Though Sri Lankan food has parallels to South Indian food, yet it remains distinctly its own form of cuisine.
Throughout years of colonization and influence from other countries, Sri Lanka has adapted its food culture into a blend of different curry concoctions and tasty dishes.
A few things about Sri Lankan food can be said with certainty: Sri Lankans thoroughly love spices, they love food that explodes with flavor, and many enjoy deep fried, and very tasty, snacks. Whatever you choose to eat in Sri Lanka, your mouth is going to rejoice with happiness.
Sri Lanka, being an island with a tropical climate, coconuts and fish are two of the most influential components of Sri Lankan cuisine. Fish is made into curries, and coconut in some form or another, is a dominant ingredient in cooking.
Rice and curry is the Sri Lankan staple, though various kinds of bread, both roti style flatbreads and even loaves of bread, are very common.
Go ahead and grab yourself a paratha and sit back to check out these 40 foods you can’t miss when you’re in Sri Lanka!
There’s nothing more common to eat as Sri Lankan food than a nutritious plate of rice and curry. You normally get a plate of rice piled with a few of the daily vegetable curries and a choice of fish curry as well.
A plate like the one above cost me 120 LKR ($1.09), but without fish it would have even been less.
There are a lot of different deviled dishes in Sri Lanka. This fish was deep fried and smothered in a lovely sweet and sour sauce and lightly fried again with red onions and banana peppers. It was excellent with fried rice and a flatbread paratha on the side.
This particular fish curry in Sri Lanka reminded me of the Burmese food curry that I also highly enjoyed, except it was often a bit heavier on the spice blend, which I loved.
The fish curry in Sri Lanka was extremely fragrant, oily, and the sauce was marvelous with a giant plate of rice.
Dhal curry is one of the most commonly consumed staple dishes in Sri Lankan cuisine.
The dhal, usually masoor dhal which are red lentils, are often cooked in a beautiful blend of spices, and then a few spoons of coconut milk are added to create a rich stew.
Dhal curry is omnipresent in Sri Lanka, and it’s consumed with all forms of rice and bread.
Sri Lankan food is famous for its curries – and “polos“, or young jackfruit curry, is one of my personal favorites.
Jackfruit is eaten in a number of different ripeness stages in Sri Lanka, but for preparing polos, the young, unripe jackfruit is used. The fruit is cut into chunks and simmered in a blend of rich spices.
This particular version (brown dish above) was so delicious, I couldn’t stop eating it. The pieces of jackfruit were tender, and tasted almost like a juicier version of a potato, and they were filled with the beautiful flavor spices.
Polos is so good, it could almost pass for chunks of tender beef!
Green leafy vegetables aren’t the most common thing to eat in Sri Lanka, though the cooking does call for many tuberous vegetables. But anyway, since I love green veggies, I ate a dish known as Gotukola Sambol, frequently during my visit.
Gotukola is the word for Asiatic pennywort, a small leafy green vegetable that’s common throughout southeast Asia. Sambol is the word used to describe a dish or garnish that prepared and eaten using raw ingredients. So gotukola sambol is a basically Sri Lankan salad garnish.
The gotukola is first sliced very finely, then mixed with grated coconut meat, red onions, and a few extra spices for seasoning. Asiatic pennywort has a very green flavor, I think it can be compared to the green flavor of kale, and it’s refreshing and crisp.
I think I could call it the Middle Eastern tabbouleh of Sri Lanka.
A plate of Sri Lankan curry and rice is complete only when a nice helping of beetroot curry is included! No that’s not really true, you can have a plate of curry without beetroot. However, when I was traveling in Sri Lanka, I came to love the beetroot curry – it’s such a wonderful dish.
The beets are diced up before being cooked to death with a number of spices including cinnamon and curry leaves. The beets are nice and soft, and rich in flavor.
Throughout the duration of my stay, I just couldn’t get enough of this blood red vegetable, that tastes so good with other curries.
