If you’re planning a trip to Sri Lanka, you may be thinking about the amazing beaches, great hikes, and world-class cultural sites. But something that might not be at the forefront of your mind is the food.
When we started planning our trip, I had no idea what to expect when eating in Sri Lanka. And, to be honest, I wasn’t terribly keen to find out. Though Sam will eat anything he’s physiologically capable of digesting and then ask for seconds, my palate is significantly less adventurous. Certain brands of mild salsa make my eyes sting and I believe seafood should be left in the ocean where it belongs.
Further Reading: What to Pack in Sri Lanka: One Month in a Carry-On
But I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Sri Lankan food is not only distinctive—not merely an extension of Indian cuisine—but also mouth-wateringly delicious.
Here are some 12 foods you absolutely must try when traveling in Sri Lanka.
The Best Food in Sri Lanka
Kottu (or kothu roti) literally means “chopped bread,” and it is often referred to as the hamburger of Sri Lanka due to its widespread popularity. It is made with chopped up godhamba roti, vegetables, spices, and meat (if desired). And though it’s flavorful, it isn’t eye-wateringly hot—something my spice-averse palate was quite thrilled about!
Chicken kottu quickly became our favorite thing to eat in Sri Lanka. It’s cheap, filling, and often served to go. It is also widely available throughout the country.
Our go-to place to order kottu was at The Fish and Chips Restaurant in Ella. Ironically, we never ordered fish or chips. But we had the kottu at least 6 times, and the portion size was so big we could easily split it between the two of us.
Rice and Curry
Sri Lanka is well known for its delicious rice and curry. Typically, rice and curry is served for lunch—rarely dinner—and includes a large pot of rice and at least four or five sides of curry. The contents of the curries vary greatly, but they often include chicken, fish, eggplant, tomatoes, coconut, or pineapple. They also come in various degrees of spiciness, though we never found the spice level overwhelming.
We ate rice and curry many times throughout our trip, but our favorite was at the Rice and Curry Restaurant in Tangalle.
Another staple of our diet while traveling in Sri Lanka was fried rice or noodles. We ordered some at least once per day. They are super cheap, filling, and served at basically any Sri Lankan restaurant. We typically had ours with chicken, though vegetarian, fish, or other meat options were also available.
Roti and Dhal
Similar to the Indian version, roti and dhal is a popular dish in Sri Lanka. The roti, which is a cross between a tortilla and a pita, is often made with coconut and served with dhal, a mild lentil curry. Though available throughout the day, we tended to see this dish more often at breakfast.
Perhaps the most popular breakfast food in Sri Lanka is hoppers, which are basically the Sri Lankan version of a pancake. They are shaped like a bowl with thin sides and a thick bottom, and they are sometimes filled with an egg—though they may be served plain or with other toppings.
A variation of the popular breakfast food, string hoppers are made with a thicker batter and shaped into long noodles. They are often served with a curry or broth.
Chocolate Banana Roti
Our favorite sweet treat in Sri Lanka was chocolate banana roti. Chocolate and bananas—and sometimes other fillings–are rolled up in roti and it’s so stinking delicious. It’s basically a cross between a crepe and a burrito. We often ate them for breakfast on days our guesthouse didn’t provide a meal or for a sweet pick-me-up after a long hike.
Prepared in a sweet and sour sauce with vegetables, deviled (either meat or fish), is a popular dish in Sri Lanka. We always ordered ours with chicken. But beware—the bones aren’t always removed before cooking, so be careful not to choke!
Common in Indian cuisine, papadum is a light, crispy, chip-like bread. It is often served with rice and curry or as an appetizer or snack with a chutney or curry dip. It’s basically the Sri Lankan version of chips and salsa.
Another breakfast food in Sri Lanka, milk rice is made from white rice that is cooked in coconut milk and often formed into blocks. It’s usually served with a relish or curry topping.
The fruit in Sri Lanka is juicy, cheap, and abundant. We especially enjoyed eating the bananas—which were much smaller than the version we have back home—papayas, and pineapple. We also drank a lot of fruit juices and I developed a mild obsession with pineapple milkshakes. Be sure to check out the king coconuts!
Though not a food per se, milk tea plays a vital role in Sri Lankan cuisine. As someone who hates coffee, I was thrilled to spend a month in a nation full of other tea enthusiasts! The tea in Sri Lanka is some of the best in the world. Prefer coffee? Be prepared to pay much higher prices.
What to Know Before Eating in Sri Lanka
- Locals eat with their hands. As in India, the common practice in Sri Lanka is to use rice or roti to scoop the food into one’s mouth. That said, since we were clearly foreign tourists, we were nearly always provided with a fork and knife. But if you want to do as the locals do, we recommend packing some hand sanitizer and digging in!
- Restaurants tone down the spice for foreigners. Before our trip, I’d heard some terrifying things about the food in Sri Lanka. Whereas most people are pleased to hear adjectives like “flavorful” and “richly spiced” used in relation to the food they are about to consume, I start to break out in a sweat. And that’s before I’ve even tasted anything. But we were surprised to discover that the food was rarely too spicy for even my delicate palate, a fact that thrilled me and disappointed Sam. If you love eating food so spicy it burns off your taste buds, be sure to let your server know.
- Service can be slow. Food in Sri Lanka is usually served fresh to order, so dining out can become quite a drawn out affair—something that can easily frustrate fast-paced, Type-A North Americans. After placing our order at one restaurant, we saw our server get on his motorbike and head to the market to pick up the ingredients. Our recommendation is to head to the restaurant before you’re mind-bogglingly hungry and simply embrace island time. We often took our travel-size cribbage board to keep us busy while we waited.
- Certain foods are only available seasonally. In America, we’re used to being able to go to the supermarket and buy any food we want at any time of year. But in Sri Lanka, only foods that are currently in season are available. The upside is that ingredients in Sri Lankan cuisine are nearly always fresh and delicious.
- The water is not safe for foreigners. While in Sri Lanka, it’s a good idea to avoid drinking non-filtered water, using ice cubes, or eating raw fruit or vegetables that have been washed in local water (peeled fruits like bananas are typically safe).
- Portion sizes are huge. As Americans, we are fairly used to receiving obscenely large portion sizes in restaurants, but Sri Lankan restaurants take things to a whole new level. Though Sam and I both have hearty appetites, we found that we could typically order one entrée and split it between us (which significantly helped us with our Sri Lanka travel budget!).
So there you have it! Those are the best foods to eat in Sri Lanka.
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