Today I'm starting off my series on Sri Lanka with a get to know you guide on Sri Lankan food. Sri Lankan cuisine is a super tasty cuisine with a breadth and depth that you may not know about unless you visit Sri Lanka itself. Here are 40 things that you simply must try when you visit Sri Lanka!
Sri Lankan food is becoming more well known around the world coming out from the shadow of its larger neighbour India. While conceptually some dishes cross-over, it has a very distinct identity of its own with its own dishes, some influenced by its colonial history and of course the raw ingredients available. Sri Lankan food is less regionalised than India and strong, punchy and sour notes prevail. Let's get started!
Breakfast and Basics
Number 1: Hoppers
Egg and plain hoppers with curry and sambol at The Wallawwa
One of the things that I'll miss the most from my time in Sri Lanka is eating hoppers for breakfast. Whether it be coconut, egg or plain (or my favourite cheese that you have to ask for) these gluten free rice flour and coconut milk treats are made using an overnight fermented batter and then cooked in special half sphere hopper pans.
Egg and cheese hoppers at Camellia Hills
Served with sambols (delicious condiments, see below) and curry for breakfast it is a feast of champions. The test of a really good hopper? You want a hopper with high sides, a spongy centre and crisp edges.
A fusion take on hoppers: eggs benedict hoppers at Skinny Tom's
Number 2: String Hoppers
String hopper sieve
String hoppers are another version of a hopper although quite different. These are also made using a rice flour batter that is passed through a sieve like instrument (idyappam maker) to achieve those distinct strings. Shaped into rounds they are then steamed. They're great to soak up curries. If you have leftover hoppers they make a great base for a "biryani" style dish too!
String hoppers made with red rice flour at Kahanda Kanda
Number 3: Kithul and Curd
When you travel in Sri Lanka you'll see a lot about kithul and curd. This is buffalo milk curd (natural yogurt) and kithul is a type of treacle made using the kithul tree. The kithul tree is also called a fishtail palm or toddy palm (and if you process the syrup further you get jaggery sugar). Kithul is similar in texture to maple syrup with a slightly woody flavour to it.
Buffalo curd sold in clay pots
Buffalo curd is smooth, glossy and creamy like a natural pot set yogurt and you pour as much kithul as you want on top. Both are served together as a sweet after rice and curry but they are gorgeous with breakfast too.
Kithul and curd after curry at Camellia Hills
Number 4: Kiribath or Milk Rice
Kiribath (bottom) at Water Garden
One of the tastiest ways to cook rice is kiribath which is rice cooked with coconut milk and then shaped into a tray, cooled and then cut into diamond shapes. It is commonly served with lunu miris (a spicy sambol) and chicken curry. A Dear Reader gave me a great tip-try kiribath with kithu treacle!
Number 5: Sambols
OK I've gone on long enough about sambols without explaining what they are but they're integral to a Sri Lankan meal as they allow you to season and adapt each dish to suit your palate. Sambols are accompaniments to curries, hoppers and pretty much anything you can eat that's savoury.
Range of sambols including pol sambol and katta sambol at Water Garden
My favourite sambol is Seeni Sambol made with caramelised onion, spices, tarmaind, and Maldive fish flakes. It's super versatile and goes with everything. Pol Sambol is also fantastic. Pol means coconut in Sri Lankan and they use either red or freshly grated coconut, red onions, dried whole chilies, lime juice, salt and Maldive fish flakes. Katta Sambol is a piquant and strong mix of onions, chilli, curry leaves and Maldive fish flakes but has a sharp and hot flavour as compared to the seeni sambol.
Gotu kola sambol (top left) at Camellia Hills
Gotu kola sambol is made with pennywort, a superfood that is also sold as a bright green powder. This is a refreshing sambol that really cools the tongue.
Gotu Kola powder
Number 6: Kola Kenda or Herbal Porridge
Green herbal porridge or Kola Kenda at The Wallawwa
Even when most of the porridge we eat in Australia is sweet, this savoury herbal porridge is really delightful. Commonly made using gotu kola (pennywort) other herbs can also be used. It is served at breakfast or for medicinal reasons. If only all medicine was this tasty!