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An extremely popular Sri Lankan street food dish is known as kottu or kottu roti.
Essentially it is composed of shredded pieces of Sri Lankan godamba roti, which is sort of like a giant sized paratha (an oily fried piece of thin dough), that is stir fried with an assortment of spices and a choice of other meaty (or vegetarian) ingredients.
Kottu roti is sort of like the “hamburger” of Sri Lanka, something that’s so tasty, available as a fast meal, and it’s basically nearly impossible to resist.
To take things even to the next level, kottu is usually served with a separate bowl of curry sauce, used to moisten and add extra flavor to the stir fried flatbread.
Another variation of kottu is with vegetables and egg – a very good combo, one of my particular favorite variations of the dish.
The vegetables include a few meager sprigs of leek, onions, and cabbage, and the sizzling godamba roti is lathered with egg to make it even richer…and more delicious.
The egg adds some extra protein, which is always a good thing.
If vegetarian kottu is the hamburger of Sri Lanka, cheese kottu is the quadruple bacon cheeseburger.
Yellow curry powder flavor is bumped up a few notches with cheese kottu and it’s a Sri Lankan food that you just can’t miss. The cheese is not traditional yellow cheese, but rather more like cottage milk cheese.
Check out this VIDEO of Kottu being cooked!
(If you can’t see the video, watch it here: http://youtu.be/k0Ksq9QtPUw)
Pretty cool song…yah?
Little fried and salted fish are a lovely addition to Sri Lankan food. Unlike saucy curry, little fish are heavily salted and deep fried so they are crunchy. Their texture and flavor goes well with a plate of vegetarian curry and rice.
Also, Maldive fish are a popular ingredient for Sri Lankan dishes. The little salted fish are included in a range of different sambol chili sauces and they are often included in lunu miris, an onion chili sauce that goest with all sorts of Sri Lankan dishes.
If only more countries in the world knew about fried chicken fried rice, it would be integrated into cuisines around the world…guaranteed.
I don’t think there’s much need for explanation; Take fried chicken and make fried rice with it.
Though it’s made in a wok and looks like an item off a Chinese or Thai street food menu, Sri Lankan fried rice still tastes like Sri Lankan food.
It could be the assortment of ingredients or the hint of cumin that accompanies the rice. Nevertheless, a number of Chinese influenced dishes remain popular as Sri Lakan food staples.
Though I ate many Sri Lankan dishes, the candied brinjal eggplant (black stuff towards the right) was one that I couldn’t get enough of. Though I ate it like a curry when I was in Sri Lanka, it’s actually referred to more as a pickle.
The eggplant is cooked to death with salt, oil, soy sauce, and sugar until it becomes fall apart tender and the sugar begins to caramelize. Though I’m not the biggest fan of sweet things, this eggplant was to die for, and I tried to eat it with every plate of rice and curry that I had.
I have read that Sri Lankan food is difficult to master, simply because everyone has their own variation of each dish, and previously no recipes were written; Basically no chicken curry will taste exactly the same throughout the country, everyone has their own recipe and ratio of spices and ingredients.
When I was in Pusselawa, I had the privilege to stay at a grandmother’s home in the rolling tea fields. Everyday I’d go to the market and buy some meat and she’d cook it up, tempering the spices, squeezing fresh coconut milk, and creating some of the best curries I’ve ever had in my life.
This clay pot of Grandmother’s home-made chicken curry goes down as one of the top 10 flavors that has ever entered my mouth .
It’s not exactly a Sri Lankan food, but those innocent looking chili peppers on the plate above are far from kind.
Known as the “Cobra Chili,” these little guys were so delicious, but they nearly burnt a hole in my tongue.
Some of my favorite Sri Lankan meals were from the northern Tamil tip of Jaffna.
This outrageously tasty meal included yellow rice, an assortment of vegetable and seafood curries, a few parathas, and a number of heaping spoons full of tomato onion garnish.
