Sri Lanka's top 5 food experiences

For most of us, dining is one of the major enticements of a destination. When it comes to fabulous, yet somewhat under-the-radar cuisine, Sri Lankan food has tonnes of mouth-watering dishes to discover...
Rice and fish curry is a favourite Sri Lankan food.
Rice and fish curry is a favourite Sri Lankan food.

Far more than a local variation on the classic cuisines of neighbouring India, Sri Lankan food has its own unique and distinctive set of dishes and flavours, inspired by the island’s abundant natural produce and the huge variety of spices grown here.

Rice and curry remains culinary king, but with fiercer flavours than in neighbouring India and with sauces based on coconut milk and fiery chilli sambols, the country's cuisine falls somewhere between Indian and Thai cooking in style. Whether you are eating in your hotel restaurant, a local rest house or from a roadside stall, Sri Lanka offers great food in abundance – take a look at our top five culinary experiences to enjoy while in the country.

1. Rice and curry – anywhere, anytime

Sri Lankan cooking has evolved around rice. The national meal is not referred to as “curry” but as “rice and curry”: a mountainous plate of rice generally accompanied by assorted meat and/or vegetable curries, various pickles, (sambols), and a handful of tiny poppadums. More than 15 varieties of rice are grown on the island, from tiny white translucent varieties to long-grained basmati and the nutty red kakuluhaal. 

Locals will take balls of cooked rice and rub the highly-spiced accompaniments into them, massaging the mixture gently between the fingers to blend the flavours. The rice and curries served in the island’s better hotels, guesthouses and restaurants, however, have evolved far beyond this basic formula and often comprise a sumptuous miniature banquet, with a plateful of rice accompanied by at least five, and sometimes as many as 15, side dishes. Wherever you go on the island, this classic meal is deeply satisfying. Discover this for yourself on one of Insight Guides' trips: our Sri Lanka Deluxe holiday tours the country's highlights and has plenty of time to explore the cuisine too.

Rice and curry meal. Photo: threeseven/ShutterstockRice and curry meal. Photo: threeseven/Shutterstock


2. Egg hoppers at breakfast

The hopper (appa) is a classic example of a humble food that has achieved gourmet status. The hopper has a delicate, puffy, crêpe-like texture, much like a pancake, and is eaten as a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast. Start your day in style on Insight Guides' Perfectly Sri Lanka holiday, which includes plenty of opportunities to taste this alternative breakfast.

Proper hoppers are made from a batter containing coconut milk and palm toddy which is left to sit for a whole night to give it time to ferment – although most cooks now use instant hopper mix. Its cousin, the egg hopper, is an ordinary hopper with an egg broken into the centre. Break off the crisp, lacy outer rim at the top of the hopper and dip it into the runny egg yolk at the bottom for a true taste of culinary heaven. For something that will really kick off your start to the day, add some spicy sambol to the mix and enjoy dhal or curry on the side!

Appam food. Photo: sta/ShutterstockAppam food. Photo: sta/Shutterstock

3. Fresh seafood by the sea

As an island, it's no surprise Sri Lanka's food includes an abundance of freshly caught fish and seafood. The closer you are to the coast, the better it’s likely to be, and nothing beats tucking into freshly and simply prepared mullet or huge, succulent tiger prawns. Fish curries are also ubiquitous, normally cooked in a hot, coconut milk-based kiri hodhi sauce. Intensely flavoured pinches of sun-dried fish and seafood, such as prawns, are widely used to add flavour to curries – “Maldive fish” (sun-dried tuna) being the most common. The best seafood traditionally comes from the Negombo lagoon and includes crab, cuttlefish and delicious lobster. Insight Guides' Unforgettable Sri Lanka tour includes a stop in Negombo where you can taste fresh seafood from beach-side restaurants, shacks and bars. 

Spicy flat cakes with crabs and prawns on dishes in Colombo city, Sri Lanka. Photo: Dmitry Naumov/ShutterstockSpicy flat cakes with crabs and prawns on dishes in Colombo city, Sri Lanka. Photo: Dmitry Naumov/Shutterstock

4. Fruit at roadside stalls

The island’s cornucopia of tropical fruits includes pineapple, passion fruit, pomegranate, papaya, avocados, mangoes, several kinds of guava, more than a dozen varieties of banana, and many more exotic offerings which you’re unlikely to have seen back home. Look out for the deep purple, delicately grape-flavoured mangosteen and the unmistakable sweet-tasting rambutan, red and hairy on the outside, but similar to lychee on the inside. Other local specialities include sweet-tasting star apples, red cherry-like lovi-lovi, and the strange wood apple, covered in an indestructible woody shell and usually served with honey to soften the taste of its bitter bright-red, pulpy flesh.

Try any and all of these at a roadside stall – if you’re worried about the water the fruit is washed in, choose something that you can peel. 

Street shop with fresh fruits and vegetables in Bentota, Sri Lanka. Photo: pzAxe/ShutterstockStreet shop with fresh fruits and vegetables in Bentota, Sri Lanka. Photo: pzAxe/Shutterstock

5. Short eats out and about

Indigenous snacks, known as "short eats", are savoury pastries or rolls, which can be bought in pastry shops to eat there or take away. There are many types, including miniature loaves baked and stuffed with seeni sambol, fried pancakes with a beef, fish, chicken or vegetable filling, meat or chicken patties, and "cutlets", deep-fried soft round balls of mashed tuna. Ubiquitous throughout the country, these are a great option for when time doesn't permit a lingering meal. Stuffed and chopped (kottu) rottys are also found at street-side stalls – prepare for a genuine chilli kick!

Mobile street food sellers are popular in Sri Lanka. Photo: pzAxe/ShutterstockMobile street food sellers are popular in Sri Lanka. Photo: pzAxe/Shutterstock

This article was originally published on 13th April, 2016

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