Table of Contents
- Eating and drinking in Sri Lanka
- Costs, manners
- Dining Spots
- Curry, rice
- Other Sri Lankan specialties
- South Indian food
- Quick dinners
- Different cuisines
- Vegetarian food
- Sweets and treats
- Drinking water
- Sweetned drinks
- Coffee, tea
- Alcoholic beverages
- Where to drink
Eating and drinking in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has a fascinating culinary heritage due to the merging of local goods with recipes and spices brought by Indians, Arabs, Malays, Portuguese, Dutch, and English.
Rice and curry, a tiny feast with clashing scents, is the national dish. Coconut milk, chiles, curry leaves, cinnamon, garlic, and “Maldive fish,” a pinch of highly perfumed sun-dried tuna, are added. Sri Lanka’s spice island heritage is reflected in these flavours. Hoppers, string hoppers, kottu rotty, lamprais, and pittu are among the unique dishes to try along with the seafood.
Sri Lankan food is sometimes spicier than Thai and Indian food. Many of the island’s less competent cooks use a lot of spices and chilli powder, but visitors are often seen as whining people who pass out at the slightest whiff of spice. “Medium” usually means something interesting and not fire-related. People commonly inquire about how hot they want their cuisine. A bite of plain rice, bread, or beer will soothe a scorched palate better than water if you overheat during a meal.
Sri Lankans feel that eating with their fingers is the only way to completely experience food’s aromas and textures, even though foreigners are usually offered cutlery. Eat with the right hand, as in other Asian countries, but this isn’t always observed. If you really want to eat with your left hand, no one will notice.
Prices are acceptable but not as nice as a few years ago. A local café serves a large rice and curry lunch for a few dollars, but most guesthouse restaurants charge $10 for their main meals, and even the most posh charge $15 or more. Many restaurants impose a 10% service charge, while expensive restaurants may add 13–15% government taxes.
Due to Sri Lankan spelling quirks, popular dishes like idlis, vadais, kottu rotty, and lamprais sometimes appear on menus with confusing spelling changes. You’ll also be fed “cattle fish,” “sweat and sour,” and “nazi goreng,” Hitler’s favourite.
There are many great restaurants in Sri Lanka, but few that showcase its food. There is no dining-out custom, and there are few notable independent restaurants outside Colombo. Residents of the island either dine at home or attend the many ramshackle cafés, often mislabeled “hotels,” that serve hearty meals like rice, curries, and hoppers or kottu rotty for a few dollars. However, neighbourhood cafés serve decent food, making them more social than gourmet.
Most tourists eat at their guesthouse or hotel because there are few independent restaurants. From enormous, sterile restaurants in seaside resorts to quiet guesthouses in Ella and Galle with home-style cooking that is rarely available at larger hotels, the cuisine and ambience vary dramatically. Though limited, most eateries feature rice or fried noodles, a few seafood and meat dishes (typically featuring devilled selections), and a few curry options.
Most of Sri Lanka’s independent restaurants are in Colombo, Kandy, Galle, and Negombo, where tourism has created a small local dining scene. Besides selling seafood, Sri Lankan, and Western food, most independent eateries serve tourists. South Indian restaurants are also available in Colombo.
About 11 a.m. Until 2 p.m., neighbourhood cafés and street vendors nationwide sell lunch boxes. A large serving of steaming rice, veggies, sambol, and curry chicken, fish, or beef (vegetarians can have an egg) is usual. They’re the cheapest way to eat in Sri Lanka, but avoid them until your taste buds and stomach acclimatise to the native cuisine.
Most Sri Lankans eat rice and curry, the island’s national food, at almost every café and restaurant. Sri Lankan curry and rice are radically different from North Indian curries; however, it can be a memorable supper. Sri Lankan curry sauces, called “milk gravy,” or “kiri hodhi,” are made from coconut milk infused with chillies and other spices and resemble Thai green or red curry more than Indian curry.
