You could be forgiven for wondering what exactly the people of Sri Lanka eat. Most people expect the food there to be like Indian cuisine, which is natural given the countries' close proximity to each other. Similar to India, curry and rice are staples, and they're served with an assortment of side dishes. However, there are distinct differences in the spices and styles of cooking. Sri Lankan cuisine also marries indigenous produce with international influences and ingredients. Coconut is king though; it's ubiquitous in Sri Lankan food. Plus, there's always some pol sambol (coconut chutney) on the table. Read on to discover the top dishes you need to try in Sri Lanka. You'll find that capital city Colombo is by far the best place for gastronomic exploration.
Keen for a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast? Hoppers are a great choice (though they're widely consumed for dinner too). There are two types, both made from rice flour. The standard bowl-shaped ones are often likened to a pancake with crispy edges. They're eaten with a meal, similar to bread. Simply pull a small piece off using your right hand and dip it in the curry (don't pour the curry in!). These hoppers also come with an egg sitting inside them, which is more common at dinner. The other type, string hoppers, look like a pile of thin noodles. You can pour the curry over these ones. Or, if you're skilled enough, grab a wad with your hand and dip it into the dish. Putting them in the curry makes a big mess though! Kaema Sutra restaurant, at the Shangri-La hotel in Colombo, claims to serve the world's largest hoppers with two eggs in the center.
Kottu roti is Sri Lanka's favorite street food or snack (referred to as "short eats"). Not only is it delicious, it's also entertaining to watch it being made. The roti (flat bread) is finely diced and tossed with meat and/or vegetables fried in coconut oil and spices. You'll find it being cooked up at snack stalls everywhere in the evenings, accompanied by the distinctive metallic clack of chopping. Many new restaurants are giving gourmet twists to the dish. However, the kottu at Hotel de Pilawoos in Colombo is legendary. There are a few Pilawoos along Galle Road. The ones at 146 and 417 are the most popular. Alternatively, try the stalls on the seafront at Galle Face Green in Colombo.
Sri Lanka is paradise for seafood lovers. A juicy crab curry is a must-try for those who don't mind getting dirty. It's a finger-licking experience (literally)! Crab curries are omnipresent on menus all over the country. They're prepared by cooking the crab in a paste of spices and coconut milk. After you've broken the crab apart and extracted all the meat, be sure to mop up the flavorful gravy with some bread (such as pol roti). Ministry of Crab, in Colombo's historic Old Dutch Hospital complex, is devoted to the crustacean. It's the hottest place for all things crab, including traditional Sri Lankan crab curry.
Ambul Thiyal (Sour Fish Curry)
This unusual fish curry is a Sri Lankan delicacy. You'll rarely find it anywhere else because a special type of tamarind-like fruit called goraka (also known as garcinia cambogia or brindle berry) is used to give it its tart taste. Chunks of fish, commonly tuna, are covered in a spicy black pepper paste and simmered until all the liquid is absorbed. The fish is sometimes left in the pot to char a little bit. Palmyrah Restaurant, at the Renuka hotel in Colombo, prides itself on getting its Ambul Thiyal right.
Jaffna Goat Curry
Adventurous eaters shouldn't pass up the opportunity to try a fiery, rich deep red Jaffna goat curry. You may see this dish listed as mutton curry but it's definitely goat (not lamb). The curry is a specialty of the Tamil community, which settled in Jaffna in Northern Sri Lanka. Jaffna's dark roasted curry powder ensures it packs a punch. Ideally, the best place to get it is in Jaffna but if you're not going there, Palmyrah Restaurant in Colombo specializes in authentic Jaffna cuisine. Like spicy food but not keen on goat? Try the Jaffna crab curry (known as kakuluwo curry) instead. The Jaffna cuisine at Upali's by Nawaloka in Colombo is fabulous too.
A complete meal in itself, lamprais is a traditional dish of the Dutch Burgher community. It consists of meat (including meatballs), vegetables and rice all lumped together in a banana leaf and slowly cooked. However, it may come as a surprise that the dish did not originate in the Netherlands. Instead, it's thought to be based on lemper, an Indonesian dish that Dutch explorers embraced and modified. These days, various incarnations of it are available throughout Sri Lanka. Go to the Dutch Burgher Union in Colombo for the most authentic version and wash it down with their homemade ginger beer. The lamprais at stylish Colombo Fort Cafe in the Old Dutch Hospital complex, is also decent.
The jackfruit sure looks a bit strange (some say ugly) but it's an ever-present feature in curries in Sri Lanka, where it grows in abundance. Even before the jackfruit has ripened, it's made into curry! This type is known as polos (baby jackfruit or green jackfruit). Once cooked, its texture resembles pulled pork. Ripe jackfruit is called kos, and it's made into a very different tasting curry called kiri kos maluwa. In contrast to the hot and spicy polos maluwa, this curry is mild and creamy with thick coconut milk and fewer chiles. Eat it with rice or roti.
Wambatu Moju (Fried Eggplant)
This classic Sri Lankan side dish isn't something you'd want to eat every day, as the strips of eggplant are deep fried in oil until crispy and golden, before being stir-fried with onion and spices (think how much oil eggplant absorbs). Hence, it's usually reserved for special occasions. It sure is yummy though. Even those who aren't a fan of eggplant are likely to enjoy this dish. Liberal use of vinegar gives it an unmistakable tang, while sugar provides sweetness. The fried eggplant strips are popularly made into curry too, with coconut milk of course.
Mallung (also called mallum) is possibly the healthiest dish you could order in Sri Lanka. It consists of a mixture of shredded leafy greens sauteed with a little bit of water. Grated coconut, onions, chiles, salt and curry leaves are typically added to flavor it. A squeeze of lime tops it off after its cooked for a simple and delicious meal. The dish is usually served on the side with most meals. All kinds of green leaves can be used to make it, including many in Sri Lanka you may never have heard of. When more than one type is combined, it's commonly referred to as kalavang mallung.
A meal in Sri Lanka isn't complete without parippu (better known as dal or lentils). So, you're bound to encounter it sooner rather than later. It's often labeled as a curry but in fact differs because it typically lacks the heavy spices of a curry. This makes it easy on the tummy. The parippu in Sri Lanka is made with masoor dal, which is red lentils. The lentils turn a yellow color when cooked though. Depending on how much coconut milk is added, it may be heavy or light meal. Eat this dish by pouring it over your rice and blending it together. Or, scoop it up with pol roti.
Pol (Coconut) Roti
Sri Lanka really is all about coconut—it's even added to the bread. Pol roti is made from flour and grated coconut, which gives it a rustic rough texture. Green chiles and onions are sometimes used as well to spice it up. Pol roti can be eaten at any time of the day with chutney, relish, dal or curry. It's hearty and filling.
A traditional dessert of the Sri Lankan Muslim community that always appears during Ramadan, watalappan is thought to have been introduced into the country by Malay immigrants. These days, it's so popular, it's prevalent on restaurant menus across the country. This irresistible baked coconut custard pudding is sweetened with jaggery (brown, unrefined cane sugar). A sprinkling of crunchy nuts offsets its soft, spongy consistency. The superb watalappan at Upali's in Colombo has subtle hints of nutmeg and cardamom too.