Top 10 Must Try Sri Lankan Food
Clanging and banging will become a recognisable noise in Sri Lanka. Those kotthu chefs are the ones doing the banging, prepping the favoured Sri Lankan food. Whats kotthu you ask, well, it’s spicy, fresh, stodgy and everything in between. The perfect kotthu is made with a combination of chopped roti hot off the griddle, mixed with fresh, crunchy vegetables, aromatic spices, a tender meat of your choice and recommended by most – topped with gooey cheese. A perfect introduction for what was to come, with many unbeatable meals in Sri Lanka.
More often than not, Sri Lankan cuisine can be overshadowed on the international scene from its much larger neighbour, India. I’m betting many people back home wouldn’t even know what Sri Lankan food consists of and most would probably come to the conclusion that it is similar to Indian food. Before my trip, I would have guilty of just that. However, it wouldn’t give the culinary prowess of this Indian Ocean island much justice to give it the label of ‘similar to Indian’.
This little, but extremely diverse country offers some of the richest, aromatic, delicious and often spiciest food. “Get used to rice and curry”, is what someone mentioned when I told them I was travelling to Sri Lanka. Rice and curry is a huge part of the Sri Lankan diet, but it would be wrong to assume that there’s just one dimension to Sri Lankan food. Anyway, even if it was just rice and curry, I think it would take a long time to get sick of those endless plates of rich, flavoursome, pungent curries.
Oh, I forgot to mention, the food extremely kind to the budget.
Below is a list of the 10 must try Sri Lankan foods…
String Hopper Breakfast
In all honesty, I’m not a great breakfast lover. The whole cereal and milk or a couple of sausages with bacon and eggs don’t really do it for me. However, I had the complete opposite mindset after indulging in my first traditional Sri Lankan breakfast.
Curry for breakfast?! Sri Lankans definitely know how to do it right.
String hoppers are usually served alongside a commonly found, but never boring, spicy dhal, a mild, creamy potato curry, along with a portion of refreshing, boldly orange coloured coconut sambol.
What exactly are string hoppers you ask? Well, they look like a ball of noodles in all truth. String hoppers are made from rice or wheat flour dough, pressed into noodle shapes and steamed. Those steamed noodle looking balls, make for the perfect accompaniment in the morning to enjoy with a couple of lovingly prepared curries. First thing in the day, stodgy rice can be a bit too much, but string hoppers are incredibly light and easy on the stomach.
Cost – For a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast Rs 300-500 ($2-3.40).
Lamprais (Lump Rice)
Straight from the go, when I excitably entered that first Sri Lankan restaurant in Colombo, I was curious as to what exactly was wrapped up in that Banana leaf behind the glass window of the counter. “What’s that?” I curiously questioned, pointing to the Banana leaf parcel. “Lamprais. Try, it is tasty”, replied the smiley, friendly waiter. What have I got to lose I thought to myself, while eagerly ordering my first vegetable Lamprais. I had researched Sri Lankan food over and over in anticipation for my travels, but surprisingly I’d never actually heard of Lamprais, so this was a step into the unknown.
Well, long story short, the gamble paid off and my first Lamprais was certainly not my last. Lamprais is very similar to a biryani The dishes main component is rice mixed with either tender meat or vegetables, packed into a folded Banana leaf parcel, along with a thick, flavoursome vegetable curry. All the ingredients are baked together to deliver a dish which may not look the prettiest, but as the saying goes, don’t judge a book by its cover, because this modest Sri Lankan food goes way beyond all expectations in terms of taste and will leave you awed by its exquisite simplicity.
Cost – Vegetarian Lamprais Rs 300-400 ($2-2.75).
More than often described as Sri Lanka’s answer to fast food. Kotthu is usually the Sri Lankan food of choice for late night revellers searching for a quick, filling meal to soak up the alcohol.
You will know for sure if you are at a food stand or a restaurant which serves kotthu, because there will be an assault on the ears from the unmistakable racket of the chef unmercifully chopping and mixing the contents of the kotthu.
Kotthu in simple terms is chopped up vegetables, roti, eggs and a meat of your choice, or no meat, you decide. All mixed together to make a slightly greasy, stodgy, filling, but extremely satisfying plate of food. Although the meal is heavily carb based, the vegetables give it a needed fresh edge, so the heavy roti doesn’t take over.
Cost – Around Rs 400 ($2.75).
Wambatu Curry (Eggplant/Aubergine Curry)
Wambatu curry is prevalent throughout Sri Lanka. The majority of the time, the curry accompanies other dishes as a part of a huge meal with various other spicy, fragrant, moreish curries and condiments.
Looking back, it has to be said, the very best Sri Lankan food was usually in the guesthouses. One guesthouse in-particular served us an absolute feast, which is where my love for wambatu curry originated from. That guesthouse was Mansala Safari Resort in Udawalawe. All the dishes were cooked up from scratch by the owner’s sister (what a cook she was!), so the food was all authentic Sri Lankan home cooking.
Wambatu Curry is a distinctive, mouth-watering, spicy dish. If you’re a meat lover, trust me, you won’t miss meat at all when you’re tucking into this veggie delight. The main feature of the curry is, Eggplant. The Eggplant is then more often than not, spiced with; ginger, turmeric, chilli and mustard seeds with a coconut milk addition.
Cost – As a part of a traditional Sri Lankan dinner Rs 500-700 ($3.40-$4.75).
Kukul Mas Curry (Chicken Curry)
There is often warnings just how spicy traditional Sri Lankan food can be, the most obvious warning is when a waitress/waiter asks “Sri Lankan spicy, or tourist spicy?” Well, the Sri Lankan spicy kukul mas curry I was served in a restaurant in Ella just happened to be one of the spiciest foods ever to enter to my mouth, my tongue certainly wasn’t thanking me. That being said though, it was also up there with the most appetising, if not boldly spiced, curries I’ve ever tasted.
