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What is Sri Lankan Food?

To be honest, before this trip, I had no idea what Sri Lankan food was either. I knew they grew cinnamon there, and ceylon tea, but beyond that, not really anything.

So it was a happy surprise to discover that Sri Lankan food is seriously amazing. Shocking really: how is there an Indian restaurant on every street corner and not a single Sri Lanka restaurant in Seattle?

What is it like? Sri Lankan food is similar to South Indian food (there is a lot of rice and curry), but with an emphasis on sea food, thanks to it’s island geography. Most importantly, Sri Lankans have a serious love affair with spices: curry powder yes, but also cardamom, turmeric, cinnamon, chili and more. The result is a huge selection of different vibrantly coloredΒ dishes just bursting with flavor and heat- your mouth will tingle for hours.

Some of the spices used in Sri Lankan cooking

Here are some of the major dishes in Sri Lankan cuisine. This is really just the tip of the iceberg, but it should at least give you an idea of what’s available if you make the journey- or actually manage to track down a Sri Lankan restaurant.

Curry

A (somewhat fancy) rice and curry plate.

Most basic meals revolve around one, or a selection of, different curries. A common meal in Sri Lanka would be a plate of rice with several different vegetable curries and a meat curry. Fish curry is most popular but chicken, lamb and even beef curries are common (deboning however is not so common so chew very carefully).

There is also a large assortment of interesting vegetable curries. Bitter melon, bread fruit, jackfruit, beets and eggplant are all popular stars of their own curries with their own unique balance of flavors. My favorite dish in all of Sri Lanka was probably the spicy yellow dhal (lentil curry) that was present at almost every meal.

Learning to cook dhal

Sambol

Coconut and chili sambol

Sambol is a raw salad garnish and side dish. Research tells me it may have originated in Indonesia, but it is ubiquitous in Sri Lanka. You can find at least one variety, and sometimes several at pretty much every meal.

The most common version, pol sambol, is made with grated coconut, ground red chilies, onion, lime and dried maldive fish (a special local fish that makes it’s way into nearly everything). It’s a zesty, sometimes spicy accompaniment eaten on top of hoppers, rice, or alongside curry.

An onion and pennywort sambol

Other versions are made with pennywort, onions even plantains.

Hoppers

If I were going to start a Sri Lanka food street cart in Seattle (I mean, it needs it), I would sell hoppers, which are so unique and so very tasty.

The most common variety I saw were egg hoppers,made with a crisp, pancake like dough, swirled in a tiny rounded pan to create a bowl shape. An egg is cracked and fried in the middle (sometimes you can find them without the egg as well). The result is a sort of eggy bowl, which you can eat plain or sprinkle with sambol, spices, hot sauce, anything really. Great for breakfast but you can find them at any meal, and as a street snack.

String hoppers are an interesting variation on the theme. In this dish the batter is squeezed into noodles and then steamed. The result is similar to a block of rice noodles. You can eat them with curry and they are popular for breakfast.

Pittu

It’s so simple, but I found pittu strangely addictive. In this dish ground up white rice (rice flour) is mixed with coconut shavings and pressed into a tight cylinder. Pittu is usually served for breakfast, with coconut milk and curry on the side.

Paratha and Kottu

Paratha

Like India, Sri Lanka serves up delicious crisp roti bread, called paratha. Paratha is sometimes stuffed with filling like a crepe, and sometimes served on it’s own.

Kottu is a uniquely Sri Lankan dish (and popular street food) made with shredded roti, egg, vegetables and shredded meat. All the ingredients are chopped up, mixed together and grilled using a pair of metal blades which make a distinctive scraping noise. It’s regarded as takeaway food and is prepared to order, kind of like fried rice. It’s filling, delicious and comes in vegetarian and cheese varieties as well.

Kottu

Sweets

A buffet of Sri Lankan sweets

Sri Lankans definitely have a sweet tooth. Fresh fruit is common- like most countries there is a huge and delicious variety to choose from. There are also a ton of colorful and sugary snacks that looked similar to Indian sweets. The buffet above was a fabulous spread I encountered at the Cinnamon Lodge Habarana and it was so fun to try all the different textures and flavors.

One distinctive dessert I saw several times was creamy buffalo curd. This yogurt like dish has a distinctive tang to it. It’s usually topped with achingly sweet honey or syrup. It’s quite delicious.

This is just a beginner’s primer. With just 10 days in the country I could easily see that Sri Lankan food was varied and vast-the best kind of cuisine in my opinion. It’s also just ridiculously tasty.

So… where’s my restaurant already?

Full Disclosure: I traveled to Sri Lanka courtesy of Cinnamon Hotels and Sri Lanka Airlines.

33 Responses to What is Sri Lankan Food?

  1. WorldWideVegetarian (@WorldWideVeggie) December 14, 2014 at 9:23 AM #

    This is a nice overview of Sri Lankan food! I am headed over that way early next year so it’s nice to have a little preview. Thanks for this.
    Katie

  2. Emma @ Banquets and Backpacks December 14, 2014 at 10:56 AM #

    I’ve never put much thought into Sri Lankan food, I guess they’ve been overshadowed by Indian cuisine. I’m in South America right now and I haven’t had a good curry in forever! Sri Lankan food looks simply scrumptious

    • Steph December 15, 2014 at 11:23 AM #

      I missed Asian food SO much in South America.

