Food in Sri Lanka is full of flavor. It can go from mild to spicy to simply burning – it really is up to you how hot you want it.
Most meals include rice in some form or other. While in hotels you will have a choice of continental breakfast and your typical eggs, fruits and cereal, you will notice that locals have a preference for curry based dishes even in the early hours. If you are staying in a local guest house you will be able to smell curries being prepared as early as 6:00 am!
People in Sri Lanka love food that literally bursts with flavors – ask any chef to keep your food mild and you will get a stare of disbelief. Street food is usually deep fried. Beef or pork are unseen on the menu, so the meat choice is generally chicken or fish / shrimps.
Sri Lankan food is often thought to be similar to that of South India – but I can reassure you that it is distinct in many ways. It is very vegan friendly, with lots and lots of vegetable dishes and most curries being cooked in oil, and dishes usually including coconut milk or powder rather than cream, butter or yogurt. You can’t really expect to find things such as tofu and tempeh, however (at least, I never saw it on any menu or buffet).
In this post, I highlight the best dishes in Sri Lanka that will keep your taste buds awake. Before doing so, however, let me share some tips on how to make the most of Sri Lankan cuisine.
5 Tips To Fully Enjoy Food In Sri Lanka
Join a food tour
The best way to get to know about food in a new country and discover the local staples and flavors is to do a guided food tour. Food tours are not common in Sri Lanka yet; but cooking classes are (more about that below). The best place to do one – where you will have more choice of experiences – is Colombo. You can book your food tour here.
Go to the local market
Markets are fun places to explore anywhere in the world, and Sri Lanka is no different. A typical market will have stalls selling all sorts of fruits, vegetables and – depending on the region – fish or meat. You can usually start tasting the food there and then. Vendors are happy to share a taste of the juiciest mango (look for the karutha colomban one, or for Alfonso, as these are the sweetest and juiciest).
You will also see a variety of vegetables that you have probably never seen before – some are tasty, some are unique and some simply weird to a palate that is not accustomed to them.
Take a cooking class
Whether you have aspirations to become a chef or not, cooking classes are one of the most fun things to do when traveling. Results are usually great – after all you are cooking under the strict guidance of someone who is an expert. And to top this off you get to eat the food you cooked.
Cooking classes are actually becoming a more common thing in Sri Lanka. They are offered in all the most touristy spots, including Colombo, Galle, Sigiriya and Ella. They are a great way to get to know local food.
Learn about the staple ingredients of Sri Lankan food
Sri Lankan food makes abundant use of spices and chances are you will be visiting at least a spice garden during your trip to Sri Lanka. You can expect your dishes to be mild, deliciously spicy and burning hot. Ingredients such as curry, chili pepper, cardamom and coriander are commonly used.
Coconut milk and grated coconut are often present – whether it is a curry or a sweet you will be eating. Most sweets are coconut based.
Try a home cooked meal
There is nothing better than having a home cooked meal to fully appreciate local cuisine. The good news is that home cooked food in Sri Lanka is easily available, especially if you stay at guest houses. That’s your best bet to try some local dishes. All you have to do is ask the owners if it is possible to have dinner at home that evening, and they will prepare a meal worthy of a king, with an abundance of vegetables and portions that are big enough to feed an army.
The Best Food In Sri Lanka: 25 Dishes You Should Try
Rice and curry is basically the staple of Sri Lankan cuisine. Each family has its own rice and curry recipe – and each is equally delicious. This dish consists of plain white rice accompanied by a wealth of other condiments – usually a bunch of vegetable curries (can be with mushroom, lentils, and even banana flowers) and chicken or fish curry.
Chicken is cooked chopped and with bones (be ready to use your hands – after all that’s how locals eat) and no coconut milk is usually added to the dish.
There are about one million kinds of fish curry in Sri Lanka (ok, mine may be an exaggeration, but you get the idea). Make sure to try the Ambul Thiyal – a drier kind of curry where a combination of spices that includes goraka is added. This helps preserve the fish.
Any time you see the word “deviled” next to anything in Sri Lanka, you should be concerned. Deviled literally means spicy, so you are bound to have food that is incredibly full of flavor, packed with chillies and other spices. Tomato sauce or paste is often added to the dish to give it a deep, red color. You can have deviled shrimp, chicken or even fish curry.
This curry is prepared using unripe jackfruit. The fruit is cooked very slowly and becomes so tender you will not even realize it is not meat. One of the ultimate food in Sri Lanka. Make sure to try it.
Pumpkin is often a food women love and men hate, but I promise you this version of pumpkin will have you all agree, as it is simply delicious. The pumpkin becomes so soft that the overall texture is very creamy and thick. This is definitely one of the best dishes in Sri Lanka.
Probably one of the most oily dishes you will ever eat in Sri Lanka – but to be fair, eggplants tend to get very oily when fried. This is not exactly the healthiest Sri Lankan food. Eggplants are first deep fried, then stir fried with onion, green chili and spices. A bit of sugar is added to give it a caramelized finish. It is absolutely delicious.
If you loved tarka dhal (yellow lentils curry) in India, you are bound to love the Sri Lankan version of it. Called parippu, or dhal curry, this is one of the most common dishes in Sri Lanka and you will easily find it anywhere in the country. It’s a milder, not nearly as thick version of its Indian cousin and it is perfect eaten with rice.
