What to eat in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan food is often compared to that of South India, and they do share some similarities in terms of ingredients and techniques. But Sri Lankan cuisine has a distinct identity, thanks to the communities and cultures that have shaped the country’s history.

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Distinguished by simple yet bold flavours and the masterful use of freshly ground spices, Sri Lankan food champions local, seasonal ingredients. Rice, coconut and fish – both fresh and dried – form the building blocks of most dishes, in addition to a variety of tropical fruits, vegetables, seafood and a little meat.

These ingredients are rendered into a flavoursome whole by raw and roasted curry powders, which are made from the island’s signature spices, such as cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, black pepper, rampe or pandanus, and fiery red chillies.

Shaped by its geography and the abundance of seafood, northern Sri Lankan cuisine is several notches hotter than that of the south. The region’s most iconic dishes, such as the Jaffna crab curry, and Jaffna kool – a signature seafood soup thickened with palmyrah flour – are unabashedly fiery. Unfortunately, these dishes are increasingly hard to find on restaurant menus in Jaffna – after years of isolation, Jaffna is in a greater hurry to embrace international flavours than it is to showcase familiar, home-style cooking.

Exploding with restaurants serving an array of international dishes, chic coffee shops, bars and gelaterias, Colombo is the most food-centric city of Sri Lanka. And given that it is sustained by tourism, Galle Fort also has a blossoming food and drink scene.

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Sri Lankan food

Rice is at the heart of Sri Lankan cooking, and features in one form or another in every meal. It is ground into flour to make appa or hoppers, bowl-shaped, fermented rice crepes that are eaten for breakfast or dinner; idiyappa or string hoppers, steamed noodle cakes that are a morning favourite, and pittu, a steamed rice flour and coconut dish which is a northern staple, and used to make a variety of sweets.

Throughout the island, rice-and-curry is the lunch standard. It is a colourful and nutritious meal of steamed red or white rice, served with several vegetable, fish or meat curries. This elaborate and usually homemade meal is tucked into a neat buth packet or rice parcel, which makes it a convenient take-away option for office-goers and travellers. Some curry shops will offer you the luxury of choosing three or four curries to go with the rice. The selection will almost always include parippu or lentils, two or three vegetable curries, a mallung or green salad, and a meat or seafood curry, in addition to condiments such as salted and deep-fried chillies and crunchy pappadum.

Other highlights of the cuisine include hot butter cuttlefish (a Sri Lankan-Chinese hybrid of batter-coated cuttlefish rings, flash fried in butter), lamprais (rice, mixed meat curry and condiments, baked together in a banana leaf), and kottu (a beloved street snack made of roti or flatbread, meat and vegetables, all finely chopped on a griddle). In between meals, Sri Lankans have a penchant for snacking on “short eats” – savoury pastries and puffs with egg, vegetable, fish or meat fillings.

Sri Lankans have a pronounced sweet tooth. This translates to desserts such as chocolate biscuit pudding (made of alternating layers of milk-soaked biscuits and chocolate cream), watalappan (a rich custard made of eggs, cashew nuts and condensed milk) and sago pudding. The most popular dessert is kiri peni, a creamy buffalo yoghurt, served with a drizzle of kithul treacle, made of the sweet sap of the foxtail palm.

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Sri Lankan drinks

If Sri Lanka could have a national drink, it would probably be thambili or the sweet juice of the orange-hued king coconut, which is sold throughout the country. Full of essential minerals, it is a convenient and inexpensive way to stay hydrated in summer.

If you’d like something stronger, the country also produces arrack, a distilled alcoholic drink made by fermenting the sap of palm trees. Smooth and similar to rum in flavour, arrack makes for excellent cocktails such as arrack sour, a local twist on the whisky sour with arrack, lemon juice and sugar. Arrack is available in varying degrees of refinement, and makes a great souvenir to take home.

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