There are many traditional foods in Sri Lanka shaped by a rich food tradition and influenced by many historical and cultural factors. It is definitely an island where Curry and Rice is the showstopper.
Sri Lanka was one of the hubs in the historic Oceanic ‘Silk Road’ and contact with foreign traders brought new food items and cultural influences, in addition to the local traditions of the country’s ethnic groups. You will clearly see influences from Southern India, Dutch and Indonesia in Sri Lankan cuisine.
Traditional Sri Lankan cuisine is known for its use of a vast array of herbs, spices, seafood, seasonal vegetables, rice, legumes and fruits. Influential components of the cuisine are the many varieties of rice, as well as coconut and fish. Most Sri Lankans prefer vegetable curries, however, rice and curry is the Sri Lankan staple, and can be found in various forms across the island. Various kinds of bread, both roti style flatbreads and even loaves of bread, are also very common.
Here are our top 20 traditional foods in Sri Lanka we think you shouldn’t miss.
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Common Ingredients in Traditional Foods in Sri Lanka
Spices: Black Pepper, Cardamom, Cinnamon, Cloves, Coriander, Cumin, Fennel, Fenugreek, Mace, Nutmeg, Turmeric
Herbs: Cayenne Pepper, Curry Leaf, Garlic, Goraka, Ginger, Lemongrass, Lime, Shallot, Tabasco Pepper, Tamarind
Seafood: Dried Fish, Mackerel, Maldive Fish, Prawns, Tuna, Shark
Grains: Millet, Olu Haal (Water Lily Seed), Red Rice (common varieties are: Kekulu, Pachchaperumal, Kaluheenati, Madathawalu), White Rice (common varieties are: Samba, Kekulu, Suwandel)
Oils: Coconut Oil, Ghee (Cow and Buffalo), Mustard Oil, Sesame Oil
Vegetables: Bitter Melon, Gotukola, Green Papaya, Lotus Root, Pumpkin, Purple Yam, Snake Beans, Snake Gourd, Tapioca
Meats: Beef, Chicken, Goat, Pork
Fruits: Avocado, Banana, Coconut, Guava, Mango, Orange, Pineapple, Soursop, Woodapple
20 Traditional Foods in Sri Lanka You Must Try
This dish of a mixture of pickled vegetables is usually served as a side dish or a relish on other dishes. It tends to have a mixture of sweet, hot and sour flavours, but each restaurant / family will serve their own take on this dish according to personal preference or a traditional recipe passed through the family. It generally consists of a mixture of spices including mustard seeds, garlic, vinegar, ginger, chilli powder and sugar.
These diamond shaped traditional Sri Lankan deserts generally combine toasted rice flour, sugar syrup or molasses, ground cashew nuts, and spices such as cardamom or cloves.
3. Devilled Seafood
In Sri Lankan cuisine, the term ‘devilled’ refers to spicy dishes, and in our experience, they were definitely on the hot end of the scale (and we like hot food)! Typically, it is served with some type of seafood such as fish or prawns. The sauce is rich and flavoursome with a base of tomato, chilli and turmeric. As with most Sri Lankan meals, it is eaten with rice, flatbread, and a side dish or two.
4. Fish Ambul Thiyal (Sour Fish Curry)
Ambul Thiyal is a traditional dish that originated in southern Sri Lanka as a way to preserve fish without requiring refrigeration. It is one of the most beloved varieties of the many different fish curries available.
A large, firm fish is used such as Yellowfin Tuna or Sailfish, and cut into cubes. The fish is then sautéed in a blend of spices including black pepper, cinnamon, turmeric, garlic, pandan leaves, curry leaves and the dried goraka. The most important ingredient is the dried goraka, a small fruit which gives the fish a sour flavour. One of the main ingredients is goraka, a tamarind like tropical fruit which gives this dish its slightly sour, tangy flavour. This curry is traditionally enjoyed with rice, String Hoppers and even hot Coconut Roti.
5. Godamba Roti
Godamba Roti is a simple Sri Lankan flatbread usually made from wheat flour. The triangular looking pockets are filled with a range of different ingredients. Fish and vegetable Rotis are popular, but the most popular is Pol Roti in which freshly grated coconut coconut is mixed into the dough. Another variant is spicy Roti, in which chopped onions and green chilies are used when making the dough. Instead of being deep fried like samosas, triangle roti’s are fried in a pan.
6. Gotu Kola Sambol (Pennywort Salad)
One of the most readily available green vegetable dishes / salads in Sri Lanka is Gotu Kola Sambol. Gotu Kola (Asiatic pennywort) is a type of small leafy green medicinal herb that’s common throughout Southeast Asia. Recently, it has been labelled as a superfood, and is similar in flavour to kale. Sambol is a term used in Sri Lanka for ingredients that are combined and eaten raw.
