Sri Lanka has one of the best cuisines in the world. In fact, I believe that it’s by far the best thing that the island nation has to offer in terms of tourism. You can find better beaches and more affordable hotels in many other places around the world (particularly within Asia itself). You can definitely find more cosmopolitan cities and more impressive tourist sites as well. However, there is simply nothing quite like it when it comes to food.
The Long Flight to the Other Side of the World
Back in 2012, I took a trip to Sri Lanka to attend a good friend’s wedding. I arrived to Bandaranaike International Airport after a grand total of forty-three hours of travel (from LAX). It took an additional hour driving (at 2:00 AM, mind you), to get to Colombo from the airport’s location in Negombo. This was before construction of the new E03 Colombo-Katunayake expressway, so the slow drive, consisting of many traffic lights, will likely not be an issue for any travelers heading to Sri Lanka in the present or future.
I spent the next day and a half sleeping. Should you make the long journey to Sri Lanka, I recommend you do the same, as those who don’t will likely have a rough adjustment in the first day or so. Once I was finally recharged, I set out to see the sights, sounds, and tastes of Colombo.
Don’t Expect a Cosmopolitan Wonderland
Despite its insane traffic and chaotic nature, Colombo is a pretty sleepy town as far as large cities and capitals go, so first time travelers will want to temper their expectations. If you arrive to Colombo expecting a booming metropolis with innumerable late night food options, you’ll be disappointed. It is not Singapore, Lima, or Mexico City. However, there are still some great places to eat during the day, and a few decent late night options.
Most importantly, if you travel to Sri Lanka with Sri Lankan friends (as I did), or befriend Sri Lankan locals while there, you may get the chance to eat in someone’s home, which is an outstanding experience. My advice is that two to three days is about the maximum that you’d want to spend in the capital, before moving on to other, more pristine locations and tourist sites scattered around the island.
The Best Meals Are Often Eaten at Home
Sri Lanka does not have a strong culture of eating out. It is definitely more of an eat-at-home society. This isn’t an inherently bad thing, but you need to be aware of this to avoid visiting tourist traps (Hotel de Pillawoos, for example) or coming up empty handed. Locals eat out in Sri Lanka, but not as frequently as in some other countries, so please keep that in mind.
What to Eat
With all of that advice out of the way, let’s get to the most important topic: what to eat while in Sri Lanka. Here’s my list of what to eat while you’re there:
Lamprais is said to have been invented by the Dutch Burgher community of Sri Lanka. The Burghers were originally the descendants of Dutch and Sri Lankans (both Sinhalese and Tamil), but they also mixed with the Portuguese, and occasionally the British, over the years. Once the Sinhala Only Act of 1956 was enacted, the English speaking Burgher population was reduced drastically to about 40,000 (0.3% of the island’s total population at the time). With a present day population approaching 22 million, that percentage is even smaller now.
The word Lamprais is said to have come from the Dutch word lomprijst, which was supposed to mean a packet of food during that era. The more likely scenario is that the word Lamprais came from the Indonesian word Lemper (an Indonesian snack with glutinous rice, meat, and spices in it) and the Dutch word Rijst (rice). Lemper-Rijst then likely became Sri Lankanized to Lamprais.
At the time, Indonesia was a colonial possession of the Dutch. The Dutch brought over many spices and workers from the Indonesian archipelago. It wouldn’t be a great leap in logic to presume that this is how Lamprais came about, especially when several of the ingredients in it (sambal, achar, and belacan) are Indonesian in origin.
The original lamprais consisted of rice cooked in meat stock with spices, eggplant (brinjal) curry, a drier ash plantain curry, a meat curry of beef, pork, mutton, and chicken, belacan (a fried shrimp paste with spices), seeni sambal (fried, caramelized onions with chilies and spices), and frikkadels (meatballs, the only truly Dutch item in the original recipe, interestingly enough). The ingredients were then wrapped in a banana leaf as a square and baked in the oven to further infuse the meal with spices and flavor.
In the present, due to Sri Lanka’s strong religious customs, a bone-in chicken leg is now the meat of choice. All four meats together would be next to impossible to find, let alone beef and pork, which are rarely found, given that much of the population avoids eating one of the two (and sometimes both). Dutch frikkadels have been (wisely, in my opinion) replaced by Sri Lankan cutlets, which are breaded and spiced meatballs, usually made out of fish. Belacan is still there, as is seeni sambal. A deep fried, hard-boiled egg is often added these days as well.
The dish is now a national dish in Sri Lanka, with Sinhalese and Tamil households of various religious backgrounds making it. While I lament the narrowed meat options of the present day version (I love beef, pork, and mutton), I believe that the modern adjustments have been, for the most part, beneficial, especially in terms of spices and added rice.