Cafes across the island serve basic rice and curry (not “curry and rice” because the rice is the major ingredient) as a plate of rice with a few dollops of vegetable curry, a slice of chicken or fish, and a spoonful of sambol. Refined versions have a mound of rice and up to fifteen side dishes. The Dutch may have influenced this mini-banquet by converting Indonesian nasi padang into the rijsttafel, or “rice table,” and bringing it to Sri Lanka in the eighteenth century. Dal, curried pineapple, potatoes, eggplant (brinjal), sweet potatoes, and okra are frequently served with meat or fish curry. Expect more unusual local vegetables. Curried jackfruit and “drumsticks” (murunga, okra-like) are popular. Along with many other strange and unpronounceable native crops, you may see ash plantain (alu kesel), snake gourd (patolah), bitter gourd (karawila), and breadfruit. Mallung—shredded green veggies with a little spice and coconut stir-fry—is another popular accompaniment.
Sambol, a side dish, is usually served with rice and curry to add flavour. Pol sambol, or coconut sambol, is the most common sambol. This recipe contains chilli powder, chopped onions, salt, grated coconut, and “Maldive fish,” shredded sun-dried tuna with a strong flavour. It’s often pretty. Carefully handle it. You may also find the milder lunu miris, consisting of onions, salt, Maldive fish, and chilli powder, and the sweeter, sweet-and-sour seeni sambol, or “sugar sambol.”
The rice in North Indian biryanis and pilaus is often tasteless, ironically. Restaurant rice in Sri Lanka is usually of lower quality, despite the many types grown there. However, some sections of the island cultivate nutrient-dense, tasty red and yellow rice that tastes and feels like brown rice.
Other Sri Lankan specialties
Sri Lanka’s most popular snack is the “hopper” (appa), a bowl-shaped pancake made with coconut milk and palm sugar batter. Usually eaten at dinner or breakfast. The hoppers have a soft, doughy interior and a thin, crispy edge because most of the ingredients settle to the bottom in a wok-like dish. Different substances can go in the hopper. Hopper eggs are cooked in the middle and sometimes filled with honey or yoghurt. Simple hoppers with curry could be a side dish. String hoppers (indiappa) are tangled nests of steamed rice vermicelli noodles, not hoppers. Curry, or dhal, is usually served with them for breakfast.
Pittu is a rice substitute made of flour and grated coconut steamed in a bamboo mould like coarse couscous. Lamprais, rice baked on a plantain leaf with an egg or chicken chunk, veggies, and pickles, is another local specialty. The word derives from Dutch lomprijst.
Muslim restaurants serve the best roty, a delicate, doughy pancake. It’s fun to see cooks turn dough balls into huge, virtually transparent sheets. A dollop of curried meat, vegetable, or potato is placed in the centre, and the rottty is folded around it. Some cooks favour crepe-shaped squares, some centre triangles, and others spring rolls. Chopped rotties are stir-fried with meat and vegetables to make kottu rotties. The loud noise of kottu rotty preparation is audible. Ingredients are cooked and chopped on a hotplate with a large pair of meat cleavers, creating a sound that is both advertisement and music.
Devilled meals can be flavorful and popular. These are usually cooked with a thick, spicy sauce and huge pieces of onion and chilli, but they are rarely as fiery as you may think. Common devilled foods include chicken, pork, fish, and beef, the latter being the original and eaten on heavy drinking occasions. Traditional local foods include buriani. This dish is a bowl of rice, chicken, curry sauce, and a boiled egg, not saffron-scented North Indian biryani. It makes a great lunch and is milder than rice and curry.
South Indian food
Sri Lanka also has many “pure vegetarian” South Indian restaurants (no meat, fish, eggs, or alcohol), especially in Colombo but also in other Tamil-majority areas. These joyfully simple restaurants deliver delicious South Indian-style food at low prices, largely to locals. The basic food is the dosa, a crispy rice pancake that can be eaten plain, with onion, ghee (clarified butter), or—most popularly—a masala dosa, which is folded and stuffed with curried potatoes. Idlis, steamed rice cakes served with curry sauces or chutneys, and uttapam, a thicker rice pancake, are also available.
Some South Indian eateries, notably in Colombo, serve spicy, vibrant sweets.
