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 colored dishes just bursting with flavor and heat- your mouth will tingle for hours.
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.
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.
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.
Other versions are made with pennywort, onions even plantains.
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.
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
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.
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.