Instead of starting this article by explaining to you what Sri Lankan food is, let me tell you what Sri Lankan food is definitely not.
First of all, it is not Indian food and not “almost like Indian food”, which is what a lot of people tend to believe when they first arrive to the island (myself included, I have to shamefully admit). The concept of eating rice with several different curries is similar, but everything else from main ingredients to cooking techniques to spices vary. There’s definitely South Indian influence in Lankan cuisine, especially when it comes to short eats (street snacks), but the two have distinctly different flavors.
Second, traditional Sri Lankan food is not all about rice and curry. Don’t get me wrong, Sri Lankans do eat more rice in one sitting than most other nationalities in a month. But rice and curry is not all Sri Lankan cuisine has to offer. With so many ethnicities living in this small country you can’t forget about Tamil, Burgher, and Muslim dishes that are also a part of the local food scene.
Sri Lankan Food: Ingredients
Coconuts are the lifeline of Sri Lankan cuisine. I would go as far as to say that without coconuts Sri Lankan cuisine is impossible. Coconut oil is the oil of choice for grilling, deep frying, and tempering. Coconut milk is added to majority of curries to create creamy gravy. Coconut flesh is grated to make spicy pol sambol used as an accompaniment for rice and bread. Grated coconut is also the base for many Sri Lankan sweets like pol toffee.
Sri Lankan food includes a lot of naturally vegan options thanks to the use of coconut oil and coconut milk. Following a vegetarian or vegan diet is fairly easy on the island as long as you choose traditional Sri Lankan dishes. If you are on a gluten-free diet, it also shouldn’t be a problem. Not only is rice the most popular choice of carbs, but rice flour is actively used in baking and making sweets.
Spices are another essential ingredient in any Sri Lankan kitchen. Some of the most popular spices are chili powder, turmeric, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves. Curries are usually prepared with one of the two curry blends: roasted curry powder (for meat and fish) and raw curry powder (vegetables and lentils). Fresh karapincha (curry leaves) gives Sri Lankan curries their distinct aroma.
Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links which means if you buy something by clicking the link I will earn a small commission at absolutely no extra cost to you.
50 Must Try Sri Lankan Dishes
Why fifty? Because with ten or fifteen foods we won’t even scratch the surface. Fifty dishes seem like a reasonable amount to give you a good idea of Sri Lankan cuisine. Besides, you can always pick and choose the dishes that look most interesting to you. Fifty is not the limit, but I had to stop somewhere since I didn’t want you to fall asleep reading this guide.
For my own nerdy reasons and for your convenience, I have separated all the dishes into categories: breakfast, lunch (rice and curry), condiments, lunch (non-rice-and-curry options), dinner, sweets, and drinks. Now let’s get to it!
1. Roast Paan (Roasted Bread)
If I had to choose one breakfast meal to eat for the rest of my life, it would be Sri Lankan roast paan with pol sambol and dhal curry (more about pol sambol and dhal curry below). Just so you know, “roast” is pronounced “ros”. For the longest time I thought “ros” is a Sinhalese word until somebody explained that it’s “roast” meaning that paan (bread) has been roasted. Roast paan is very thin and looks like a slice of bread rather than a bread loaf, but that’s what makes it so crispy when baked. It is sold in street shops and bakeries and best enjoyed fresh and hot out of the oven along with dhal curry and pol sambol.
2. Kiribath (Milk Rice)
Kiribath, or Sri Lankan milk rice, is one of the most traditional foods, usually prepared for special occasions like New Year, weddings, or a birth of a child. Rice is boiled until soft, then coconut milk is added to make it creamy and sticky. Afterwards, kiribath is arranged on a plate and shaped like a cake to be cut into diamond-shaped pieces. You can have kiribath with lunu miris (spicy onion relish) or seeni sambol (sweet onion relish). Both will make it savory. If you have a sweet tooth pour some kithul treacle over your piece of kiribath.
3. Pol Roti (Coconut Flat Bread)
Another one of my favorites, pol roti, are round flat breads made with wheat flour and scraped coconut. Just like roast paan, pol roti go well with coconut sambol and lentil curry. Yes, that means you are eating coconut bread with scraped coconut flesh and a curry made with coconut milk gravy. Told ya, coconut is big here. Pol roti are really easy to make and I shared my recipe here.
4. Boiled Manioc
You might also know it as mandioca or caasava. Manioc is a root vegetable that slightly resembles potato in taste, but feels more starchy. For breakfast it is simply cut into pieces and boiled. Then served with, you guessed it, pol sambol! A very filling and satisfying meal.