A spicy doughnut made of deep-fried lentils, vadai, is a famous Tamil savoury meal in Sri Lanka. Cafés often serve “short eats,” where you help yourself and pay for what you eat.
Many of the island’s Chinese restaurants are fancy local watering holes that serve noodles and fried rice. The food, which is mostly Cantonese-style, is spiced up for Sri Lankan palates, but genuine restaurants are often good. Colombo has the most variety.
The most popular Indonesian dishes in tourist restaurants are gado gado (salad and cold-boiled eggs in peanut sauce) and nasi goreng (fried rice with meat or seafood and a fried egg), but they rarely taste like the originals.
Sri Lanka’s few good North Indian restaurants are in Colombo, along with a few top-notch European restaurants. More sophisticated hotels serve European food, but with mixed results.
Sri Lankan cuisine emphasises seafood, so pomfret, bonito, shark, and the melt-in-your-mouth butterfish, tuna, seer, and mullet are common. Crab, prawns, lobster, and cuttlefish (calamari) are also abundant. The Negombo lagoon, north of Colombo, is known for its jumbo prawns that resemble well-fed crabs.
The most common ways to prepare fish are frying (often in breadcrumbs), grilling, and serving with a little garlic sauce or a twist of lemon. However, chilli crab is a favourite, and there are some really spicy fish curries.
It’s surprising that vegetarianism hasn’t taken off in Sri Lanka, a predominantly Buddhist nation. However, a large part of the country’s cuisine consists of meatless dishes like string hoppers, hoppers, and vegetable rottys, in addition to the confusing array of fruits. In Colombo, there are many delicious South Indian vegetarian restaurants.
Sweets and treats
Curd, a buffalo milk-based yoghurt, is a traditional Sri Lankan dessert. It is typically served with either kitul, a sweet syrup derived from the kitul palm, or honey. Boiling kitul and allowing it to solidify creates jaggery, a versatile Sri Lankan confection or sweetener. Other notable sweets include wattalappam, a Malay egg custard with a flavour somewhat reminiscent of crème caramel but a smoother, sweeter texture. Kiribath is a traditional wedding dessert consisting of rice cakes cooked in milk and served with jaggery. It’s also common for newborns to be fed solid food for the first time. Faluda, a vibrant concoction of milk, syrup, jelly, ice cream, and ice served in a tall glass resembling an Indian knickerbocker, is a South Indian delicacy that you may encounter. Most ice cream is manufactured in factories and is safe to consume; Elephant House is the most popular brand. There’s also a huge assortment of cakes, many of which come in bright hues and an odd range of curried flavours.
A dizzying array of fruits, both well-known and less so, can be found in Sri Lanka. These include some traditional Southeast Asian fruits that the Dutch brought over from Indonesia. The months listed below in brackets denote the times of year when each is in season; in the absence of a month, the fruit is accessible year-round. Common fruits include pineapple, avocados (April–June), mangoes (April–June and November–December), coconuts, and a large assortment of bananas, ranging in size from tiny, pleasant yellow ones to massive, red monsters. The papaya, also known as pawpaw, is a fruit with a distinct sweet and pulpy texture that is often found in fruit salads. However, the jackfruit (available from April to June and from September to October) is the most popular fruit in Sri Lanka. It is the largest fruit in the world, a massive, elongated, dark green monster that resembles a giant marrow. Its fibrous flesh can be consumed raw or cooked in curries. Other oversized specimens include the Durian (July–Sept.), a big green beast with a spiny outer shell. It’s definitely an acquired taste; despite the flesh’s peculiar stench—that of clogged drains, for example—many people find it to be incredibly delicious and even aphrodisiac. The rambutan, which is available from July to September and tastes like lychees but with a brilliant red skin wrapped in tentacles, is the strangest-looking fruit.