I only saw this in Galle Front, in Colombo, so I am not even sure it can be found anywhere else in Sri Lanka. It’s a common street food of lentil curry fritters topped with shrimps. I bet it is perfect accompanied with a cold beer.
Fried salted fish
This dish consists of small fish that is salted and deep friend until crunchy. It’s perfect when accompanied with vegetable curry and rice.
This is one of the most famous food in Sri Lanka, and chances are you will be able to enjoy it for breakfast. It’s a sort of pancake made of rice flour but it is prepared with coconut milk and toddy – Sri Lankan palm wine. Hoppers are cooked in a small pan until they become thick and soft at the bottom, and crispy at the edges. The best version is egg hoppers – as I said you will likely have it for breakfast.
String hoppers are sort of noodles made of rice flour and steamed. They are served for breakfast or dinner – usually along your usual curry. It’s one of the most popular food in Sri Lanka.
Kottu, also known as kottu roti, is made with a bread called godamba roti which is very thin and cut into pieced, stir fried and mixed with vegetables, chicken or crab and spices then grilled. It’s prepared on a large grill and chopped with huge blades. It’s served with extra curry or sauce – as if the simple dish were not enough!
The vegetarian version of kottu is actually the best one – it’s filling, and absolutely delicious.
Roti is a kind of bread. In this case, it is stuffed with vegetables (but it can also be with fish), given a triangular shape and skillet fried.
Sambol is a word used to described uncooked dishes. Gotukola is a kind of leafy vegetable, and as these aren’t really common in Sri Lanka, a gotukola sambol – which basically is a small salad – comes as a refreshing change. It is prepared with finely chopped gotukola (a leafy vegetable found in South Asia), onion, coconut and spices.
The best version of sambol is made with coconut. This will probably end up being one of your favorite salad kind of food in Sri Lanka. It’s prepared by grating coconut, which is then mixed with lime juice, chili powder, and onions. There also is a version with fish.
This is one of the most common food in Sri Lanka. It’s incredible how something so simple can be so tasty. Coconut roti is nothing more than roti which has been infused with coconut milk during the preparation. For a fuller flavor, try it topped with chili salt.
You will often see this eggplant sort of pickle accompanying many curries. It’s made with eggplants that are cooked for a very long time with salt, sugar and soy sauce until the eggplants become incredibly tender and the sugar caramelizes. It’s delicious with other curries.
If you are a fan of all things doughy, you are bound to love paratha – a famous food in Sri Lanka. It’s a flat bread which is actually very oily and it is perfect to scoop up curries.
They may serve these fritters as bread to accompany your meal, but they are nothing like it. They are made from dhal and spices, they are doughy, chewy and crispy at the same time. They are best eaten hot. Perhaps among my favorite food in Sri Lanka.
Found on any proper street food cart in Sri Lanka, cassava chips are similar in taste to potato chips but much much crunchier. They are perfect to accompany a cold beer at the end of the day.
Sri Lanka doesn’t seem to use much dairy products in its preparations, and things such as yogurt, milk and cream are not commonly seen. That’s why the buffalo curd is a real must. It’s a very thick, full fat yogurt that is very mild in flavor and it is best served with kithul treacle – a syrup made of sugar palm and similar in taste to honey. You will often see it for breakfast, but it also makes for an excellent dessert.
I haven’t come across many sweets in my two times in Sri Lanka, but naram kaum is easily found and an absolute must try. These deep fried small balls are made with rice flour, kithul treacle and rolled in grated coconut. It’s best when eaten piping hot. Definitely among the best food in Sri Lanka.
Coconut is ever present in Sri Lankan dishes, but what about having it nice and plain? You will find it sold in any side street stall and market. You can ask to open it for you, drink the delicious juice and then have it chopped so that you can also have the pulp. It’s very cheap and incredibly refreshing!
Tea is the third largest export in Sri Lanka. You will see plantations scattered around the Hill Country, where you can go on plantation tours that include tea tasting and will have many chances of buying some of the best tea you will ever have. That’s why, though it is not food proper, I want to include Ceylon tea among the must have food in Sri Lanka. You can have it plain or with milk.
Other Useful Information
Fantastic Sri Lankan food cookbooks
If you’d like to have a try at preparing dishes of Sri Lankan cuisine at home, you can count on a few good cookbooks. These are the best ones available:
- Sri Lanka: The Cookbook
- Food In Sri Lanka: Authentic Recipes From The Land Of Gems
- Sri Lankan Cooking: 64 Recipes from the Chefs and Kitchens of Sri Lanka
For more information about Sri Lanka, make sure to read the following posts:
- 13 Things To Know About Whale Watching In Mirissa, Sri Lanka
- 20 Fabulous Places To Visit In Sri Lanka
- A Complete Guide to Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
- A Guide To The Most Unique Temples In Sri Lanka
- What To Wear In Sri Lanka
Further readings about international cuisine
Do you travel for food? Then don’t miss these posts!
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Legal Disclaimer: I was a guest of Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau during my trip to Sri Lanka, and I wish to thank them for the incredible trip and all the useful insights. Needless to say, the views expressed in this post remain mine.