5. Kadala Tel Dala (Stir-fried Chickpeas)
I know it doesn’t make sense to start describing every item on this list with “one of my favorites”, but damn you Sri Lankan breakfast, you are too good! I love this preparation of chickpeas which are boiled in pressure cooker first to achieve very soft texture, then stir-fried with onions, pieces of coconut flesh, and spices. Eat it on its own, it’s delicious!
6. Sri Lankan Omelet
I have a suspicion that Sri Lankan omelet was created by local hotels in hope of attracting tourists and raising sales. In my family, for example, we rarely have omelet for breakfast. It is more commonly served along with rice and curries for lunch. But you’ll find it on the breakfast menus of many restaurants in touristy areas. What makes this omelet Sri Lankan is addition of onion, green chilis, and spices. Delicious, but so hot!
7. Kola Kenda (Herbal Porridge)
Here you go! The one Sri Lankan dish I am not fond of. But this article is not about my favorite dishes, it is about traditional Sri Lankan foods you should try. Kola kenda is a green-colored herbal porridge that looks like a magic potion (I am reading Harry Potter at the moment, so maybe it’s just me). Prepared with green leaves like gotukola and mukunuwenna that are packed with nutrients, this porridge is believed to be very healthy. Cooked mashed rice and coconut milk are also added to create the right texture. Have it with a piece of jaggery on side to make it sweeter.
Lunch (Rice and Curry)
Rice and curry and lunch are synonymous in Sri Lanka. While it may seem, when you first arrive to the island, that Sri Lankans eat rice and curry three times a day, it is not so. I am guilty of thinking that myself. It is not impossible for someone to eat rice and curry for breakfast or (in rare cases) for dinner, but that’s not common.
You should also keep in mind that there are dozens of curries in Sri Lankan cuisine. It’s easy to fall under impression that people are eating the same thing for lunch every day. But while you do indeed eat rice and curry, curries almost never repeat day in and day out. Pretty much any kind of meat, fish, vegetable, fruit, leaf, or nut can be cooked into a curry. Now imagine how many options you have.
Another thing to consider is that curries that are served together should be balanced and complement each other. Your regular lunch will consist of at least four-five curries, all of which should be of different taste, texture, and cooking method. For example, one of the curries should have a spicy gravy, one of them should have a creamy gravy and no spices (so called “yellow curry”), one should be fried, one should be crunchy, one should be fresh and leafy.
The list of curries below is far from being complete. When deciding which curries to recommend to you I tried to include either very popular curries that you’ll find in any home (like chicken curry, lentil curry, etc.) or unusual curries that you likely haven’t seen before (lotus root curry, jackfruit seed curry).
8. Kukulmas Mirisata (Spicy Chicken Curry)
One of the most popular curries of all is spicy chicken curry. Although vegetarian diet is not very widespread, many Sri Lankans prefer not to eat beef and pork, so chicken is the meat of choice. I would go as far as to say that chicken is even more popular than fish. Many Sri Lankans will fight me on this, but I stand my ground. Chicken is always cooked on a bone and without adding coconut milk.
9. Prawn Curry
Prawns in Sri Lanka can be cooked in a few different ways: fried with onion, garlic, and chili or cooked in a gravy. Sri Lankans almost never peel prawns before cooking. You can get your hands dirty and peel them yourself or just eat the shell like locals do, especially if the prawns are small.
10. Jaffna Crab Curry
A specialty of the city of Jaffna, located on the northern tip of the island, this crab curry is a great example of traditional Tamil cuisine. The best place to eat it is obviously Jaffna. Unfortunately, very few people choose to visit it because of the long journey. You can find Jaffna curry in Tamil restaurants in other cities across Sri Lanka.
11. Ambul Thiyal (Fish Curry)
Ambul Thiyal is only one of the many Sri Lankan fish curries, but I want to make sure you try this one in particular because it’s different. Tuna that is used for ambul thiyal is cooked in a special mix of spices that includes goraka, black sticky paste. Goraka helps preserve fish so you can leave the curry at room temperature for a week, and it will not spoil. Ambul thiyal is slightly dry in comparison with other fish curries.
12. Kalupol Wattaka (Pumpkin Curry)
There are very few pumpkin dishes that make me excited, and Sri Lankan kalupol wattaka is one of them. Possibly, my all time favorite pumpkin dish. Creamy and flavorful, this is one of the so called “yellow curries” that don’t include chili and therefore are not spicy. There’s another reason why I love this curry, and it’s a little crazy. Rice, roasted and blended into grainy powder, is added to kalupol wattaka to thicken gravy. Not only you eat curries with rice, but rice is inside the curry itself too. Only in Sri Lanka!
