The Sri Lankan food is without any doubt strongly marked by the spices, the coconut and especially the chilly… yes, the traditional food is really spicy and not advisable for weak stomachs, but is not at all in excessive, as it doesn’t overlap the flavour of the other ingredients!
In terms of the spices, the most common are the cumin, coriander, cloves, cardamom, ginger and turmeric. Also, present in many dishes are the curry leaves as also the cinnamon, which in Sri Lanka has a less sweet taste than the usual. Coriander is used in powder or fresh seeds. Cumin is also very popular, and easy to identify the seeds in curries, which are fried together with garlic. The onion is often used raw in the preparation as a side dish of curries, as sambol, a mixture of raw ingredients, made from coconut (pol sambol) or green leaf vegetables (sambol gotukola)… but always spicy.
The rice is the pillar of Sri Lankan cousine. It can be just steamed and serve with aromatic and delicious curries or as an ingredient in the preparation of string hoppers (idyyappam), a kind of noodles made from rice flour, eaten as a meal, with curries and dahl; these string hoppers also have a sweet version, being stuffed with grated coconut and sugar, called lavariya… both can be found at breakfast time!
Rice is also present in another icon of Sri Lankan cuisine, the hoppers: a pancake, thick in the center and crispy on the edges, made from rice flour and coconut milk, which serves as a snack or as a meal, accompanied by curries or spicy sauces. With similar ingredients are make the coconut hoppers, but being cooked steamed, are soft and smooth; less popular than the hoppers but much tastier and sweet version.
The Sri Lanka dishes use a wide range of vegetable, and despite being a predominantly Buddhist country, is usual the consumption of meat, normally chicken, but also fish, especially at coast areas. But it is extremely easy to find vegetarian food, both at meals or snacks. In Muslim areas is evident the highest consumption of meat curries (usually chicken), while in regions with a greater Tamil presence, is easier to find vegetarian food.
Snacks and Street Food
Talking about snacks… Sri Lanka was a pleasant surprise: the variety, the taste, and easy to find, as they are cooked and sold bit everywhere. These delicious snacks are eaten for breakfast or at any time of the day, that they serve as a light meal. Are sold at a bakery, at roti shops, restaurants, street stalls… on trains, on buses… by street hawkers…
The names are many… ulundhu vadai, parippu vada , samosas, pol roti, coconut roti, patties, rolls, cutlets, roti… but all have in common the fact that are deep fried, spicy and usually vegetarian.
In terms of street food the easiest to find are the ulundhu vadai a fried dough pastry, ring-shaped, seasoned with spices, which is sometimes open in half and stuffed with a red and spicy paste. Also very popular are the parippu vada, small patties made from a paste of lentils, which are deep-fried, resulting in a crispy and spicy snack.
Both quite oily, but very tasty, often sold on trains and buses… but also easy to find on street stalls, usually at the busiest areas the city, such as markets, bus terminals and train stations. Made early in the morning or in the end of the afternoon, are kept at windows shop, which is a way to announce that a new fresh lot.
To these ones, can be added the patties, a pastel with a half-moon shape, with thick and soft dough, that are stuffed with lentils or mixed vegetable, and fried in oil. With a similar filling, but with a different dough and cooked in the oven, but not so common as other snacks, the samosas are usually sold in bakeries. In Sri Lanka the so called “bakeries” are shops like cafes but intended primarily for the sale of savory snacks as well as some sweets, juices and ice cream… but they are also a place to enjoy a tea or a coffee.
There is further a great variety of snacks, often deep-fried as rolls and cutlets, usually fish or meat, but sometimes made with vegetable filling, with a cylinder or ball shape. Whatever is the filling option, the result is always a blow of spicy.
But undoubtedly the most popular, in whatever part of the country, either in big cities or small towns, beach or mountains… is the roti, made the at “roti shops” that also serve kottu. The rotis are made with very thin dough; the same used for the parathas, and filled with a vegetable paste, strongly spicy. The dough is folded in a triangle shape, slightly flattened, and fried in a metal plate. If they are filled with fish have a cylinder shape, and if the meat is in the form of a rectangle.
Rice and curry
But if the snacks created a good impression of the tasty and diverse Sri Lankan cuisine, rice and curry, was remarkable, being the mandatory meal of the 30 days spent in Sri Lanka. Usually is eaten at lunch, but sometimes also as the first morning meal, the Sri Lankan rice and curry is a balanced meal, healthy and energetic, leaving the stomach satisfied for many hours. For all this is the most popular meal in Sri Lanka, being cheap and easy to find all over the place.
Even though consumed daily the rice and curry (so called also in Sri Lanka) never tired or becomes dull, it is amazing the variety of ingredients used, which results in a wide variety of curries.