  3. Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) December 14, 2014 at 11:14 AM #

    We also knew nothing about Sri Lankan food before we visited in April and I went in assuming it would just be like Indian food. What a revelation our visit was! As much as I love Indian food, I might love Sri Lankan food even more; certainly Sri Lankan daal is superior to Indian daal. Must be the liberal use of coconut milk that seems to make its way into every dish…

    • Steph December 15, 2014 at 11:21 AM #

      I’m determined to make the dhal at home. Will report back if I succeed!

  4. emikoatherton December 14, 2014 at 11:52 AM #

    That food looks incredible – I can’t believe until I read this post that it never occurred to me I didn’t actually realize what it was. I would like to eat all of those sweets right now. As a Seattleite (on the road), I think we totally need to get a Sri Lankan restaurant in the area!

  5. Travel With Bender (@TravelwitBender) December 14, 2014 at 12:57 PM #

    mmm I love a good food post and this just got me aching for some more Sri Lankan. I wasn’t a fan of the hoppers though – pancakes and eggs – too weird lol.

    • Steph December 15, 2014 at 11:21 AM #

      You had a hard time with all the spiciness as I recall!

  6. Marie December 14, 2014 at 4:56 PM #

    Everything looks so yummy! Sri Lanka is definitely on my list of places to visit πŸ™‚

  7. Oksana | Drink Tea and Travel December 14, 2014 at 6:40 PM #

    How good was kottu roti? By far my favourite Sri Lankan dish!

    • Steph December 15, 2014 at 11:18 AM #

      SO good! I would love some right now.

  8. Chanel | Cultural Xplorer December 14, 2014 at 7:57 PM #

    Everything looks good, especially the Sambol πŸ˜€

  9. Eden December 14, 2014 at 9:29 PM #

    I’ve never had Sri Lankan food before but this looks delish! I love trying new cuisines so I’ll be adding this to the list πŸ™‚

  10. lovelyfriday December 14, 2014 at 11:25 PM #

    now i’m carving for kottu! Yummy.

  11. Rachel of Hippie in Heels December 15, 2014 at 12:55 AM #

    I only spent a small amount of time in Sri Lanka, but live in coastal India.. and visit the south often. These pics look just like southern Indian food! yum.

    • Steph December 15, 2014 at 11:16 AM #

      I have got to get to India at some point to eat.

  12. renucas December 15, 2014 at 2:03 AM #

    Srilankan food looks amazing! I’m glad you shared such beautiful pictures that give the real picture of the food texture.

  13. Justine of The Travel Lush December 15, 2014 at 2:10 AM #

    I’ve always heard great things about Sri Lankan food, but to be honest I’d never really read about it before. It looks amazing and their use of all the spices sounds awesome. The hopper and paratha sound particularly good. It’s really weird how I’ve never been to a Sri Lankan restaurant. I actually don’t think I’ve ever come across one in the US πŸ™

    • Steph December 15, 2014 at 11:15 AM #

      I had never thought about it either, but I do now!

  14. Miles of Happiness December 15, 2014 at 5:45 AM #

    OMG it looks absolutely yummy AND beautiful… Sri Lanka is a must-do destination!! Definitely!

  15. Carina Chung December 15, 2014 at 6:13 AM #

    Im gonna get myself some srilankan food when i return to south east asia in august!

  16. [email protected] Shores to Skylines December 15, 2014 at 9:11 AM #

    Looks so delicious!! Street food is my favorite, and if you happen to start up that food cart and make the hoppers, I just might move to Seattle for it! πŸ™‚

  17. Katrinka December 15, 2014 at 11:07 AM #

    I bought some garam masala at the spice garden; every time I open it, my kitchen smells like Sri Lanka. How I miss that spicy food!

  18. Nina Travels December 16, 2014 at 5:49 AM #

    Mmmm, you should warn us not to read this post, when being hungry πŸ˜‰ Enjoyed the photos so much, especially because they brought memories back on my Sri Lanka travel…

  19. Melissa Trinidad December 16, 2014 at 6:09 AM #

    I’m in Melbourne and it appears there are a LOT of Sri Lankan places here. Along with Malaysian.

    • Indira CAldera December 26, 2014 at 8:48 AM #

      Srilankan food and Malasiyan food not similar, if you want to go to real Sri lankan restaurant , try Taprobane in Mulgrave – simple one, cheap and nice or try Elephant corridor in Glen Waverley

  20. Sky December 25, 2014 at 8:49 PM #

    Oh, the dessert looks so good! The other stuff looks good too but I’m not sure how much my sheltered taste buds would enjoy all the spices…

  21. Luke Mitchell December 27, 2014 at 5:35 PM #

    I really don’t think I have ever considered Sri-Lankan food as being something separate…but it really looks like a must-have, most of the ingredients they use are some of my favorite tastes. Book a trip to Sri-Lanka soon perhaps!?! πŸ˜€

  22. Meera M December 28, 2014 at 4:56 AM #

    I enjoyed Sri Lankan food during my honeymoon. Loved it. Will definitely revisit Srilanka for the food.

  23. Jess December 28, 2014 at 4:24 PM #

    Love it! reminds me why I’ve created my site in the first place πŸ™‚ thanks!

  24. Elizabeth December 30, 2014 at 12:13 PM #

    Wow! Everything looks so amazing!

  25. Peter January 2, 2015 at 7:14 AM #

    I wish I could try the Paratha and Kottu…..

  26. Dona Sudarsani December 18, 2016 at 11:14 AM #

    Nothing can compare to Sri Lankan food! Thank you for sharing these beautiful pictures!

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