Number 7: Pittu
Pittu is a cylinder of steamed coconut and ground rice. Pittu translates to portioned and the steamers are either bamboo or metal. With a crumbly texture, it's served as breakfast often with curry or dahl where it soaks up the gravy.
Pittu with dahl at Water Garden
Number 8: Pol Roti
Pol roti (top right) at Why House
Roti is a slightly different beast in Sri Lanka, especially the pol roti. It's a smaller round of bread filled with coconut (pol), onion and chilli. Slightly dry but tasty it is a street food and is eaten as a snack with lunu miris sambol or in a breakfast bread basket.
Number 9: Sri Lankan Omelette
Sri Lankan omelette at Kandy House
Sri Lankan omelette is a simple concept but done so deliciously. It's an egg omelette with plenty of onion, a bit of chilli and spices. It's so much more than a sum of its parts and if you ever tire of hoppers then this makes for a tasty switch!
Number 10: Tea with Jaggery
Grades of tea shown during high country tea tour
Tea is of course big business in Sri Lanka and while coffee is available, tea is much more common. Sri Lankans enjoy their tea with milk and sugar but if you're able to, ask for jaggery to use instead of sugar.
Tea with jaggery at Kahanda Kanda
Jaggery comes in chunks that do take some time to stir into your hot tea but it has a slightly stronger taste than sugar, like a dark brown sugar and treacle.
Lunch & Dinner:
Number 11: Curry and Rice
Curry and rice or rice and curry, it doesn't matter what order you put it in but it's an absolute staple and favourite with Sri Lankans and you may become rapidly addicted as I did. There are many varieties of curry from the classic Sri Lankan chicken curry to fish curry to dahl, beetroot curry as well as a range of offal curries.
Eating traditional style with hands at Why House
Usually when eating rice and curry you will get a serving of rice and around 7 bowls of curries and sambols to go with it. My favourite curries were the brinjal moju or eggplant curry, beetroot curry and prawn curry (and yes for breakfast too!). Eat it with hands for the traditional experience.
Number 12: Chicken Curry
Chicken curry at Kahanda Kanda
Hands up who loves curry for breakfast? Sri Lanka is heaven for curry lovers and curry (usually fish or chicken) is served with hoppers for breakfast. Sri Lankan chicken curry is a safe bet, it's always tasty and it's easy to make too. Its deep orange red colour is gained from turmeric and curry powder.
Number 13: Eggplant Moju Wambatu Moju
Eggplant Moju at Kahanda Kanda
Eggplant or brinjal moju was a revelation for me. Every time I was served some I loved it the most out of all the curries. It's a dry curry made with deep fried eggplant slices, mango chutney and tomato sauce with sugar and other spices. No two recipes for it are the same however and each one tastes different but no less delicious.
Number 14: Cashew Nut Curry
Cashew Nut Curry at Church Street Social
A milder vegetarian curry the cashew nut curry is mild and creamy often with peas or carrots for colour and texture.
Number 15: Dahl
Dahl curry at Kahanda Kanda
There's always dahl for breakfast with hoppers and breads and some of the tastiest dahl I ever had was in Sri Lanka. One chef showed me his three secret ingredients for the best dahl: pandan leaves, green chillies and plenty of thick coconut milk.
Number 16: Beetroot Curry (Rathu Ala Curry)
Beetroot curry (top right) at Camellia Hills
Another surprise favourite, the beetroot curry I had at Camellia Hills was so superb I neglected all of the other curries in favour of this and the eggplant curry above. It has a natural sweetness and the coconut milk gave it a wonderful creaminess.
Number 17: Negombo Black Pork Curry
Negombo black pork curry at Water Garden
Negombo Black Pork Curry is a regional curry. The area of Negombo is a coastal town known for this dish. Intensely rich and delicious it is a meat heavy but delicious curry. It's intense, the colour referring to the dark roasted curry powder rather than say the pork itself (as in Spain and Portugal's black pigs). It's rich and sour at the same time thanks to the tamarind used.
