Sri Lanka’s culinary culture is rich and varied, primarily thanks to its pan-Asian influences (particularly, but not exclusively, Indian influences), the influences of European colonialism, and the booming local agricultural industry: most notably the cultivation of a wide range of heady spices.
This is a country that, in regards to tourism, is on the up and up, becoming the highly regarded holiday destination that it deserves to be. This means that you can find all manner of eateries here, from high end westernised restaurants in Colombo to roadside street food vendors selling cheap and cheerful light bites. That said, it’s the more authentic dishes that you really need to experience if you’re visiting the pearl of the Indian Ocean, and there is a lot to be sampled.
Much of Sri Lanka’s economy relies on farming, and the country produces a huge range of spices, vegetables, chillies, cocoa powder, and of course rice (as well as a multitude of medicinal herbs and spices). There are in fact herb and spice gardens throughout the country that offer tours, and a visit makes an interesting afternoon or morning. You will have a chance to see some of the county’s most useful native plant life, medicinal and edible ones, plus some places also offer demonstrations of local cooking practises (the rolling of curry powder, carving cinnamon sticks, tree tapping) which make for a fascinating watch.
In terms of food, rice crops make up the largest part of Sri Lanka’s plantations, accounting for over a third of Sri Lanka’s cultivated lands. However, the country’s varied climate, with cool highlands and dry lowlands, makes it suitable for a vast array of crops: many species of fruit and vegetables grow here (including carrots, beets, beans, mangos, papayas, pineapples, to name just a few). On top of this the country is home to vast crops of chillies, and spices such as cumin, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper, curry leaves, and many more. It is not surprising then that the food of this nation centres heavily on spiced dishes, such as curries, which are commonly served with pickled vegetable sauces, like chutneys and sambols.
A staple part of Sri Lankan cuisine is the curry: meat, fish or vegetables in a curry sauce, served with rice, and sometimes lentils and/or fruits. There are a wide range of curries to be tried here, with many different flavours to suit all palates, and different levels of heat to suit those who may be used to milder dishes. One of the key elements of Sri Lankan curries is Sri Lankan curry powder, which is traditionally made by taking a selection of spices, and grinding them together using a stone slate and stone rolling pin – sort of like a flat pestle and mortar. Typically curry powder is made using curry leaves, dried chillies, cloves, cumin and cardamom, but there are many variations along this theme. These curry powders are certainly a major factor in making the Sri Lanka curry so mouth-wateringly tasty.
One of, if not the, most common curries in Sri Lanka is parippu, or dhal curry: although it can accompany pretty much any dish, it is best when used as a dipping sauce with fresh Roti (a simple wheat flour flatbread). This dish is made by first softening some split red lentils, then sautéing various fresh ingredients (typically tomatoes, onions and green chillies with a mix of spices such as curry leaves, fenugreek, cumin, turmeric). This sauce is then mixed with the lentils and fresh coconut milk is added. Parippu has a creamy and rich flavouring, that is mild enough to compliment stronger curries but is in no way bland.
Sri Lankan ‘short eats’ are almost akin to Western party foods: these are a selection of snacks that are served to guests when visiting someone’s home, however they are also eaten on the go, mainly as a quick breakfast or evening bite to eat. These can be purchased in short eat shops, which are easily found throughout the country. A popular short eat is the mutton roll, spiced mutton and potatoes rolled together, often served with a lot of chilli – not for the faint-hearted. Other short eats include pastries filled with vegetables, meat or fish, Chinese rolls made from egg, potatoes, minced meat and vegetables, and roti. Triangular in shape, these are flatbreads that are filled with fish and vegetables and then closed, to seal the filling inside, and baked.
Hoppers are akin to pancakes but with a hint of coconut flavouring, and, like pancakes, can be served sweet or savoury. One of the most popular ways to serve it is to have an egg hopper; the pancake is formed into a bowl shape, into which an egg is cracked and cooked, this is then topped with chillies, lemon juice, salt and onions, to make a savoury nugget of food. Hoppers are also available as string hoppers, where the batter is pushed through a maker that works like a pasta press, to make noodle shaped hoppers as opposed to the usual flat ones, these are then used much like roti, and dipped into various curries, accompanying a meal.
Sri Lanka has a lot to offer visitors who have a sweet tooth. These desserts can generally be split into three categories: cakes and pastries, treacle treats and puddings. Cakes and pastries generally use a lot of rice flour, wheat flour and grated coconut to create a range of sweets. The most common desert is Kevum: an oil cake made using rice flour and treacle, which is then deep fried until golden brown, a crunchy and very sweet treat. This category also includes aluwa, rice-flour pastries that are shaped little sugary diamonds and koki, a savoury biscuit that is crisp in texture and has a coconut-like flavour.
Treacle treats, as the name suggest, use treacle as their main ingredient and include aggala, treacle-flavoured rice balls, and aasmi: where rice flour and okra juice are deep-fried and covered with pink treacle – delicious! The two most common Sri Lankan puddings are kalu dodol, a solid toffee sweet made from coconut milk, rice flour and jaggery (a sugar made from palm tree sap), and watalappam, a steamed pudding, introduced by Malay immigrants, made from coconut milk, eggs and jaggery.
There are some Sri Lankan sweet treats that don’t fit into the above categories, the most notable is the wood apple. Roughly one and a half times the size of a tennis ball, this southeastern Asian fruit has a hard shell. Inside is a pungent dark brown paste, that is reminiscent of fermented raisins. This paste is blended with water and sugar to create a smoothie that has a completely unique flavour that is hard to explain, other than saying that is both sour and sweet tasting. We would highly recommend trying it if you can.
In the article above we have tried to give an overview of Sri Lanka cuisine, something to give a feel of what Sri Lanka food culture is about and what can be expected when trying authentic local dishes. Below are a few more specific suggestions of dishes and drinks that you really must try if you’re visiting this vibrant foodie country.
- Sri Lankan ‘hot chocolate’: a drink that tastes similar to a western hot chocolate but is made from locally sourced cocoa beans, milk and home-made banana syrup. This has absolutely no sugar in it, apart from the banana syrup, yet is sweet and creamy tasting, and totally delicious! What’s more, you can buy the cocoa beans and banana syrup at most of the herb and spice gardens, so you can make this treat even when you’ve left the country!
- Thanks to its geography, Sri Lanka has incredible fresh seafood: cuttlefish, squid, prawns, crabs, etc. and there are many delicious seafood dishes to be tried here. Aside from the many curries, one of the tastiest seafood meals is kool, which is a broth, originating in northern Sri Lanka, made using crab, prawns, cuttlefish and crayfish, as well as spinach, beans, spices and plamyra root flour. Yum!
- Sri Lanka has a booming tea industry, introduced to the country by British colonialism in the 1850s, to this day this industry still accounts for 2 percent of the entire country’s GDP. There are many tours that will allow visitors to see the tea plantations and tea factories, so you can see how it all works, which is very interesting, and then of course there is the tea tasting. There is a staggering range of flavours and types of tea available: English breakfast, green tea, black tea, orange tea, strawberries and cream, even champagne flavoured tea, don’t go home without trying a least of few cups!