13. Batu Moju (Eggplant Curry)
It’s best not to see how this curry is made if you are into healthy eating. Slices of eggplant are deep fried in coconut oil, then stir-fried with onion, green chili, and spices. Sugar is added to caramelize eggplant and give it a sweet aftertaste. Not healthy, but crazy delicious!
14. Polos Curry (Young Jackfruit Curry)
Jackfruit in Sri Lanka has different names depending on different stages of its ripeness. I have written a big, extremely detailed post about the use of jackfruit in Sri Lanka which I recommend to read if you love this amazing versatile fruit. At its first stage, when it’s still a baby, jackfruit is called “polos” and can be used to make a curry. Cooked pieces of polos remind pulled pork in consistency.
15. Kir Kos (Matured Jackfruit Curry)
If polos is baby jackfruit, then kos is a fully grown mature jackfruit that can reach up to 50-60 lb in weight. The curry made of kos is very different in texture and taste in comparison to polos. Just like pumpkin curry, kos curry is usually made without using chili, making it a perfect choice for those who don’t tolerate spicy food.
16. Kos Atta Curry (Jackfruit Seed Curry)
While we are on the topic of jackfruit, I couldn’t skip a curry made of jackfruit seeds, one of the most unique and delicious curries I have ever tried. The seeds are boiled first in a pressure cooker until they are soft like potato, then cooked with spices and coconut milk. Jackfruit is probably the most versatile and amazing fruit I know.
17. Cadju Curry (Cashew Curry)
Didn’t I mention that curry in Sri Lanka can be made literally of anything? Meat and fish, fruits and vegetables, seeds and nuts? While in the western world we regard cashews as a snack, Sri Lankans cook a curry out of it. Cashews grow in abundance in Sri Lanka, but as the process of extracting them is difficult and time consuming, the price for local cashews is pretty steep. If you order cashew curry in a restaurant, expect it to be more expensive than other items on the menu, nevertheless, it’s a must try in Sri Lanka.
18. Parippu (Lentil Curry)
If finding jackfruit seed curry or polos curry can prove to be a challenge, parrippu is one of the most widespread and easy to find Sri Lankan curries. Once you are on the island, you are bound to try parippu sooner or later. Another one of “yellow curries”, parippu (or as it’s also called dhal curry) is creamy and mild. Funny enough, the lentils used for this dish are red in color, but turn yellow once cooked. It can be watery or very thick depending on the amount of coconut milk added. Apart from being served with rice for lunch, it can be also a great accompaniment for roast paan (Sri Lankan bread), pol roti (coconut flat bread), and string hoppers.
19. Green Bean Curry
Many Sri Lankan people (my family included) grow long green beans in their back yard or garden, making it one of the most easily available veggies to cook. Green beans are usually prepared with turmeric, no (or very little) chili powder, and, although, simmered in coconut milk, they remain their firm texture.
20. Gotukola Sambola (Leafy Green Salad)
Gotukola is one of the most popular leafy greens in Sri Lanka, packed with nutrients and vitamins. Gotukola sambol is more of a salad than curry and is served as a side dish to complement steamed rice. As every lunch meal includes a variety of curries that differ in texture, cooking methods, and level of spiciness, gotukola sambol plays a role of something fresh and green on the table. It is usually mixed with lime juice, salt, grated coconut, and onions. This sambol can be made of other greens too, like mukunuwenna and even passion fruit leaves.
21. Gotukola Mellum (Tempered Leafy Greens)
Gotukola mellum is very similar to gotukola sambola in that it uses pretty much the same ingredients. The difference is in preparation. For mellum, greens are slightly tempered along with grated coconut until they sweat. Like sambol, mellum can be made of many other leafy greens.
22. Pineapple Curry
A fruit curry! Yes, it is possible. If pineapple found its way onto a pizza, I think pineapple curry is more than justified. Sri Lankan pineapple is among the best in the world, so while on the island make sure not only to eat it fresh, but try a curried version too. Combined with other dishes, pineapple adds a sweet punch to the explosion of flavors that is Sri Lankan rice and curry.
23. Ambarella Curry
Another popular fruit curry is made of a locally grown ambarella. The tartness of the fruit combined with the sugar sweetened gravy results in a wonderful sweet and sour curry. There’s a pit inside every fruit, so be careful when eating. The pit is kinda spiky too.
24. Kesel Muwa Maaluwa (Banana Flower Curry)
From meats to vegetables to fruits to flowers – anything can be curried in Sri Lanka. Green bananas (or plantains) can be cooked in a curry of its own, but I find the fact that you can make a curry of banana flowers even more fascinating.
25. Nelum Ala Maluwa (Lotus Root Curry)
Another flower curry is prepared using the root of lotus. Lotuses cover many lakes in Sri Lanka. Their water-proof leaves are sometimes used instead of plates to hold rice and curry. And the root is sliced and cooked in coconut milk with spices.
