food has made some limited inroads, while Japanese cuisine is also modestly popular. Colombo is also where you’ll find Sri Lanka’s surprisingly small number of decent North Indian restaurants, along with a few excellent European places. Smarter hotels all over the island make some attempt to produce European cuisine, though with wildly varying results.
Not surprisingly, seafood plays a major part in the Sri Lankan diet, with fish often taking the place of meat. Common fish include tuna, seer (a firm-bodied white fish), mullet and the delicious melt-in-the-mouth butterfish, as well as pomfret, bonito and shark. You’ll also find lobster, plentiful crab, prawns and cuttlefish (calamari). The Negombo lagoon, just north of Colombo, is a particularly prized source of seafood, including gargantuan jumbo prawns the size of a well-fed crab.
Seafood is usually a good bet if you’re trying to avoid highly spiced food. Fish is generally prepared in a fairly simple manner, usually fried (sometimes in breadcrumbs) or grilled and served with a twist of lemon or in a mild garlic sauce. You will, however, find some fiery fish curries, while chillied seafood dishes are also fairly common – chilli crab is particularly popular.
Surprisingly for such a Buddhist country, vegetarian food as a concept hasn’t really caught on in Sri Lanka. Having said that, a large proportion of the nation’s cooking is meat-free: vegetable curries, vegetable rottys, hoppers and string hoppers – not to mention the bewildering variety of fruit on offer. Colombo’s numerous pure veg South Indian restaurants are a delight, while if you eat fish and seafood, you’ll have no problems finding a meal, especially around the coast.
The classic Sri Lankan dessert is curd (yoghurt made from buffalo milk) served with honey or kitul (a sweet syrup from the kitul palm). When boiled and left to set hard, kitul becomes jaggery, an all-purpose Sri Lanka sweet or sweetener. Other characteristic desserts are wattalappam, an egg pudding of Malay origins which tastes faintly like crème caramel, but with a sweeter and less slippery texture. Kiribath is a dessert of rice cakes cooked in milk and served with jaggery – it’s also traditionally made for weddings, and is often the first solid food fed to babies. A South Indian dessert you might come across is faluda, a colourful cocktail of milk, syrup, jelly, ice cream and ice served in a tall glass like an Indian knickerbocker glory. Ice cream is usually factory made, and safe to eat; the most widely available brand is Elephant House. You’ll also find a wide selection of cakes, often in fluorescent colours and in a bizarre variety of curried flavours.
Sri Lanka has a bewildering variety of fruits, from the familiar to the less so, including several classic Southeast Asian fruits introduced from Indonesia by the Dutch. The months given in brackets below refer to the periods when each is in season (where no months are specified, the fruit is available year-round). Familiar fruits include pineapple, mangoes (April-June & Nov-Dec), avocados (April-June) and coconuts, as well as a wide variety of bananas, from small sweet yellow specimens to enormous red giants. Papaya (pawpaw), a distinctively sweet and pulpy fruit, crops up regularly in fruit salads, but the king of Sri Lankan fruits is undoubtedly the jackfruit (April-June & Sept-Oct), the world’s largest fruit, a huge, elongated dark-green monster, rather like an enormous marrow in shape, whose fibrous flesh can either be eaten raw or cooked in curries. Durian (July-Sept) is another outsized specimen: a large green beast with a spiky outer shell. It’s very much an acquired taste: though the flesh smells rather like blocked drains, it’s widely considered a great delicacy, and many also believe it to have aphrodisiac qualities. The strangest-looking fruit, however, is the rambutan (July-Sept), a delicious, lychee-like fruit enclosed in a bright-red skin that’s covered in tentacles.
Another prized Sri Lankan delicacy is the mangosteen (July-Sept), which looks a little like a purple tomato, with a rather hard shell-like skin that softens as the fruit ripens. The delicate and delicious flesh tastes a bit like a grape with a slight citrus tang. Equally distinctive is the wood apple, a round, apple-sized fruit covered in an indestructible greyish bark, inside which is a red pulpy flesh, rather bitter-tasting and full of seeds. It’s sometimes served with honey poured over it. You might also come across custard apples: greenish, apple-sized fruits with knobbly exteriors (they look a bit like artichokes) and smooth, sweet white flesh; guavas, smooth, round yellow-green fruits, usually smaller than an apple and with slightly sour-tasting flesh around a central core of seeds. Other exotic fruits you might encounter include soursop, lovi-lovi, sapodilla, rose apple, and beli fruit (not to be confused with nelli fruit, a kind of Sri Lankan gooseberry). Finally, look out for the tiny gulsambilla (Aug-Oct), Sri Lanka’s strangest fruit – like a large, furry green seed enclosing a tiny, tartly flavoured kernel.
