From Rice to Roti: What to Eat on Your Sri Lankan Holiday

Ashleigh Simmons Photo

Ashleigh Simmons

08 March 2019

Time to Read


A stunning country that translates from Sanskrit as ‘splendid island’, Sri Lanka is a small nation that packs a mighty punch in more ways than one, but trust us when we say that it’s the food that will leave you reeling – with pleasure, that is. Heavy on the coconut milk and even heavier on the chillies, every dish in this Asian gem has to be tasted to be truly understood. Sri Lankan food is unapologetically flavourful, served generously and, despite being full, will always leave you wanting more.

Is it like Indian food, you ask? Well, yes and no. While rice and curry is a classic pairing throughout the entire continent and Sri Lanka loves its spice just as much as India, there are some significant differences. But we can’t give away all the surprises, you’re just going to have to try it for yourself!

Close to the Coast

“There are plenty more fish in the sea” definitely applies to the Sri Lankan coast, where you’ll find a mass of local farmers hauling heavy nets of fresh fish that you’ll be probably come face-to-face with again at your evening meal. With its prime location on the cusp of the sparkling Indian Ocean, Colombo is an area in Sri Lanka known for its wealth of seafood and seafront restaurants where visitors can take their pick from the catch of the day. Mussels, squid, prawns, lobster… you name it, they’ve got it.

Is it tea you’re looking for?

Coffee lovers, look away now. While the dark-brown elixir is universally known as the official morning-pick-me-up, coffee is very hard to find in Sri Lanka and when you do find it, don’t expect it to be cheap nor anywhere near Starbucks standard. Instead, opt for black tea, traditionally drank strong with milk and sugar. The central highlands in this South Asian gem combined with the warm weather make it the perfect location to produce high-quality tea leaves that are then manufactured and served all over the country in elegant teapots and fine china cups. Green tea, white tea and French vanilla tea are also popular beverages that can be found throughout the region, and are best enjoyed in the late afternoon when the sun is less intense.

Hop to it

A unique twist on a pancake, the hopper is made from fermented rice flour and coconut milk, and is fried in a wok with an egg in the centre. Crispy on the outside and soft in the middle, this popular street food snack has no place for knives and forks – roll it up like a crepe and eat it whole in one! Another type of hopper is idiyappam which looks like stringy noodles, also made from rice flour. This is a traditional breakfast dish that can be served with coconut milk and sugar, and you can also make it savoury by eating it for dinner with potato curry or dahl.

Never a dhal moment

That’s guaranteed in Sri Lanka! Dhal curry is one of the country’s most renowned dishes, and every region has their own local twist so don’t expect any two plates to taste the same. Traditionally, dahl is prepared with a number of fresh ingredients such as onions, tomatoes and fresh green chillies, and then sautéed with spices like cumin, curry leaves, mustard seeds and turmeric before a splash of coconut milk is added for that unbeatable creamy texture.

Wood you like an apple?

We hope you forgive us for the puns. A fruit that tastes a lot better than it smells (don’t let the pungent cheese-like aroma put you off), wood apples originate from Southeast Asia and bear resemblance to a de-husked coconut. While it’s commonly eaten directly out of the shell as a sweet snack, the most popular method is blending it into a thick smoothie with sugar and water. Although it’s not quite the same as Copella’s famous juice, a wood apple smoothie’s unique sweet and sour taste will instantly put a smile on your face.

A few words of warning:

Usually, in a foreign country, a restaurant receives an automatic thumbs-up if there are plenty of people dining inside, or there is a queue outside for a table. But, in Sri Lanka, this can be the first sign of a tourist trap. Peruse the menu before taking the plunge and be careful you won’t be presented with an endless choice of pasta and chips – you want fish curry not fish fingers!

South Asia is known for its extensive arsenal of spices so if your usual curry order veers on the likes of a tikka masala, perhaps approach certain dishes with caution. Don’t be shy to ask for a little more coconut milk splashed into your dish – it makes all the difference.

Stick to beer, not wine. If you enjoy an alcoholic tipple with your evening meal (or morning meal, we’re not judging – you’re on holiday after all), Lion is the resident beer that Sri Lankans serve with pride. Cold, crisp and refreshing, this should always be your go-to over a glass of vino which is notoriously expensive and not easily accessible in restaurants outside of hotels.

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