The base is always rice, usually wit a thick lentils curry spiced with curry leaves and dry-fried chilies; the curries use a wide range of ingredients like pumpkin, courgette, jackfuit, bananas, potatoes, beets, green beans, okra, eggplant, many green leaf vegetables, some fruits… to add to many other unidentified or unknown ingredients. Adding to this dish, that always has a vegetarian base, can still be joined fish or meat curries.
The jackfruit, a giant tropical fruit, usually consumed fresh is in Sri Lanka mainly used in curries, in their different states of maturation, from “green” to ripen; and it’s not only the pulp that is used also the seeds, that look and have a similar texture of the beans. The jackfruit, despite not having a very intense flavour, has a soft texture leaving the food with a sticky appearance resulting from natural gum… a bit like okra.
Despite the curries diversity, the base is always rice, served in a generous amount and may be white grain or locally called “red”, a variety of traditional rice Sri Lanka, that where the grain after cooking seems to bring a thin layer of reddish or brownish tone. Tastier but less common than white rice
Almost always the rice and curry dish is garnish with papadum, a thin and crisp wafer which is fried in oil, but always served in a small amount.
The combinations of curries are numerous and varied, generally with two or three or four varieties, resulting in a colorful and appealing plate. Attractive is also the price, because you can find a vegetarian rice and curry for 80 LKR (0.50 €) in small villages, and in the cities, it cost between 100 and 150 LKR, if you choose one of the most simple and casual places. In tourist areas the rates rise to 200 LKR minimum, but in some restaurants can cost more than 400 LKR. The meat or fish options are always somewhat more expensive.
The rice and curry is served on a plate, but always with the right to “refill” if you’re not a sophisticated restaurant or in very touristy areas.
In some places, either in small street stalls, the door of a cafe, a kiosk of a bus terminal and at more modest restaurants is possible to find the rice and curry for takeaway, that in Sri Lanka called “parcel”, in which the food is wrapped in plastic and then wrapped and newspaper. This system is quite popular among the local population, but impractical if you’re traveling, as cutlery isn’t provided, because in Sri Lanka is tradition and custom to eat with the hand (right) and the cutlery is provided only in restaurants, usually just a spoon.
It can be considered that the rice and curry is the national dish of Sri Lanka, beyond all ethnic groups, castes and religions.
Roti and kottu
Although rice and curry is considered the national dish of Sri Lanka, the rotis and kottus are strong competitors in this title. They are cheap, easy to find all over the place, easy to takeaway, with a wide variety and are mouthwatering.
The rotis are more frequent as a snack in the morning, as breakfast, or during the day between meals. But they can also be eaten as lunch accompanied by other snacks available in the restaurant, that brought to the table in a tray with others snacks, with the customer to make the selection and pay only those who consumed.
The rotis are made with the same dough of lachha paratha, a very thin flat bread, unleavened, which is extended with the help of quite some oil to almost tear. After rolled are flattened and fried on a metal plate until golden and slightly crisp… works like a bread that accompanies meals being a clear influence of Tamil culture from South India (not to be confused with the parathas northern India).
The kottus, cooked in so-called “roti shops” are the most popular option for dinner outside. The kottus are based on a pancake made from wheat flour, similar to parathas which is fried in a metal plate, and then cut into small pieces and mixed with vegetables, eggs or meat. It results in a consistent meal but little nutritious as vegetables (onions, carrots, tomatoes, peas, spring onions…) are in small quantities, resulting in a lot of wheat and some oil. But the preparation of kottu always deserves attention because it involves a small show provided by the cook, that with two metal spatulas, cutting and mixing the ingredients with dough over the hot metal surface, a task performed with elaborate and spectacular moves, but that produces a noise a bit annoying and that overlaps the talks.
But with the same name, roti, can also indicate another snack, this more common at roti shops and some restaurants. These rotis are made with the same dough of parathas being prepared at the moment, and may have different fillings (vegetable, meat, cheese, egg…), resulting in a very thin crepe, flattened and folded into a rectangle.
The “roti shops” are specialising in rotis, kottus and fried rice… and to find a rice and curry, is better to look for a restaurant, that in Sri Lanka, are identify by the name “hotel”, and this designation applied the simplest establishments, unpretentious and cheap, but they are the favourite places among the local population…. and that don’t rent rooms!!
The “king” of the coconut! This species of native coconuts from Sri Lanka is an image that left a “yellow” memory of the island, where everywhere they sell these coconuts that grow almost everywhere (except in mountain areas), without requiring special care.
And not only in the color these coconuts are different, are also in the flavour, very sweet and more intense than the usual green coconuts shell, popular in neighbouring India.
The coconut has refreshing properties, helping lower the body temperature, which is great in tropical climates such as Sri Lanka. Besides leaving a fresh feeling when you drink the coconut water, it also leaves the stomach satiated due to the nutritional richness of the coconut. I often had it for breakfast or as a snack in the warm afternoons.
