Sri Lanka is an oft overlooked destination culinary wise in Asia, perhaps over shadowed by its closest neighbour India, and the fondness in British hearts for this cuisine. However Sri Lanka offers a rich and diverse culinary experience for the traveler, shaped as it has by many historical and cultural factors. Its long history of trade with the Arabs, India and its European colonisers brought in many culinary influences. The island’s local traditions also play a very big part in shaping Sri Lankan cuisine. Influences from India (particularly from its closest neighbour, Tamil Nadu), Indonesian and Dutch cuisines are most evident with Sri Lankan cuisine and of course the long history of the spice trade is integral to the rich flavours of Sri Lankan food. These spices (from Cinnamon (which originated in Sri Lanka), chili (brought to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese), cloves, pepper, cardamom, turmeric and nutmeg form the basis of all of Sri Lanka’s curry dishes. You’ll also find that coconut is also an integral ingredient in many Sri Lankan dishes, due to the abundance of this crop.
Here are, in our opinion, some of the not to be missed dishes to sample while in Sri Lanka:
Rice and Curry
There is no one dish called rice and curry in Sri Lanka, in fact when you sit for a typical Sri Lankan meal you will be served a selection of “curries”along with rice and some papad and pickle. Dishes range from chicken curry, prawn curry if you are by the coast, polos (jack fruit) curry, brinjal (aubergine) curry, pineapple curry (one of our personal favourites) and amba (mango) curry. The sheer diversity and flavours of the Sri Lankan curry means that for every day of the week you could be sampling something new. Be wary of the chili content – locals like their food HOT!
Hoppers are Sri Lanka’s answer to pancakes, made from fermented rice flour and coconut milk, they are traditionally served as a breakfast dish, but now you can see them being sold at roadside shacks as a post-work snack for commuters who are peckish. Cooked in a small bowl shaped pan, the best hoppers are served with an egg cracked and cooked in the middle of the bowl shaped pancake. Best eaten with lunu miris, a spicy sambol made from onions, red chilies, lime juice and salt, they are the absolute perfect Sri Lankan snack food.
Fresh Curd and Kithul Syrup
There is no better way to start the day in Sri Lanka than with a bowl of rich, thick fresh curd (yogurt made from buffalo milk) which can be compared to the best Greek yogurt, topped with kithul treacle. Kithul syrup is derived by tapping the sap of the kithul palm flower, which grows in the forests of Sri Lanka. It is a unique product to Sri Lanka, which might be compared to maple syrup, the combination of the sweetness of the kithul syrup and the cool, creamy curd is an absolute match made in heaven. Make sure you buy a couple of bottles of the treacle to take home with you.
Lamprais is a very popular meal served at lunchtime, and is a Dutch-Burgher influenced dish. The Dutch Burghers were the Europeans who settled in Sri Lanka during the 17th century and who have Dutch, Portuguese and Sri Lankan ancestry, and it is thanks to them that this dish has made its way into the hearts, and stomachs, of Sri Lankans. Delicately packed banana leaf parcels which are filled with rice, a flavoursome meat curry, sweet and sour aubergine pickle, seeni sambol (caramelised onion sambol) and prawn blachang and frikkadels (crispy fried meatballs) finish off this culinary marvel which are baked in the oven. The only way to really appreciate a lamprais is to get stuck in and eat with your hands like a local, ensuring all the flavours mix and complement each other!
The choice of tropical fruits available in Sri Lanka is just astounding. Some like the giant, orange papayas and multitude variety of bananas can be seen growing on trees across the country year round. Some however are a seasonal treat which locals await with great anticipation. With over 20 varieties, mangoes in Sri Lanka are delicious, with the season starting in April continuing through to June. At this time mangoes can be seen sold everywhere on the side of the road. Mangosteen, known as the queen of fruit, is a beautiful looking fruit, with a deep purple exterior and white, sweet pulpy flesh on the inside. It comes into season in May, but be quick as it’s over in a flash and you really don’t want to miss this amazing delicacy. The odd looking rambutan, is available in the months of July and August – the bright red and yellow fruit is distinguished by its hairy, spiky exterior – inside the fruit is similar in taste and texture to a lychee. Don’t forget to stop and have a thambili (king coconut) from a road side seller – cheap, refreshing and full of nutrients, it is perfect way to avoid the perils of dehydration, and the finest cure for a hangover on the planet!
Jaffna Crab Curry
This dish which originates from the northern region of Sri Lanka, and is influenced through and through with Tamil influences in flavour and ingredient, is one of Sri Lanka’s most famous and celebrated dishes. Fiercely spicy, this fragrant and flavoursome dish is a perfect amalgamation of sweet and savoury flavours, which is helped by the specially roasted Jaffna curry powder used as its base. The abundance of sea food, and fresh crab, both sea and lagoon crabs, means that this dish remains a signature of the island’s cuisine.