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Sri Lankan food guide for first-time visitors

by Kat

When we visited Sri Lanka we didn’t have much of an idea what to expect when it came to the food but we soon discovered an array of amazing sweet and savoury dishes opened up to us… I actually left Sri Lanka after two weeks completely obsessed with Sri Lankan food and have been having some serious withdrawals since being back in the UK. Just writing this post is making my mouth water…

Image of Sri Lankan food buffet

Sri Lankan Curry

What we mostly expected before our visit to Sri Lanka was for Sri Lankan food to involve vast amounts of curry… this turned out to be quite accurate but not out of necessity, just because Sri Lankan curry is incredible! It is quite different from anything resembling a curry in the UK, with so much more flavour and different textures and side dishes. Even the poppadoms are just so much better – they often come in small strips or as miniatures making them even crispier!

In many places they will offer you the option of having a selection of different curries as one meal, which was always my favourite thing to do as you get a real variety. These often come with poppadoms and different chutneys but not necessarily always with rice. If not mentioned and you want it then best to check with your waiter (as if you order one additionally and it already comes with it they might not tell you out of politeness – this genuinely happened to us!)

A word of warning that when it comes to Sri Lankan food a “hot” curry is much hotter than we are used to in Western countries. So if you’re told something is mild it’s probably still quite spicy and on the whole you might want to avoid anything a Sri Lankan considers to be hot (or at least be sure to have some water on hand!)

Vegetarians

If you’re a vegetarian Sri Lankan food is really easy to find food as many Sri Lankans are vegetarians for religious reasons. There is always a vegetarian curry option and most of the sharing platters come with mostly vegetarian curries as there are more types of veggie curry than meat curry in Sri Lanka.  A few of the places we went to I was able to get an entirely vegetarian curry selection… one had 10 different curries!

If you don’t like curry…

Not a problem! Eating curry in Sri Lanka is absolutely not a necessity and don’t be put off coming if you don’t like it. It turns  out that most restaurants cater for tourists and will have everything on the menu from Mexican food to pizza along with their traditional dishes. This is also handy if you like curry but don’t want to eat it every night on a long trip… we thought this would be the case for us but we ended up loving it so much I pretty much ate it 14 nights running – oops!

Image of Sri Lankan curry and roti served on banana leaf

Roti

Roti come quite differently depending on where you have them but they are basically a type of Sri Lankan flatbread. There are made with different flavours that can be sweet or savoury. Some roti are prepared as a small thick flatbread that go on the side of curries. These will usually be included with a curry, listed on the sides menu or at a breakfast buffet in a hotel. Coconut roti is a popular flavour for this type of roti.

In some restaurants (and roti huts specifically) they are made flatter (similar to a crepe) and eaten as a whole meal often served with a topping or folded and stuffed with something. They make a tasty Sri Lankan lunch!

Kottu Roti

A main-meal alternative to curry if you still want to eat traditional Sri Lankan food is Kottu Roti  This is a very thin roti (crepe-style) finely shredded and served with an array of finely sliced vegetables. It is similar to a stir-fry in that it has lots of different textures but in my opinion it is so much tastier!

Image of selection of Sri Lankan food desserts

Desserts

When it comes to Sri Lankan food, sweet treats are somewhat of an acquired taste from my experience. In most restaurants and hotels on our trip we found the most common dessert served to be a fritter of some kind (banana or pineapple most commonly)… which I’m not complaining about because they are delicious! However eating them every night fr 2 weeks is the sure way to an expanding waistline and I started to wonder where the other Sri Lankan dessert options were. We had a little taster when we got to have a traditional home-cooked Sri Lankan meal in Polonnaruwa.

  • Pol Aluwa: Made from dessicated coconut and vanilla essence these are a hard and have a somewhat chalky dry texture.
  • Mun Kewam: A traditional dessert for New Year made from mung beans and with a treacle batter then deep-fried.
  • Kokis: These fancy-looking flower treats are essentially just made from rice flour and coconut milk and then (again) deep fried until they are crisp.
  • Athirasa: A sweet cake made of jaggery and rice flour flattened into circles and then fried.

Yes, there is a lot of frying involved in Sri Lankan desserts and many of these are not as sweet as you would typically expect a dessert to be as they mostly use treacle or jaggery as the sweetener instead of sugar.

Image of buffalo curd with treacle served in traditional clay pot

Buffalo Curd

Buffalo curd is made from water buffalo and is popular throughout many South Asian countries. In certain areas of Sri Lanka you will notice many stalls along the roadsides selling curd, which is the best place to try it (I didn’t ever see it on a restaurant menu but was served it at our campsite at Yala National Park).

The curd tastes similar to non-sweetened yoghurt, although slightly thicker in consistency, and is served with a treacle made from jaggery to compliment the slightly sour flavour. It is said to be high in protein and much better for you than cow’s milk products. To me it was quite similar to Icelandic skyr.

Image of tea picking at tea plantation in Nuwara Eliya Sri Lanka

Ceylon Tea

Sri Lanka was formerly known as Ceylon and is famous for its tea, which is exported all over the world. If you’re a bit tea drinker then you’ve probably had it as you can get it in UK supermarkets but there’s nothing quite like having it in Sri Lanka.

Visiting a tea plantation to see how the tea is picked and produced is one of the most popular things to do in Sri Lanka. It is an interesting experience seeing how the tea is separated and different types are created.  The different varieties of black tea, white tea and green tea are all taken from the same plant and then refined in different ways to create the different types. The green and white teas are less processed which is what makes them healthier.

Image of king coconuts growing on palm tree in Sri Lanka

King Coconut

At some point during your travels in Sri Lanka you should come across a local selling king coconuts. Purchase one and the stallholder will hack off the top, give yo a straw and you’re good to go. There is so much liquid in a coconut and you can also eat the flesh inside once you’re done, which makes them excellent value for the very small price you will pay. They are also the most refreshing thing you can find to drink on a hot day!

Have you ever tried Sri Lankan food and what was your favourite dish? Also please let me know if you know of any good Sri Lankan restaurant in London as I am having some serious curry and roti withdrawals!

Most people don't realise that Sri Lankan food is about more than just curry but there are so many amazing dishes you must try as a first-time visitor!

 

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