The thick, brown, gravy like sauce is what gives the curry its extreme heat. The curry combines a variety of spices such as; fennel seeds, curry powder, chilli powder, turmeric, cloves, lemongrass and a hell of a lot of chillies (recipe more than likely will vary), stirred together with coconut milk to give the gravy a rich, thick texture.
Cost – As a part of a Sri Lankan dinner with a variety of curries – Rs 700 ($4.75).
Short Eats (Stuffed Roti, Pastries etc.)
Short eats are a huge part of everyday Sri Lankan food. The reason short eats are so widespread across the country is mainly due to their incredibly convenient nature. I mentioned that rice and curry is a huge part of the Sri Lankan diet. That may be true, but rice and curry on the go isn’t all that practical really is it? (Although many still do eat it on the trains). The idea of stuffing curry into a handheld roti or pastry though, genius!
Short eats are found anywhere in Sri Lanka. Whatever town or city you find yourself in, you will be sure to find a bakery offering a varying selection of inviting handheld delights. The term short eat categorises a whole bunch of snacks, these include; stuffed roti, vadai (dense deep fried lentils, shaped into a ball or doughnut shape), samosas, pastries (filled with a variety of fillings – fish, meat or vegetable) and last but not least, sugary cakes.
Cost – Rs 40-120 ($0.25-0.80) each.
Along the many coastal locations in Sri Lanka, you’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to seafood. Take for instance Tangalle. There’s literally a strip of restaurants along the beachfront displaying their daily seafood offering, all vying for your business. This overwhelming choice of seafood restaurants was definitely a trend along Sri Lanka’s south coast.
The fresh seafood comes in many varieties. In Tangalle you could be tucking into giant prawns, caught earlier that day, fried in a garlic butter, served with rice or fries, simple yet delicious. Then, another day you could order a fiery crab curry at Yaal Restaurant in the capital, Colombo.
Unfortunately for all you seafood lovers out there, $25 a day is highly unlikely to stretch to a daily diet of grilled fish and shellfish. However, going for the slightly pricier option every now and again won’t put too much of a dent in the budget. If in a destination is low season, a bit of negotiating is sure to push the price down.
Cost – varies from dish to dish. Crab curry – Rs 700 ($4.75). Ten Tiger Prawns – Rs 800 ($5.50).
Dhal is one Sri Lankan dish which I’m sure the majority of people have happily devoured, or at least heard of. I certainly had no problem indulging in giant portions of dhal repeatedly. If buffets are your thing, Sri Lanka is the right place to get your fill. Vegetarian buffets are rife across the countries restaurants. A mountain of spicy, smooth dhal, smothered over steaming, brightly coloured red rice, what’s not to love.
A vegan’s dream. a vegetarian’s delight. a meat eater’s nightmare? Absolutely not! Once again, dhal will leave your head free of those meat cravings and longing for more.
Dhal is an aromatic, perfected combination of turmeric, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, mustards seeds, curry leaves with soft lentils and creamy coconut milk. It’s hard to resist the temptation to pile the dhal onto your plate, especially when those hospitable Sri Lankan restaurant owners are near enough forcing the dhal down your throat, but not as if that’s something to complain about.
Cost – Rs 150-300 ($1-2).
Gotu Kolo Sambol (Pennywort Salad)
In a country where fiery, spicy and rich cuisine is the norm, a light, fresh pennywort salad is just what’s needed sometimes. This salad is mainly served alongside a selection of the finest vegetarian or meat curry on offer.
Pennywort salad’s popularity across multiple Asian countries is homage to the fresh, simple flavours provided.
Simple is the key word here; chopped pennywort leaves, red onion and green chilli, grated coconut, fish powder topped with the juice of a lime, all being the ingredients for a pennywort salad.
A welcomed addition of fresh greens to accompany any curry.
Cost – As a part of a vegetarian curry buffet – Rs 400-700 ($2.75-4.80).
Not to be confused with string hoppers, in fact, they’re dissimilar in most aspects, barring both foods are made with rice flour. The way to describe egg hoppers, is they are a bowl shaped, paper thin, crispy pancake like creation. The crunchy bowl has an egg cracked and cooked at the base. The egg adds a fluffy, soft dimension to the crispy hopper.
Surprisingly, egg hoppers are usually eaten with evening meals and not for breakfast. As a westerner, this surprises me, with eggs being traditionally breakfast food I suppose. However, it works, so who am I to question.
Fermented rice flour and coconut milk are the only ingredients needed for the hopper. The two ingredients are beaten together and a thin layer is fried in a purpose made, bowl shaped frying pan. The egg is added to lie at the bottom of the hopper. I’m guessing it’s the fermented flour gives the hopper its slightly sour taste.
Cost – Around Rs 60 per egg hopper ($0.70).
Spicy curries, fried convenient short eats, alternative breakfasts like none I’ve experienced before, sickly, yet moreish sugary cakes and much more. What could you not love about this countries cuisine?
‘Spicy’ is definitely a word you will see over and over in description of the food in Sri Lanka. Sometimes, spicy is an understatement, blowing your head off is more apt for some of the curries I tasted. However, if spicy food isn’t for you, don’t fret, the majority of restaurants offer ‘tourist’ or ‘Sri Lankan’ spicy.
If you’re off to Sri Lanka soon to stuff your face, enjoy! If not, I would urge you to book your flight ASAP, you won’t regret it when you’re tucking into a freshly made kotthu after a few Lion beers.
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If you have any questions, feel free to ask me in the comments section.
What’s your favourite Sri Lankan food? Which one of these 10 would you want to try the most?