Mangosteen (July–Sept) is another highly sought-after delicacy from Sri Lanka. It resembles a purple tomato and has a tough skin that becomes softer as the fruit ripens. The flesh is delicate and tasty, with a subtle citrus flavour that makes it taste something like a grape. The wood apple is also rather unique. It is an apple-sized, spherical fruit with crimson pulpy flesh that is packed with seeds and has a bitter taste. The fruit is coated in an unbreakable grey bark. On occasion, it is served with honey drizzled on top. You may also encounter guavas, which are smooth, round, yellow-green fruits, usually smaller than apples, with slightly sour flesh surrounding a central core of seeds; and custard apples, which are greenish, apple-sized fruits with knobbly exteriors (they resemble artichokes). Soursop, lovi-lovi, sapodilla, rose apple, and beli fruit (not to be confused with nelli fruit, a form of Sri Lankan gooseberry) are some more strange fruits you might come across. Lastly, keep an eye out for the little gulsambilla (Aug-Oct), which is the oddest fruit in Sri Lanka. It resembles a big, fuzzy green seed with a tiny, acidic kernel within.
In Sri Lanka, bottled water comes from all over the hilly area and is marketed under an absurd number of brands. Make sure the seal isn’t broken, but they’re usually dismal.
While Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and Sprite are readily available, discovering the amazing array of bizarre soft drinks made in Sri Lanka by Olé, Lion, and Elephant is much more enjoyable and beneficial to the country’s economy. These include traditional favourites like cream soda and ginger beer, as well as distinctive regional brands like the extremely sweet, lollipop-flavored Necta and Portello, which has
Despite its sour taste, thambili, or coconut water, is harmless because it’s kept inside the coconut. It’s also a good hangover remedy and diarrhoea remedy due to its potassium and glucose content.
Even though Sri Lankan tea, also known as “Ceylon Tea,” is famous, most of the food is tasteless, and you won’t find India’s amazing masala teas here. Common tea is called “milk tea”; if you want to add sugar, ask for “milk and sugar separate” to avoid a cup of overly sweet bilge. “Bed tea” is regular tea delivered to your room for breakfast.
Foreign captives brought beer to Sri Lanka during the Kandyan era, and the islanders have never looked back. As a result, the country has a robust drinking culture. Lager and arrack are the two main alcoholic beverages on the island. Draught beer is uncommon; large (625 ml) bottles are typically used to sell lager. The selection of brands is limited to those with an alcohol concentration of somewhat less than five percent. The omnipresent Lion Lager, the quintessential national beverage, is unremarkable but absolutely drinkable. Better-tasting beers include the lightly malty Three Coins, the excellent wheat beer Three Coins Riva, and Carlsberg (produced in Sri Lanka under licence). Another beer that is gaining popularity is Anchor, which is mild, creamy, and somewhat boring. Lion also brews Lion Strong (eight percent abv), a favourite among the area’s inebriated, and Lion Stout, an extremely dense stout that is almost a meal in and of itself. Lager is reasonably priced in Sri Lanka, as one might anticipate; it costs less in a liquor store and a little more in most taverns and restaurants. When you do locate imported beers, they are usually heavily marked up.
The flexible coconut is the source of two additional uniquely local varieties of alcohol. When fresh, toddy (tapped from the coconut flower) has no alcohol content but ferments to produce a drink that tastes a little like cider. It is available in villages all over the country, although finding it might be challenging if you don’t speak Sinhala. A group of boisterous Sri Lankan men gathered over a bottle of arrack (33% proof), the country’s official beverage for the strong-willed, which is produced when toddy is fermented and polished. Arrack is served plain, combined with coke or lemonade, or used as the foundation for drinks in eateries and bars catering to tourists. The smoother, double-distilled arrack tastes slightly like rum. It comes in several grades and is often a deep brown colour, though there are also distinct brands like White Diamond and White Label. Although widely accessible, imported spirits are inevitably pricey. Along with several types of very pleasant lemon gin, there are also locally made versions of other spirits, including rather rough whisky, brandy, rum, and vodka.
Where to drink
While Colombo, Kandy, and some tourist resorts have good bars and English-style pubs, most local bars are dark, shady, and mostly men’s domain. Larger towns have supermarkets that sell alcohol, while smaller towns have a few pretty shady-looking liquor stores.