Number 18: Ambulthiyal Fish Curry
Goraka used in Ambulthiyal Fish Curry to give it a sour flavour
The distinct sour flavour in Ambulthiyal Fish Curry is from goraka, a type of tamarind. This curry is sour with chunks of cooked through fish. I have to admit it took me a while to get used to Ambulthiyal and that was because I was eating it incorrectly. While western eaters might take a chunk of fish and try to eat that with rice, Sri Lankans mince it up finely and distribute it within the rice to use it as a seasoning.
Number 19: Offal curries
Tuna Fish Roe Curry
Beef Tendon Curry
Head out to the street markets to try a range of offal curries. From chewy beef tendon, goat brains to chicken liver the curry's spices flavour up offal to temper the distinct offal flavour!
Chicken Liver Curry
Goat Brain Curry
Number 20: Dutch Smore
Dutch Smore at Water Garden
Sri Lanka has been through a couple of periods of colonisation starting with the Portuguese and then the Dutch. There are several dishes that remain that show the Dutch influence, especially dishes using spices. Dutch Smore is like a cousin of beef rendang. Beef is simmered in a spiced coconut milk imparting softness and flavour into the beef. There's a host of spices, rich coconut and the addition of vinegar that helps balance this comforting beef dish.
Number 21: Lamprais
Lamprais from VOC Cafe, Dutch Burgher Union
Probably one of my favourite Sri Lankan dishes is lamprais which is a Dutch curry and rice. Lamprais means "Lump rice" and is spiced rice, meat, sambols and even perhaps a short eat or two might be packaged up into a banana leaf and steamed. It's like a complete meal in one. If you're a fan of biryani style dishes, this is dare I say even better because there are so many parts to it.
Number 22: Hot Butter Cuttlefish
Hot Butter Cuttlefish at Water Garden
Seafood is big in Sri Lanka and the hot butter cuttlefish is a dish of the tenderest cuttlefish in a butter and chilli paste sauce. The key is the chilli paste that has a range of ingredients (it's like a Chinese chilli paste - this is a Sri Lankan Chinese dish). This produces a complex, deeply flavoured dish. The cuttlefish is first dredged in seasoned rice flour and then deep fried before being cooked with lots of butter and chilli paste.
Number 23: Kottu Roti
Kottu Roti being made at Why House
Originally a street food Kottu Roti gets it named from the chopping or cutting action of this dish being made (kottu or cut). Originating in the 1960's in the town of Batticaloa on the eastern side of Sri Lanka it is made of roti bread chopped up and cooked on a hot griddle. It's made with curry sauce, eggs and vegetables as well as meat.
Upmarket kottu roti
Number 24: Crab Curry
Pepper Crab at Ministry of Crab
Sri Lankan crab curry is famous around the world and when you're in Sri Lanka there is one restaurant that everyone talks about: Ministry of Crab in Colombo. There you'll find a range of different crab curries although the classic is the black pepper crab curry. It's not an inexpensive meal and it was the most expensive that I had in Sri Lanka but when in Colombo you have to try it at least once if you can (separate story to come on my meal there).
Number 25: Arrack
Arrack Sour at Why House
Arrack is a distilled liquor made from the fermented sap of unopened flowers from a coconut palm (see the kithul above). Sri Lanka is the largest producer of coconut arrack and it is described as somewhere between whisky and rum. In a cocktail it makes for a fabulous drink!
Number 26: King Coconut or Thambuli
Thambuli at Church Street Social
Not quite as sweet as its Thai cousin the king coconut makes up for this with sheer size and amount of coconut water inside. They're great for rehydrating when it gets too hot.
Number 27: Wattalappam
Wattalappam at Water Garden
Onto desserts! This spiced coconut egg custard is sweetened with jaggery. Think crème caramel but with more flavour and spices!