It’s best to avoid tap water in Sri Lanka. Bottled water is available everywhere, sourced from various places in the hill country and retailed under a baffling range of names. Check that the seal hasn’t been broken – but note that they’re all usually pretty grubby.
International brands of soft drinks – Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Sprite – are widely available and cheap, but it’s much more fun (and better for the Sri Lankan economy) to explore the glorious range of outlandish soft drinks produced locally by Olé, Lion and Elephant. These include old-fashioned favourites like cream soda and ginger beer, and unique local brands like Portello (which tastes a bit like Vimto) and the ultra-sweet, lollipop-flavoured Necta. Ginger beer is particularly common, and very refreshing – the Elephant brand uses natural ginger, which is meant to be good for the stomach and digestion.
The slightly sour-tasting coconut water (thambili) isn’t to everyone’s taste, although it’s guaranteed safe, having been locked up in the heart of the coconut. It’s also claimed to be an excellent hangover cure thanks to its mix of glucose and potassium, which also makes it good to drink if you’re suffering from diarrhoea.
Despite the fame of Sri Lanka’s tea, most of the stuff served up is usually fairly bland – and you won’t find the marvellous masala teas of India. Normal tea is often called “milk tea” (ask for “milk and sugar separate” if you want to add your own or you might end up with a cupful of supersweet bilge). “Bed tea” is just ordinary tea brought to your room for breakfast. Coffee is sometimes a better bet. This is generally either Nescafé or locally produced coffee – the latter is usually unexciting but perfectly drinkable, although you’re normally left with a big layer of silt at the bottom of the cup. Proper machine-made coffee is increasingly available.
Sri Lanka has a strong drinking culture – beer was introduced by foreign captives during the Kandyan period, and the islanders have never looked back. The island’s two staple forms of alcohol are lager and arrack. Lager is usually sold in large (625ml) bottles; draught lager is rare. There’s not a great choice of brands; all clock in with an alcohol content of just under five percent. The staple national tipple, the ubiquitous Lion Lager, is uninspiring but perfectly drinkable. More palatable beers include Carlsberg (brewed under licence in Sri Lanka), the delicately malty Three Coins, and Three Coins Riva, a good wheat beer. Anchor beer is also becoming increasingly popular: soft, creamy and a bit bland. Lion also brews a very dense stout, Lion Stout, which is virtually a meal in itself, as well as Lion Strong (eight percent a.b.v.), beloved by local alcoholics. As you’d expect, lager is relatively expensive in Sri Lankan terms, cheapest in a liquor shop and a bit more in most bars and restaurants. Imported beers, on the rare occasions you can find them, come with a hefty mark-up.
Two more distinctively local types of booze come from the versatile coconut. Toddy, tapped from the flower of the coconut, is non-alcoholic when fresh but ferments into a beverage faintly reminiscent of cider – it’s sold informally in villages around the country, though unless you’re travelling with a Sinhala-speaker it’s difficult to track down. When fermented and refined, toddy produces arrack (33% proof), Sri Lanka’s national beverage for the strong-livered – you won’t go far before finding a group of voluble Sri Lankan men clustered around a bottle. Arrack is either drunk neat, mixed with coke or lemonade or used in tourist-oriented bars and restaurants as a base for cocktails. It’s available in various grades and is usually a darkish brown, though there are also clear brands like White Diamond and White Label; the smoother, double-distilled arrack tastes faintly like rum. Imported spirits are widely available, but are predictably expensive. There are also locally produced versions of most spirits, including rather rough whisky, brandy, rum and vodka, as well as various brands of quite palatable lemon gin.
Most people drink in their hotel bar or guesthouse. There are a few decent bars and English-style pubs in Colombo, Kandy and a few tourist resorts, but most local bars are gloomy and rather seedy places, and very much a male preserve. Alcohol is available from supermarkets in larger towns. In smaller places, there are usually a few rather disreputable-looking liquor shops – usually a small kiosk, piled high with bottles of beer and arrack and protected by stout security bars. You’re technically not allowed to buy alcohol on full-moon (poya) days, although tourist hotels and bars often discreetly serve visitors.