Not a curry in itself, but something that is often served along with rice for lunch. These crunchy chips made of rice flour are reminiscent of Mexican tortilla chips and even served as appetizer at some modern restaurants. The traditional way, though, is to offer papadam along with steamed rice and a variety of curries for lunch. That way the chips add a crunch to your mix of creamy and spicy curries.
As I mentioned above, the amount of curries in Sri Lanka is so high it is impossible to list all of them in one article, but here are a few more ideas of curries you might encounter on the island: potato curry, beetroot curry, carrot curry, kohilla curry, bitter gourd curry, chickpeas curry, fried dried fish, cauliflower curry.
The three condiments below serve as flavor boosters and accompany carb loaded dishes like rice and curry, kiribath, or pol roti. There are more than three in Sri Lankan cuisine, but these are the most basic and popular ones.
27. Pol Sambol (Coconut Sambol)
Hands down, my favorite thing in the whole of Sri Lankan cuisine. Pol sambol is made by grating fresh coconut and mixing it with lime juice, chili powder, and onions. Some people also add pieces of Maldive fish. If you are vegetarian, make sure to ask for fish-free pol sambol. While I am not a vegetarian, Maldive fish (a type of dried fish) is not my favorite thing because of its distinct smell and sharp taste, so I usually ask to leave it out too. Pol sambol can be served with roast paan or pol roti for breakfast, with rice and curry for lunch, or with string hoppers for dinner.
28. Lunu Miris (Onion Chili Relish)
Only try this if you have high tolerance of spices since this relish is essentially a fine mix of onions (lunu in Sinhalese) and chilis (miris). In the olden days, the two were ground on a special heavy stone called “miris gala”, a process similar to that of grinding cocoa beans. Today, women use mortar and pestle more often to release juices and create a spicy paste. Lunu minis is a regular accompaniment for pol roti and kiribath.
29. Seeni Sambol (Sweet Onion Sambol)
The one condiment you can eat without worrying of setting your mouth on fire. Seeni in Sinhalese means sugar. The sambol is prepared by mixing Maldive fish and caramelizing onions. Served with bread, pol roti, hoppers, or kiribath.
Lunch (Other Options)
While rice and curry is the most traditional and common meal for lunch, there are a few other dishes you can choose instead. Although all of them include rice anyways. Oh, Sri Lanka!
Traditional dish of Sri Lankan Burghers, lamprais, is made of rice, vegetables, and meats, wrapped in a banana leaf and cooked slowly. Burghers are a small Eurasian ethnic group in Sri Lanka descended from Portuguese, Dutch, and British people. The number of Burghers is quite small, constituting only 0.2% of the total population of Sri Lanka. Traditional lamprais includes samba rice, mixed meat curry (lamb, beef, pork), two deep fried cutlets, eggplant, ash plantain, and shrimp paste. Some also feature a boiled egg.
31. Fried Rice
Fried rice comes in variety of flavors: chicken fried rice, shrimp fried rice, egg fried rice, crab fried rice (fancy!), or veggie fried rice. The latter was quite literally my daily lunch during the first year in Sri Lanka when I was a poor intern, and 130 Rs ($1) meal was all I could afford. Sold at little roadside restaurants, fried rice is one of the easiest and most affordable lunch options. Unlike rice and curry that you’ll only find at lunch time, fried rice is a common dinner dish too.
“Buriyani” is Sri Lankan way of writing and saying the oh-so-familiar in Asian countries “biriyani”. Traditionally an Indian dish, buriyani was brought to Sri Lanka by South Indian Muslims who were trading in the northern part of the island and Colombo in the beginning of XX century, according to Wikipedia. Buriyani is a dish made of fragrant basmati rice, served with fried chicken and mint chutney. Sometimes raita and boiled egg are served along with rice.
While breakfast and lunch in Sri Lanka are mostly home cooked, dinner is when people eat out. More often than not, Sri Lankans opt for take away food: pick up something on the way home and enjoy the meal in the comfort of their own houses.
33. Appa (Hopper)
Hoppers, or local pancakes, are my biggest frustration with Sri Lanka. Don’t get me wrong, I love-love-loooove hoppers, but why is it that pancakes (and there’s a kind that comes with egg inside) are served for dinner and not breakfast? Made of wheat or rice flour, hoppers are shaped like a bowl with soft center and very thin crispy edges.