Number 28: Bibbikan
Bibbikan at Water Garden
As a coconut lover I adored being able to try new coconut desserts in Sri Lanka. Bibbikan is a baked cake made with jaggery sugar, coconut, semolina, dates, preserves and spices. Baked in a lowish oven for over an hour it is moist, light and fluffy and delicious.
Fruit & Snacks
Number 29: Ambarella
The ambarella at first may look like a small avocado but this popular fruit packs a sour flavour with a crisp texture. It's a multi purpose fruit that can be used either sweet in jams or savoury in soups, curries and stews. The thin skin is also edible.
Number 30: Wood Apple (fruit, jam and juice)
Wood apple and wood apple juice at Water Garden
The wood apple is a unique sort of apple. Floury in texture with a tough skin like a cricket ball, it has seeds inside and is reminiscent of guava. People eat the fresh fruit with a little sugar sprinkled on top while elephants swallow them whole. While the fruit is an acquired taste, wood apple juice is delicious and wood apple jam even better!
Number 31: Dodol
Dodol fudge (back right) at afternoon tea at Camellia Hills
Looking for a sweet snack? Dodol is a delicious jaggery and coconut "fudge" with a chewy texture like mochi. That's thanks to the rice flour used in Dodol.
Number 32: Halapa
Halapa (right) and sesame candy
Halapa is a sweet snack that you find at local snack houses. Made with kurrakan or millet mixed with coconut, rice flour and kithul treacle it is pressed into a kenda leaf and steamed for a tasty, sweet snack!
Number 33: Kokki
Koki or kokki
These deep fried delicacies are made using a special mold and are often seen at parties and celebrations. The coconut milk batter is coloured with turmeric to give it a golden colour and it is flavoured with finely ground curry leaves to give it a savoury flavour.
Using a butterfly mold
Number 34: Kevum
Kevum is a small round cake made with rice flour and kithul treacle. It is first deep fried and then soaked in kithul for a sweet treat. Usually eaten at times of celebrations it can also be found at street food markets.
Number 35: Aasmi
It's amazing what can be done with rice flour and coconut milk. Aasmi or Asmi starts with a liquid batter of the two and davul kurundu or okra for the slimy quality (this makes the batter thicker). Now comes the interesting part. They don't use a special mold to make Aasmi. You use your fingers to create "strings" of batter that you drip straight into the hot oil and make a circular pattern. It is then topped with a caramel to sweeten it.
Number 36: Short Eats
Short eats display
Short Eats was one of my favourite categories. Sri Lankans have a category of food called Short Eats, with some a remnant of the settlers past. These are cocktail party sized snacks that you can eat on-the-go while travelling or just for something quick.
Number 37: Vadais
Often they're small, deep fried and they're always very tasty and cheap. Vadai or wada from Tamil settlers are flattish balls made of lentil mixture that are deep fried that are dry and slightly dense in texture.
Prawn Vadai or Isso Vadai
The prawn vadai is made using a base of lentils seasoned with chilli, onions and fennel seeds and deep fried with a prawn on top!
These are often split in half and filled with a sambol for a quick, tasty snack.
Number 38: Pastry Short Eats
Short eats can also consist of small pastries from the European settlers. My favourite short eats were at VOC Cafe at the Dutch Hospital in Colombo. The puff pastry bacon and egg pastry is heavenly as is the prawn puff.
Number 39: Cutlet Short Eats
Cutlets (from Chinese settlers) are crumbed and deep fried rounds or logs. The fish cutlet is always a good, safe bet.
Number 40: Sri Lankan Afternoon Tea
Last but not least, while you're in Sri Lanka, you must try afternoon tea if you can. The tea is a given and it's always available at hotels or at casual street side stores. The afternoon tea sweets and savouries often have a Sri Lankan twist to them.
Afternoon tea at Camellia Hills
The afternoon tea at Camellia Hills fills pockets of chapati with Ambuthiyal fish and wada filled with katta sambol. The sweets are dodol jaggery, rice flour and coconut fudge or sweet semolina cakes.
So tell me Dear Reader, have you been to Sri Lanka? How many of these Sri Lankan dishes have you tried? Which one do you like the sound of the best?