Lamprais has a wonderful aroma and taste that hit you as soon as you open up the banana leaf and dig in. The best way to eat it, in my opinion, is with your hand, as is the Sri Lankan custom. Just be forewarned that you’ll want to be careful to not burn your hand on the steaming hot rice in the process.
The best lamprais can be found in households, but there are several restaurants and bakeries around Colombo that make it, particularly to go. It’s quick and convenient. You can take it home, pop it in the oven for twenty minutes, and be ready to eat. My go-to place to order lamprais in Colombo was Green Cabin, located on Galle Road in the Kollupitiya neighborhood of Colombo.
You can also try to order it from the Dutch Burgher Union, should you want a stuffier atmosphere, with a side order of colonial apologism.
Ambulthiyal (Sour Fish Curry)
Do you love curry? Do you love tuna? Ambulthiyal combines the best of both. A sour fruit called goraka (garcinia cambogia, which celebrity quack “Doctor Oz” fraudulently claimed as a weight loss supplement) is used in a spice paste with chilies, garlic, ginger, black pepper, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom pods, karapincha (curry leaves), rampe (pandanus leaves), and a few other ingredients, depending on the cook. Fresh tuna is then rubbed down with this paste and allowed to sit for a while to absorb the flavors.
The curry is then cooked, and finally has its stock reduced until it becomes dryer and even slightly charred on the bottom. It all sounds so simple, but the flavors in this dish are quite complex. Ambulthiyal is a specialty in Southern Sri Lanka. It originates from the town of Ambalangoda in the Galle District, located in the Southwestern part of the island. I had this meal at Lean@83, a hotel in Ahangama, further East down the road. We called in our order in advance the day before.
Malu Mirisata (Fish Curry)
Sri Lanka has a ton of fish curries. Ambulthiyal is just one of them, but there are many more. During the same meal at Lean@83, I had a nicely spiced, amber-colored fish curry called Malu Mirisata. Just remember to be careful about the bones, unlike with Ambulthiyal, which uses much larger fish, such as tuna and bonito.
Kiribath (Coconut Rice)
Kiribath is the famous coconut rice dish that is often eaten for breakfast or for special events. We had it for lunch at Lean@83 with our fish curry and ambulthiyal. Short grain rice is cooked with coconut milk. This variation also had red rice in it as well. Kiribath is often eaten with lunumiris, a type of spicy sambal.
Nethali (Fried fish)
We also had this at Lean@83. Sri Lankans fry fish of all sizes, but the smaller fish such as sprats, usually ranging from anchovy to smelt size, are the best, in my opinion. They’re seasoned with a blend of spices and chili powder, and come out so crispy that you can eat them whole, without having to worry about the bones. Nethali are fantastic, but a bit salty, so make sure to have a Lion Lager on hand.
Stir-fried dried sprats with tomato and spices are one of my favorite dishes. In fact, one of my guilty pleasures is a jarred condiment/snack from Sri Lanka called Sprats Badun, by McCurrie. My Sri Lankan college friends introduced it to me, and I was instantly hooked. I soon began using it on everything. Fried dried fish, spices, and cashews. How could I say no to that?
Unlike Singapore Chili Crab, I was able to eat Sri Lankan crab curry in the United States prior to becoming allergic at a later age. This is one of the best crab dishes that you can ever have in a lifetime. The combination of crab with ginger, garlic, onions, moringa (drumstick leaves), rampe, karapincha, tamarind, chilies, curry powder, coconut flakes, coconut milk, and other ingredients is something else. This dish is best eaten in Sri Lankan homes, but is also available at Palmyrah Restaurant, which specializes in Jaffna style Tamil cuisine.
Mutton curry in Sri Lanka is outstanding. The mutton comes out nice and tender, and is well balanced by the coconut milk and spices. The smell of cardamom pods really stands out. I had mine at my friend’s aunt’s house and at Palmyrah Restaurant.
Kukul Mas (Chicken) Curry
I had chicken curry at Palmyrah Restaurant, Green Cabin, The Fab, and just about everywhere else, and it was delicious every time. Chicken is typically not my first choice, but in Sri Lanka, chicken is much fresher tasting, and heavily spiced. Kukul mas curry is coconut milk based, and usually made with bone-in chicken.
Beef curry is usually a little bit harder to find. I had this dark, rich curry at my friend’s aunt’s house. Beef, usually the rump or the topside, is cooked with fresh chilies, herbs, roasted curry powder, coconut milk, and other ingredients.
Parippu (Curried Red Lentils)
Parippu is a curry consisting of red lentils (Masoor Dhal), curry leaves, curry spices, chili powder, fresh chilies, and coconut milk. I had this almost daily with meals. It’s good for you and tastes great.