There are four varieties you must try: plain hopper, egg hopper (egg is added to the soft center of the pancake and cooked till it’s a bit runny), milk hopper (with coconut milk center), and jaggery hopper (dessert pancake made using local natural sweetener – jaggery). The first two (plain and egg hopper) are the easiest to find. Roadside shops start making them after five in the evening. Milk hopper is rare and something not even all locals know about. Milk hopper is a Tamil specialty, and you will mostly find it in Tamil shops and restaurants.
34. Indi Appa (String Hoppers)
Although the name suggest that string hopper is some kind of a hopper variety, the two couldn’t be more different. String hoppers are prepared of rice flour, making it a perfect meal for people who are gluten-intolerant. The dough is a simple mixture of rice flour and water that is stuffed in a special device, not unlike a meat grinder. Thin strings of dough are squeezed out to create flat rounds which are then steamed and served with curries.
35. Kottu Roti
Roti is Sri Lankan flat bread that comes in many varieties. I wrote above about pol roti – flat bread made with addition of scraped coconut. Another popular option is godamba roti, almost paper-thin, stretchy, oily pancakes. For kottu roti, those thin pancakes are cut into pieces and mixed with vegetables, meat, and spices on a grill. Usually the cook uses two metal blades to cut and mix kottu roti. The sound of the blades hitting the grill is one that you will recognize wherever you travel in Sri Lanka. I always say that one knows there’s kottu nearby not because of its smell, but because of the sound. Kottu can be made with chicken, crab, egg, or vegetables.
36. Indi Appa Kottu (String Hopper Kottu)
Godamba roti is not the only ingredient that can serve as the base for kottu, but probably the most popular one. Another local favorite is kottu made of string hoppers (indi appa). Just like in case with kottu roti, string hoppers are cut into small pieces and mixed with spices, vegetables, and meats on a grill with the use of two metal blades.
37. Thosai (Pancake)
Thosai (pronounced more like “tosse”) is freaking confusing! Possibly, the most confusing food of all in Sri Lanka. Some people say that thosai is Sri Lankan name for Indian dosa. Others say that they are two different things. Whenever I show thosai in Instagram stories and call it “thosai”, someone inevitably sends a message: “It’s dosa!”. Next time I show the same damn pancake and say “dosa”, then somebody else corrects me: “It’s thosai”. So if you know what the deal is, please, explain in comments!
Back to the pancake. Thosai is a rather thick chewy pancake usually served with sambara, a watery coconut sambol. This dish is considered to be Tamil and you can find it in the northern parts of the island, as well as in Tamil restaurants in Sri Lanka.
38. Grilled Seafood
Probably, the only item on this list that is not traditionally Sri Lankan. Although Sri Lanka is an island and seafood is one of the major ingredients in local cuisine, you’ll never see a big fat tuna steak or a whole baked fish in a Sri Lankan home. Fish, shrimps, and cuttlefish are either curried, deep-fried, or devilled.
One of my favorite meals — freshly caught seafood simply baked or grilled — comes from touristy restaurants down south, by the ocean. Almost every restaurant facing the ocean offers a selection of daily catch to choose from. You can pick the kind of seafood you prefer and the cooking method.
An exotic cousin of cream caramel, watalapan is a kind of steamed pudding prepared with eggs, coconut milk, jaggery (natural local sweetener), and spiced with cardamom. Although watalappan is traditionally a Muslim dessert prepared during Ramadan season, it has become a staple of Sri Lankan cuisine over time. Nowadays you can find it in many restaurants across the country.
40. Curd and Kithul Treacle
Sri Lankan curd is a traditional type of yogurt prepared from the milk of water buffalo. You can buy one by the road, in specialized shops, or in supermarkets. Make sure your curd comes in a clay pot, not in a plastic jar (better quality, better taste, better for the planet). Sri Lankan curd has a slightly sour taste. Kithul treacle — a local plant-based sweet syrup — will add a perfect punch of sweetness to it.
Remember string hoppers I recommended to have for dinner with spicy curries? Now, the same string hoppers can be enjoyed sweet, with pani pol stuffed inside. “Pani” in Sinhalese means honey, “pol” — coconut. Pani pol is prepared by mixing grated coconut with kithul treacle (natural sweet syrup), and cardamom. For lavariya, string hopper is filled with pani pol and rolled up. Pani pol can be also stuffed inside thin pancakes. I shared a recipe of my cultural mix between Russian pancakes stuffed with Sri Lankan pani pol here.
42. Chocolate Biscuit Pudding
Chocolate biscuit pudding is, probably, the closest to a European dessert you’ll find in Sri Lanka. It can be shaped as a cake and cut into pieces, or prepared in a jar, with more gooey consistency, and eaten by spoon. Chocolate biscuit pudding is made with Marie biscuits, cocoa powder, and butter, which are basically the same ingredients Russians use to prepare kartoshka. The outcome is quite different, but just as delicious.
