Sri Lankan food might not be something many people are familiar with. ‘Isn’t it just Indian food?’ You might ask. Well, sort of, but not quite!
Although there are common elements, the rice and curry spread that make up most Sri Lankan meals are different from the paneers and biryanis that you might know. Sri Lankan food today is a colourful array of flavor combinations! Think sweet caramelized onion relishes, sour fish curry, bitter gourd salads, and spicy meat curries!
One thing for sure is that Sri Lankan cuisine is not for the fainthearted. The fiery curries, sambols, along with the heavy island air will punch you in the face and get your heartbeat racing. Having travelled to Sri Lanka, my taste buds and I can testify to that!
Rice is everything
Rice is a staple in Sri Lankan cuisine and you’ll find it in almost every meal. In fact, a Sinhalese greeting, ‘bath kavatha?’ literally means ‘Have you eaten rice?’
A typical meal in Sri Lanka is just rice and curry, along with an assortment of side dishes – anywhere from four to ten, depending on the occasion.
Besides being a staple in everyday life, rice also plays a prominent role in celebratory occasions. Kiribath is a dish made from cooking rice in coconut milk and served with onion relish. The dish is a symbolism of luck and happiness. Traditionally, it is the first solid food given to a newborn baby, as well as the first meal served to newlyweds!
Another building block in Sri Lankan cuisine is coconut. If you ask me if I would recommend Sri Lanka as a destination, I will always say yes – unless you have a coconut allergy. In Sri Lanka, you’ll notice coconuts everywhere. The locals even name the coconut tree as the ‘Tree of Life’, because there are just so many uses for it!
Sri Lankan coconuts put all the other coconuts to shame. Apart from a refreshing drink, every rice and curry meal also includes pol sambola – a coconut relish made from freshly grated coconut, red onions, dried chilies, lime juice, salt and Maldive fish.Coconut is also dry toasted and added to a curry to thicken it and impart a lovely flavour.
The hairs on a coconut shell are also plucked and tied together to create a strong, sturdy rope. The shell can be used to start a fire, as a superb fertiliser, or even to build roof shelters!
Other essentials in Sri Lankan cuisine include spices such as turmeric, cloves, cardamom, black pepper and many more! Black pepper is actually native to the region, and was the most powerful spice in Sri Lankan food before spicy peppers came along with foreign traders. You can still find black pepper curries on local menus, and they offer up a taste of original Sri Lankan flavors.
Noteworthy dishes to try
Dhal curry (parippu)
Dhal curry is one of the staples in Sri Lankan food. Red lentils (masoor dhal) are cooked in coconut milk, along with onions, tomatoes, green chilies and an assortment of spices. You’ll find this in almost every eatery!
Egg hoppers (appa)
Sri Lanka’s version of pancakes are savoury and shaped like a bowl. A breakfast staple, you’ll find them everywhere from street food stalls to restaurant menus. They’re made from a batter of fermented rice flour, coconut milk, coconut water and a sprinkling of sugar with an egg broken into it, then served with a spicy sambol.
Sour fish curry (ambul thiyal)
This peppery fish dish originated in Southern Sri Lanka as a way to preserve fish. Cubes of fish (usually tuna) are cooked in a blend of spices, including turmeric, black pepper, cinnamon, garlic and curry leaves. The secret ingredient is dried goraka, which gives the dish its tart flavour.
Pickled eggplant (wambatu moju)
Wambatu moju is an eggplant pickle with a very definite spicy kick. The eggplant is cooked with salt, oil, soy sauce, and sugar until it’s so tender, it falls apart. There are plenty of regional variations. Some can be eye-wateringly sour, almost caramelized, or a nice balance between the two!
Jackfruit curry (ambul polos)
Jackfruit in curry might sound weird, but it’s very common in Sri Lankan cuisine! Young, unripe jackfruit is cut into chunks and simmered in a blend of spices. Once cooked, the texture resembles pulled pork. Folk who don’t know better may not even realize that it’s a meatless dish!
A very popular street food, kottu roti is shredded pieces of godamba roti, stir fried with spices and some protein or veggies. There are lots of variations – from egg kottu, cheese kottu, vegetarian kottu and more!