If you’re ever in Jaffna, you should have a meal at Hotel Rolex – they serve some pretty tasty dishes, and the staff when I ate there were all friendly and helpful.
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Believe it or not, Sri Lankan food includes a dish that is quite similar to Thai green curry, known as ela batu. Along with eating as much wambatu moju as I could, I also enjoyed quite a few servings of ela batu during my visit.
Thai eggplant, which are the small golf ball sized eggplants, are used in the dish, plus a similar, but uniquely Sri Lankan tasting green curry sauce is what holds the dish together. It was less sweet and more spice filled than a typical Thai green curry.
This Jaffna squid was chopped into small pieces before being fried with peppers, onions, and a spice filled tomato based sauce.
In Sri Lanka they normally call squid as cuttlefish, so when you order, usually
When I spotted these little blacked shrimps in the glass cabinet in Jaffna, I couldn’t pass them up. Luckily they were just as tasty as they looked, a marvelous blend of curry spices coating each and every part of the shrimp bodies.
Hoppers which are also known as appa, are an iconic food of Sri Lanka.
It begins with a simple pancake batter that’s spruced up with coconut milk and a splash of toddy (Sri Lankan palm wine). The unique part is that hoppers are cooked in small “wok” like rounded pans so the dough cooks thick and soft on the bottom, and thin and crunchy around the edges.
The texture and even taste is quite similar to Ethiopian injera bread. Hoppers can be ordered plain, or even better with a fried egg in the middle.
There’s also string hoppers, which are made from a thicker rice flour based batter, squeezed into thin noodles, and then steamed. String hoppers are normally eaten for breakfast or dinner, along with a variety of different curry.
This Sri Lankan food may be one of the simplest things to make, yet one of the most amazing bowls of deliciousness that Sri Lanka has contributed to the world, known as pol sambol.
It highlights the almighty coconut, a fruit that’s integral in Sri Lankan cooking. Pol salmbol is merely a mixture of shredded coconut, chili powder or dried chilies, lime juice, red onions, and salt – and believe me, every bite is like a miracle come true.
I could graze on pol sambola for hours at a time. Pol sambola is perfect to eat with bread, roti, or on top of rice, or with curry. Actually is delicious to eat with anything, or even plain by itself.
I was craving pol sambol so badly that I had to make it myself… Enjoy the video…
(If you can’t see the video, watch it on YouTube here)
Along with coconut relish (pol sambol), Sri Lanka’s pounded onion and chili sauce known as lunu miris is nearly as delicious.
Luni miris is the combination of chilies, onions, salt, and occasionally a few bits of Maldive fish for extra flavor. The ingredients are ground into a chunky paste using a Sri Lankan mortar and pestle (more like a flat stone and rolling pin, as opposed to a Thai style mortar and pestle).
The result is a superb sambol chili sauce that goes well with just about everything. I loved it so much, when I was eating meals in Sri Lanka, I would normally ask for a side of lunu miris and a side of pol sambol.
This is not a common Sri Lankan food, but after devouring this burrito looking roti in Kandy I couldn’t help from including it on this list.
It was phenomenal…and though it was all soy protein, it tasted nearly identical to Mexican pork chorizo and eggs (more details on this to come).
Sri Lankan pittu funnel cakes are a combination of flour (either rice of karukan), fresh shredded coconut, and a handful of desiccated coconut. The precious little cakes are traditionally steamed in bamboo, but now are sometimes steamed in circular metal tubes.
After being cooked, the crumbly textured pittu cakes are served with fresh sweetened coconut milk.
Roti in Sri Lanka is less greasy and more of a thick tortilla like flatbread (paratha are the greasy flat-breads).
In Sri Lanka, roti are made with freshly grated coconut, flour, water and salt. They are made into balls of dough, flattened, and then cooked on a hot griddle.