43. Kiri Toffee and Pol Toffee
Kiri toffee (milk toffee) and pol toffee (coconut toffee) are prepared for major celebrations in Sri Lanka, including Sinhala and Tamil New Year, or without any reason at all. Milk toffee is a mixture of sugar syrup with condensed milk. Sometimes chopped cashew nuts are added to enhance the flavor. Pol toffee is a variation of toffee that is made with grated coconut. Both can be found in small road side shops and supermarkets, but the best ones are homemade toffees.
44. Love Cake
It is believed that love cake was brought to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese during the years of colonization. Sri Lankans fell in love with “bolo di amor”, as it was called then, but added a little bit of local flavors to the recipe. This soft cake with crumbly exterior can be spiced with cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves. It became so incorporated into local culture that if you google “love cake”, the first two pages will be all related to Sri Lankan version, not the Portuguese one.
45. Thala Bola and Thala Karali (Sesame Seed Candies)
These local candies made of sesame seeds can be found in every supermarket. “Thala” in Sinhalese means “sesame”, “bola” — “ball”, “karali” — “roll”. Therefore thala bola is a ball-shaped candy and thala karali — a roll-shaped one. Thala bola is slightly hard and crunchy. Thala karali is soft and chewy. The two make a perfect edible souvenir to bring back from Sri Lanka for your foodie friends.
46. Ceylon Tea
Do I even need to write anything here? Not having a cup of black tea in Sri Lanka is like going all the way to Paris and not trying a croissant. Unacceptable. I’d recommend to try simple black tea of high quality without any flavors to really enjoy the taste of pure tea. In Sri Lanka, tea is always served wth milk and sugar, unless you ask for plain tea. You can always find it in cafes and restaurants, but I personally love the tea in small shops by the road. You can ask for jaggery (local sweetener) or milk toffees to go with your tea.
Bonus: if you ever come across kiri kahata, give it a try! You might have to ask for it at roadside shops. Kiri kahata is the opposite of milk tea. Let me explain. While in milk tea you add a little bit of milk into a cup of tea, when making kiri kahata you add a tiny bit of very strong black tea into a cup full of hot fresh milk. One word: divine!
47. Ceylon Coffee
Before Sri Lankans started growing tea, the country was one of the biggest exporters of coffee in the world. The coffee industry was thriving in XIX century, with its peak in 1870, until the plants were affected by a fungal decease known as the coffee leaf rust which wiped out whole plantations. Coffee production dipped and tea bushes were planted instead.
Nowadays coffee industry is not in great shape, but there are people who are trying to revive it. Unfortunately, coffee served in roadside shops and even in good restaurants often leaves a lot to be desired. To try truly amazing Ceylon coffee you need to know the right places. Check out this post I wrote about the best coffee shops in Colombo.
48. Thambili (King Coconut)
Large bright orange coconuts sold in the streets are perfect to quench your thirst on a hot and humid day in Sri Lanka. Unlike green coconuts that are found in many tropical countries, king coconuts are indigenous to Sri Lanka. They are full of vitamins and nutrients, delicious, and — added bonus — are more eco-friendly than water bottles. Just remember to refuse a straw. I always stop by the road to buy one when I forget to bring my reusable water bottle with me.
49. Ginger Beer
Despite its name, ginger beer contains no alcohol and is simply a carbonated drink flavored with ginger. You have two options in Sri Lanka: buy a bottle of the famous EGB, local factory-made ginger beer, or try to seek out a bottle of homemade one. EGB, or Elephant House ginger beer, is sold in supermarkets, cafes, and restaurants. Although the ingredient list is far from perfect, it is a taste familiar to locals from childhood and beloved by most of Sri Lankans.
As for homemade ginger beer, in Colombo, you can find it at the Good Market Shop and at Dutch Burgher Union. Both are made with nothing but ginger, sugar and carbonated water. The taste is much more sharp in comparison with EGB.
50. Coconut Arrack
Arrack to Sri Lanka is what vodka is to Russia and tequila is to Mexico — the most popular local alcohol. Arrack is made of unopened flowers of a coconut palm that produce nectar called toddy. At dawn, men called toddy-tappers climb coconut trees and move along the tops of the trees using tight ropes to collect the flowers and extract the toddy. Due to its high content of sugar and yeast, toddy ferments naturally. Fermented toddy is distilled and aged in barrels. Arrack can be consumed on its own or in a cocktail. Make sure to buy high quality arrack as some inexpensive brands mix it with neutral spirits.
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Phew! That is it! All 50 Sri Lankan foods you should try on the island! I purposefully skipped all the street foods, snacks, and short eats as I am planning to write a separate post about them.