Prawn (Shrimp) Curry
Sri Lanka is an island, so just like with fish curry, there are a multitude of prawn curry varieties, and they’re all tasty. Eral kulambu, as it’s called in Tamil, has garlic, onion, fenugreek, turmeric, mustard, tamarind, coconut milk, and a handful of other ingredients. I had this dish at Palmyrah, which makes excellent Jaffna style seafood dishes.
Pittu (as it is called in Sinhalese), or puttu, (its Tamil name), can be made with white rice flour, red rice flour, odiyal (palm root) flour, or sometimes a combination of any of the three. The ingredients are mixed with water, salt, and grated coconut, and then placed in bamboo to steam. If bamboo is unavailable, a more modern metal cylinder is used for steaming.
The process reminds me of making Indonesian lontongs, which are compressed rice cakes. The difference with pittu is that the final product, due to the addition of grated coconut, comes out far more fluffy and crumbly, and not so dense and gelatinous. This makes it very absorbent, and perfect for eating with curries. My favorite version was Palmyrah’s.
Maldive fish are boiled, smoked, and sun dried bonito. The process to make this is laborious. Sri Lankans use this to flavor many of their foods, much the same way shrimp paste and fish sauce are used in Southeast Asia for cooking. Much like shrimp paste or fish sauce, you won’t really consume it plain, but you’ll taste it in many of the dishes that you’ll eat while in Sri Lanka, from sambals to curries and more.
Short eats are appetizers such as meat pastries and cutlets that make for a quick snack. They can be purchased at any bakery, such as Green Cabin or The Fab, or from your local mobile bread vendor. The mobile bread vendors are everywhere in Colombo, and can be seen every morning riding around on trishaws, screaming “Paan” (the Sinhalese word for bread, adopted form the Portuguese “Pão”) at the top of their lungs.
These are my favorite short eats:
Fish Cutlet: Think of it as a spicy fish croquette. Tuna, bonito, or mackerel is ground up with potato and spices, and then washed in egg and breaded, before ultimately being deep-fried to perfection. I must have eaten these things every day. They’re addictive, and great with beer, particularly Lion Stout.
Scotch Egg: This is a hard-boiled egg that is then given an egg wash, breaded with spices, and then deep-fried. Think of a Western Scotch egg on steroids. These are also great with Lion Stout.
Buns: They’re not buns in the American sense, rather they are meat pastries that more closely resemble empanadas. The most popular are fish buns and chicken buns, though I’ve had beef buns, egg buns, seeni sambal buns, and a few other types as well. If you love meat pastries, these are a must. Like all short eats, these are also excellent with Lion Stout.
Kottu roti is chopped up roti (flat bread) with meat, vegetables, and spices. The dish is Sri Lankan Tamil in origin (Kottu is Tamil for chop), and is believed to have been invented in the Eastern city of Batticaloa, though at this point it is a national dish, made at several popular establishments in Colombo. This is one of the few true late night foods available in Sri Lanka.
My favorite place to eat kottu rotti is not the internationally hyped Hotel de Pillawoos (which was seen on Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, and is not actually a hotel). In fact, I found their Kottu Roti to be dry and uninspiring. I had been warned by my local friends beforehand, but had to try it anyway, just to see what all the hype was about. It was a disappointment, just as they had told me it would be.
Thanks to my friends, I learned my lesson and moved on to better things though. My favorite place to eat kottu roti was actually at Green Cabin, which is not even listed in the top ten lists for best kottu roti places. Unlike Hotel de Pillawoos, their kottu roti is made to order and comes out moist and flavorful.
The subject of hoppers is confusing to non-Sri Lankans. Hoppers are a crepe-like dish that was invented in South India and brought to Sri Lanka by way of the Tamil community. The batter is usually made of rice, yeast, salt, and coconut milk. They are usually eaten for breakfast or lunch as a savory dish, (but some eat it as a sweet plate as well). Sounds simple enough right?
The confusion arises from the many varieties of hoppers, some of which are not even of the same design. Egg hoppers are plain hoppers with an egg cooked into the hopper. Idyappam, or string hoppers, are the ones that tend to confuse foreigners. String hoppers are essentially thin, vermicelli-like rice noodles, similar to the ones you would find in Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia.
Some say that string hoppers may have been brought to Sri Lanka by way of Indonesian merchants. Others say that they were already in existence in India prior to that. Regardless, all hoppers are tasty, and can be eaten with a variety of curries, achars, sambals, and other things. You can find hoppers at Palmyrah and Green Cabin.