The coconut milk used in many dishes is made from the pulp, which gets thicker as the coconut matures and loses water. When almost dry, it grated and used to make pol sambol, a mixture of grated coconut, chilli (fresh and dry), onion, lime juice and salt. The grated coconut is also used as an ingredient of gotukola sambol , a crude mixture of a green leaf plant (gotukola) with chilli, onions and some spices.
Resulting from rice flour and grated coconut mixture, the pittu, is steamed in a cylindrical mold, resulting in a roll shape, that is soaked in curries, eaten as breakfast but that sometimes can be found at dinner time. Also, from this mixture is the pol roti, but where the dough is worked in the form of pancake and cooked on the stove, and which also serves as curries side dish.
In addition, the coconut is essential to making the most of the curries that are the basis of Sri Lankan cuisine, grated as a condiment or as coconut oil to cook.
The sweets didn’t cause great impression in the gastronomic experience of Sri Lanka, but two stood out: coconut hopper and lavariya… not too sweet, light and without oil !!!
The sweet string hoppers or lavariya are a kind of noodles made with rice flour and steamed, which are then filled with a mixture of grated coconut, brown sugar (jaggery) and flavoured with cardamom… a delight.
The coconut hoppers are made with rice flour and coconut, cooked steamed on a banana leaf; sold in pairs with a slightly sweet and creamy filling. They are soft, light and delicious.
Curd and honey
The curd and honey, which is no more than yogurt drizzled with honey, which in fact is not honey but molasses (treacle), very popular in Ella, where you can find it in different variations like curd and honey with rice, which makes it a good choice for breakfast. Good, but not amazing.
The traditional curd, a thicker yogurt, fatter than the usual, made with buffalo milk. Can be found in “milk bars” which are small street stalls, in “milk shops” and in some grocery stores. Being always sell in clay pots, with the smaller version weighing half a kilo. Mysteriously kept during the day outside of the refrigerator, without deterioration. They have sugar as usual find in Nepalese and Indian versions.
In bakeries beyond savory snacks, there are also cakes, that remind the European confectionary, with versions of bread sponge cake or marble cake, but with a rectangular shape. Another popular cake, similar to the “muffins”, but that proved to be quite dry and boring. In some cities, some bakeries offer a great variety of pastries with creams and fillings, but little catchy and too sweet.
Despite these delicacies, bread in pale a Western version, is quite popular… toasted with butter or broken into pieces and drizzled with curry … unattractive but sold all over the places in so-called “bakeries”, in groceries, and in the streets by hawkers with bicycles or motorized tricycles that roam the streets of the villages, making themselves announced by ringing a bell or playing some tune.
The small white mass of bread, very light and tasteless, sold plain or stuffed with omelet: round or shaped as a baguette, are a Sri Lankan version of the sandwich. To these are also others to remind the “milk bread” and “donuts” but whose industrial aspect didn’t attracted.
Tea and coffee
Sri Lanka is known for tea, the famous Ceylon tea that the British introduced, and that continue to be produced on a large scale. And it is indeed the national drink, consumed with milk and lots of sugar.
But the coffee, without being famous, is quite nice, being prepared by filtration (filter coffee), not very strong, aromatic and smooth.
To find a particular type of food, you need first to learn about the schedule of each kind of food, as in Sri Lanka are followed unwritten rules about what to eat at certain times of the day.
So, in the morning, it’s time for roti, stuffed vegetables, fish or meat, as well as samosas, patties, rolls and cutlets, also with different fillings but all deep-fry in oil. The hoppers coconut and lavariya, slightly sweetened and steamed often serve breakfast.
At lunch, the popular rice and curry are usually served from noon, and until it finishes at the pot, what can last a less than one hour but can extend up to two hours… looking for a rice and curry later increases the chances of eating cold food or reheated… or more probably not even find rice and curry. In some places, usually, in cities and great restaurants, this traditional meal is available from the morning, being served at breakfast. At lunch, an alternative to rice and curry are the string hoppers, but these more common in the most traditional places in Sri Lanka or in big restaurants in the main cities.
At dinner time, which ends early, it is difficult to find places serving meals after 9.30 p.m, the more popular are the kottu, the roti and the paratha. For those who want a more substantial meal also the fried rice is a meal easy to find in the “Roti Shops”. The hoppers are also one of the traditional choices in the evening.
Throughout the day, you can find the ulundhu vadai (fried dough ring-shaped), parippu vada (fried lentil pattie), the pol roti (pancake-based flour and coconut), the coconut roti (disc-shaped with onion and coconut)… and the omnipresent roti, whose popular vegetarian option triangle is marked in memory of Sinhalese snacks.