Any form of spicy curry sauce handles the task of being the dip for a delicious pol roti. I especially enjoyed eating pol roti for breakfast along with a big fresh bowl of pol sambol (coconut relish sambol).
What’s known as paratha in Sri Lanka is similar to a roti in Malaysian food, or an African chapati.
The greasy flaky flat-bread is melt in your mouth delicious, especially when dipped in coconut milk curry sauce. YUM.
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Sri Lankan omelets are loaded up with local spices like cumin and curry powder and then simmered in a layer of oil coconut oil so it turns golden brown. Over a plate of rice and alongside some shredded coconut garnish, a Sri Lankan omelet is heavenly.
These marvelously tasty little fritters are made from daal, combined with incredible spices, and deep fried to crunchy perfection.
I was excited to see a giant street food cart filled with my favorite kind of junk food: cassava chips. I had enjoyed countless handfuls of cassava chips while growing up in Kenya.
50 LKR ($0.45) will get you a small paper bag of salty chips at Galle Face beach in Colombo.
Another popular snack in Sri Lanka are deep fried jackfruit seeds. They are salted and served in small paper bags made from scrap paper.
Some of the Sri Lankan street food carts and snacks even reminded me of Egyptian street food.
As you may have noticed by now, though there are many vegetarian dishes, Sri Lankan food is not all that healthy.
On top of that, Sri Lanka is a country that loves their deep fried snacks. These snacky morsels of batter were heavily salty and seasoned with fried curry leaves.
This little gem of a snack was purchased on the train from Colombo to Kandy. It’s basically a little piece of coconut infused solid flat-bread topped with a marvelous flaky salty chili sauce.
It almost tasted like a Sri Lankan mini pizza.
From Indian food to Kenyan dishes, samosas have become a popular snack from coast to coast. Some are filled with meat, while others are vegetarian.
The triangular looking pockets are a form of roti filled with a range of different ingredients. Fish was my preferred filling, but there were also some nice vegetarian versions available. Instead of being deep fried like samosas, triangle roti’s are just skillet fried.
The Chinese egg rolls in Sri Lanka were so-so, but the fish cutlet balls (pictured above) were absolutely wonderful. It’s like a little grenade of fish packed into a breaded ball and deep fried.
When it comes to short eats in Sri Lanka, there’s no need to go any further than the fish cutlets – they are delicious.
In India, curd is often eaten with rice or mixed with something; In Sri Lanka curd is devoured drizzled with kithul treacle – syrup made from liquid jaggery.
At first this “curd” sounded a little bizarre to me, but when I tried it, I was amazed and wanted to eat more for every consecutive breakfast.
Sri Lankan curd tastes very similar to what I know as plain yoghurt. It’s creamy, slightly sour, and the sweet syrup on top makes it absolutely fantastic.
Yup, the outer shell smells a bit like rotting blue cheese mixed with dirty socks. The inside of the fruit looks a bit like diarrhea, but tastes similar to a tamarind. But hey, as a religious fan of durian, I’m not one to judge a fruit by its shell.
Despite the looks of this wonder fruit, woodapple juice in Sri Lanka is wildly popular – and I’ll be first to admit that it tastes pretty good when it’s blended up with some sugar!
There’s nothing better to wash down Sri Lankan food with, than a big cup of woodapple juice!
No component of Sri Lankan food is more vital than that holy coconut. In Sri Lanka there are many varieties of this special fruit, including the orange colored king coconut.
These coconuts line the streets around the country and are sold just for their sweet water. Each coconut costs from 30 – 40 LKR ($0.27 – $0.36).
Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) is one of the world’s leading producers of tea – no trip to the country would be the same without multiple cups a day.
Milk tea as well as ginger tea and plain tea are all popular and widely available choices.
Sri Lankan food is full of spices and exciting to the taste buds. At just an average of $1 – $2 for a giant meal, Sri Lanka is a culinary playground for sampling amazing dishes!
Have you had Sri Lankan food?
If you have a few minutes check out this video!