Baby Jackfruit (Polos/Eraplaka)
Baby jackfruit, also known as polos in Sinhalese, and eraplaka in Tamil, is much different in taste and appearance than its mature counterpart. Mature jackfruit is bright yellow and sweet, where as young jackfruit is green and savory. Many in the western world (particularly the new age hipster types) claim that it tastes like meat, or even has a texture like it. This isn’t really true. It tastes much more like mushroom than meat, though it definitely has a strong protein taste that is unlike any vegetable or fruit.
In Sri Lanka, baby jackfruit is used to make one of the best vegetarian curries ever. Ginger, onion, garlic, chilies, roasted curry powder, herbs such as karapincha and rampe, and spices such as cardamom and turmeric, are all cooked together with the young jackfruit in a bath of coconut milk to give it a unique taste. This is the beauty of traditional Sri Lankan vegetarian dishes like this. Unlike western vegetarian dishes, they aren’t a (poor tasting) meat substitute. They’re cooked in this manner because they taste good.
Rasam is a broth made of tamarind, chilies, and spices. It originated in South India and is very popular in Jaffna and other Tamil communities in Sri Lanka. I like to think of it as Sri Lankan consomme. The broth has a tangy and spicy taste that works well as an appetizer. They serve this at Palmyrah Restaurant.
Sambal originally came from Indonesia and was brought to Sri Lanka via Dutch colonization. Sambal is a Malay word. Pol sambal is coconut sambal, made with Maldive fish, fresh coconut flakes, tomato, chilies, onion, and lime.
Seeni sambal is made with fried, caramelized onions, sugar, chilies, tamarind, and spices. Lunumiris consists of Maldive fish, shallots, chilies, black pepper, and lime juice, and is often served with Kiribath (coconut milk rice). It’s like Indonesian Sambal Terasi, but with Maldive fish instead of shrimp paste.
Gotukola sambal is a pennywort salad with grated coconut, green chilies, shallots, tomato, and lime juice. I love Vietnamese and Burmese pennywort salads, and the Sri Lankan version is now on that list too. Valakkai sambal is a Jaffna style, fried ash plantain sambal. Ash plantains are peeled, chopped, and fried, then mixed in a bowl with ground chili paste, green chilies, shallots, and coconut milk.
Achcharu is the Sri Lankan version of the Indonesian achar. It originated in the Sri Lankan Malay community and consists of pickled and spiced vegetables. It is used as a relish-like condiment, as well as a small side dish. Though it was brought to Sri Lanka from Indonesia, achar (achaar in Hindi) is originally from India. It made its way into Southeast Asia around 2,000 years ago, as Hinduism spread throughout the region at the time.
Arrack is a distilled spirit made from the fermented sap of the coconut flower (also known as palm wine or toddy). The coconut flower sap is fermented naturally, both on the tree and afterward in large wooden vats. After fermentation, it is then distilled twice to a range between 33 and 50 percent alcohol content.
In Sri Lanka, arrack still has somewhat of an undeserved moonshine-like reputation for being an uncouth, low-class drink, with many locals opting for trendier things like Scotch. However, this reputation is unfounded nonsense, as the unadulterated, better aged varieties of arrack have an excellent taste and aroma, with a lovely, clean, butterscotch-like finish.
Some say that arrack tastes like the lovechild of barrel aged rum and whiskey. I tend to think that it has its own unique taste. My preferred brand is Ceylon Arrack, which is produced by Rockland Distilleries. I enjoy drinking it neat as an after-dinner digestif.
A Food Destination in Every Sense of the Word
The word serendipity is derived from Sarandib, the ancient name that the Persians and Arabs had called Sri Lanka in the past. This describes my trip to Sri Lanka in a nutshell. I came to this island to do little more than attend a friend’s wedding and take in some sight seeing, but I’ll ultimately remember Sri Lanka as a top food destination, more than anything else.
Sri Lanka may not at the top of the food chain for sight seeing and destination travel, but when it comes to eating, it is superior to many larger, more popular destinations. It’s a long flight to the other side of the world, but if you happen to get the chance to travel there, and know where to eat, you will enjoy some of the best meals that you’ve had in your life.
Palmyrah Restaurant is open from 6:30 AM to 10:00 AM, 12:00 PM to 2:30 PM, and 7:00 PM to 10:30 PM, every day.
328 Galle Road
+94 112 573 598
Green Cabin is open from 7:00 AM to 8:00 PM, every day.
453 Galle Road
Sri Lanka +94 777 748 824
The Fab is open from 6:30 AM to 8:00 PM, every day.
3 Galle Road
Sri Lanka +94 112 573 348
Lean@83 a hotel. The kitchen is open upon reservation.
Sri Lanka +94 777 289 127