Continue Reading about Sri Lanka
If you are looking for more information about Sri Lankan cuisine (at this point I have to ask, are you writing a PhD thesis on Sri Lankan food?), check out the post I wrote about sweets and treats that are prepared for Sinhala and Tamil New Year.
If you are planning to stay in Colombo (which I recommend), read this post with 40 things to do in Colombo. Here you can find all my favorite restaurants serving Sri Lankan food in Colombo.
This is an awesome two-day itinerary for Sigiriya and Dambulla. And here you can find all the best things to do in Kandy (apart from the Temple of the Tooth Relic).
Don’t Forget About Travel Insurance!
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Whew! Well that’s a job well done!
I think anyone going to Sri Lanka should print it out and use it as a guide… it could be an new travel game, checking off the top 50 dishes you’ve eaten LOL… hmmmm maybe it could be on instagram?
I have now found Arak in Bali, Sri Lanka and now in Israel!
Oh wow! I didn’t know they make arak in Israel! What is the main ingredient? And yea, that would be the ultimate challenge for travelers to tick off all the dishes on this list! One would need a few months I guess 😀
Wow, this is an amazing list. I’m not planning a trip to Sri Lanka, I’m a writer who recently added a family from Sri Lanka to my list of characters, and came across this post while doing research. I even found a dish or two I would like to try at home myself, which surprised me because I can’t tolerate spicy food and I’m on a low protein diet! Looks like if I ever do go to Sri Lanka then there will be at least a couple of dishes I can eat, perhaps more with a few tweaks. So thanks very much for this, it’s been very helpful!
PS: Do you know any good recipes for roast paan, milk rice, pumpkin curry, and any other vegetable/fruit yellow curries? I started looking for some but the curries all seem to ask for chilli, so I don’t know how authentic they are.
Hey Alex! How interesting a Sri Lankan family is among the characters for your book! How did you come up with the idea?
If you don’t tolerate spicy food, definitely go for yellow curries like parippu, potato curry, and jackfruit. Here’s the thing with the recipes on my blog: about a year ago my site crashed and all the recipes got lost. So I technically have posts about pumpkin curry and milk rice (kitibath), but the recipes are not there. I’ll try to restore them in February, maybe you can come back and check the posts later this month.
As for roast paan, I’ve never seen people making it at home, it’s quite cheap so you just buy it in local road-side shops. I do have a recipe for pol roti, though.
You can just omit the chili. Most Sri Lankan dishes have chili – if not all. Sri Lankans like their curries spicy! Coconut milk for richness but you can use regular milk – but you will definitely taste the difference if you do the change. I am American/Sri Lankan and cook just about everyday SL food. My husband has to have it or he becomes faintish lol. My curries always start out with onions, karapincha (curry leaves), sliced up green chilis till the onions are cooked – that’s pretty much the start, then you add in your garlic paste or ginger paste. Build it up from there. You can swap out almost any vegetable from here (ie beans, peas, boiled potatoes, pumpkin etc) once all is cooked. Add your spices tumeric powder, coriander powder or curry powder (your choice), chili powder – but just a bit b/c you already added green chilis, maybe pepper powder but that’s preference and salt to taste. Then add the veggies with water that is mixed with a little bit of coconut milk. Once veggies appear cooked (exception is potatoes b/c they are already cooked – then you would add the thick coconut milk/milk) . Let it just boil so the milk thickens a bit and that’s it. This is more of a simpler curry. So if you are cooking your veggies – you cook it a more watery curry before adding the thick milk. If you cook it in the thick milk, you ahve to hover over the dish b/c you dont want it to curdle.
I still need to use recipes when I cook Sri Lankan dishes, even after so many years of living on the island))) I guess the only one I could do with my eyes closed is parippu. Thankfully, my husband is ok with me cooking Western dishes on a daly basis and Sri Lankan curries are more of a treat once a month or so 🙂 But you do make cooking curries sound easy!
Very well written.I thought it writer is a local.Everything explained well exept for the Wattakka Kalupol(pumpkin curry).wattakka kalupol is a dark curry which use grinded dark roasted rice and gtated coconut .Exellent article.
Hi Mo! Thank you for the kind words, I am really happy the article reads as if written by a local! It took me a long time to learn so much about Sri Lankan cuisine. Thank you for the correction about pumpkin curry, you are right, it’s a black curry. I’ll make the change in the text 🙂
This is a great list! I recently visited Sri Lanka with my husband & one of the things we loved were the deep fried chilies that were thrown in with the short eats. I could’ve eaten them on their own. Do you know how they make these? They tasted slightly salty I think. I loved the crunchiness of them & have been craving them ever since.
Hi Aideen! I am sorry for the late reply, I’ve been on a break from blogging for the past 3 months. First day back today 🙂 I tried looking for a recipe online, but couldn’t find any. My mother-in-law suggested to do the following: place fresh chili peppers in a bowl of salty water (that will help reduce the spiciness), then fry in oil until the peppers change their color (roughly a few minutes). Hope this helps!
great article! if I may point out,some of the dishes in the pics are not cooked in the authentic way.but anyways,they all look delicious !
Well, most of the dishes are shot either in local restaurants in Sri Lanka or in the kitchen of my Sri Lankan mother-in-law. I guess that’s as authentic as I can go 🙂
What a fantastic write up! I’m so impressed with the accuracy of all the details you’ve included. As a native Sri Lankan – you nailed the top culinary pleasures 🙂
Yay! Coming from a Sri Lankan, it means the world to me! Thank you, Sharon 🙂
Hi, can you please tell me if there are any roti that are gluten free? I am visiting Sri Lanka soon and really want a roti!
Hey Kelly! I think by default roti are made with wheat flour. But if you are staying in a little B&B, you can always ask the owners to prepare yours with rice flour. Worth a try!
It’s just dosa haha. Thosai is just how it’s pronounced using the Sri Lankan tamil accent. It’s actually Dosai* if you wanted to get the perfect tamil way of spelling it!
Finally, someone explained it! No more mystery))) Thank you for the clarification!
Hi Yulia, Great JOB! I was teary eyed when I read the article because I love Sri Lankan food. I’m Sri Lankan. But the sad fact is the newer generations does not really know the authentic way of preparing the meals. Yes there are many quality Sri Lankan food outlets. I love each and very dish that you mentioned here. Have you tasted the authentic Sri Lankan sweets?
Thank you for such a sweet comment! I have to say I am really lucky to have Sri Lankan friends who are really good cooks and appreciate authentic Sri Lankan food, in fact, that’s a big part of how I learned so much about it. I did try quite a few Sri Lankan sweets, especially during Awurudu. Some of my favorites are milk toffees and mung kawum 🙂
What a fantastic article! Beautiful photography and descriptions of Sri Lankan food – I can really sense your love and passion for the cuisine. My favourite Sri Lankan dishes are pol sambol and wambattu moju. I grew up in the UK but my parents are Sri Lankan and these are the dishes I grew up with as we had them all the time at home. It’s nice to see Sri Lankan food becoming more popular now – people should know how amazing it is (I know I am biased, but it is the best!).
When I got married I had Sri Lankan food at my wedding and my husband loves it too. I’ve even managed to get my in-laws into Sri Lankan food – my father in-law eats pol symbol by the bowlful!
Thank you for taking the time to comment and for all your kind words! It makes me happy that someone so familiar with Sri Lankan food enjoys my article:)
I think Sri Lankan food is on the way to being one of the “trendy” cuisines. It was recently included in a few round-ups by some big media channels. I would also love to see Sri Lankan food get its well-deserved recognition: the flavors, the spices, the textures – it’s like nothing else I have tried.
P.S. I can also easily eat a full bowl of pol sambol too 😀
I am a Sri Lankan living away from home and this article was such a treat! I don’t really consider myself a massive foodie but having been away from home a while now (thanks Covid!) I am now craving all this food I grew up eating. and you’ve done such a great write up! thank you 🙂
Thank you so much, Dilki!
I am right there with you! Haven’t had Sri Lankan rice and curry in a while since traveling is restricted. I have major cravings of pol sambol and kottu!
I really love reading about SL food from a non-SL perspective – this was a fantastic read. I actually grew up with chicken curry (mas) having just a little coconut milk added. Also parrippu is yellow because a bit of tumeric is added, the mysore dahl would end up staying reddish if we didn’t add it. I will say personally I’m a jaggery-kiribath fan and honestly the jaggery-lunu miris mix is my personal favorite. I’d love to know what you think about kokis, pattis, and SL style iced coffee (the one that goes hard on the brandy and condensed milk). It’s really lovely to see people appreciating SL food.
Thank you for such a sweet comment! I love Sl-style ice coffee made with condensed milk as long as the coffee itself is good. Nowadays there are so many great brands of Ceylon coffee, like Whight and Co, Soul Coffee and Hansa. I never tried coffee with brandy, though, I wonder what that tastes like and where one could find it?
As for patties, Sri Lankan short eats are some of my favorite (something like a fish bun or a seeni sambol bun), and kokis are possibly my favorite snack during New Year holidays, local chips of sorts 🙂
Superb . I initially though that the writer was a Sri lankan. Well written article about our cuisine..
Wow! The ultimate compliment! Thank you, Vinodth 🙂