This healthy green salad is prepared by finely slicing gotu kola, and then mixing through spices, fresh grated coconut, chilli, red onion, lemon juice, and Umbalakada fish. Gotu Kola Sambol is a tangy, refreshing and delicious accompaniment to rich, spicy dishes such as a curry.
7. Hoppers (Appa or Appam)
Hoppers, which are also known as Appa or Appam, are an iconic Sri Lankan food and family favourite enjoyed for breakfast and dinner. Basically, Hoppers are the Sri Lankan version of a pancake.
The batter is made from a slightly fermented concoction of rice flour, palm toddy or yeast (for fermentation), coconut milk, sometimes coconut water and a hint of sugar. Hoppers are then fried in a small wok so the batter cooks thick and soft on the bottom, and thin and crunchy around the edges.
The final result is a bowl shaped pancake which can be served either spicy (such as egg hoppers, kiri (milk) hoppers, string hoppers), or sweet (such as pani (honey) hopper). All additional ingredients are added into the centre of the pancake while it’s being cooked. Egg hoppers are commonly served at breakfast and are topped with Lunu Miris (a sambol of red onion, red chilli, lemon juice, salt and sometimes Maldives fish).
8. Kiribath (Milk Rice)
Kiribath is special type of rice cooked with thick coconut milk, and is a staple dish throughout Sri Lanka. Once cooked, the mixture of rice and milk is left to set in a shallow plate. The dish is then traditionally cut into squares or diamond shapes, and served like a slice of cake.
Pieces are served along with a number of different Sri Lankan dishes, often either sweetened with jaggery (unrefined sugar) and bananas, or consumed salty with chili sauce or curry. One of the most common ways to garnish Kiribath is topped with a spicy Lunu Miris (Chilli Sambol).
Traditionally, Kiribath is served during special or auspicious occasions, and represents prosperity and good luck, and commemorates new beginnings. It is always enjoyed on Sinhalese New Year, and marks important times of life like birthdays.
9. Kottu (also known as Kottu Roti)
Kottu or Kottu Roti is a Sri Lankan Tamil dish, and is an extremely popular street food dish. Just listen for the sound of metal on metal (you’ll know it when you hear it), and you know a Kottu vendor is not too far away.
Kottu roti is generally made from Gothamba roti (a flat, crispy bread) and vegetables, eggs, or meat and various spices. Each kottu is prepared individually on a hot plate. The process starts with spices such as ginger, garlic, pandan leaves, curry, chili, cardamom, and cinnamon, which are fried to release their intense aromas. The spices are topped and mixed with carrots, onions, cabbage, or other vegetables, while pieces of sliced roti are added on top.
This mix of spices, vegetables and roti is then cut and chopped with a metal blade held in each hand. Some of the most skilled kottu chefs compose their own unique songs, singing while they rhythmically chop their blades against the metal frying surface, slicing the roti with each chop.
Kottu is served with a separate bowl of spicy curry sauce, which you can either use as a dip or pour over your entire plate to moisten and add extra flavour to the stir fried flatbread.
- Egg Kottu – includes egg and vegetables
- Cheese Kottu – the texture of the cheese is similar to cottage cheese
10. Kukul Mas Curry (Chicken Curry)
Chicken Curry is a common household dish in Sri Lanka and has many variations depending on region and taste preferences.
This dish is all about layers of flavour that comes with a combination of fresh local produce, rich spices (such as fennel seeds, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon sticks, chili powder, curry powder, turmeric, pandan leaves, lemongrass, curry leaves) and herbs, and Sri Lankan staples such as coconut milk.
This dish is best served with rice, string hoppers, and roti.
11. Lamprais (Lump Rice)
The name Lamprais comes from the Dutch word lomprijst (meaning a packet of food) and was introduced to Sri Lanka by the Dutch Burgher people. This Sri Lankan dish perfectly demonstrates the outside influences on the country’s cuisine.
These little packets of food are made by placing rice cooked in meat stock with two frikkadels (Dutch-style meatballs), a mixed meat curry, eggplant curry, and spices like cinnamon, clove, lemongrass, and cardamom. All of these ingredients are then wrapped in a banana leaf and baked in an oven or steamed.
12. Lunu Miris (Chilli Sambol)
Lunu miris is a tasty Sri Lankan staple that is traditionally served as a condiment accompanying egg hoppers, a typical breakfast dish, and Kiribath. In Sinhala language, Lunu means onions, while Miris means chilli, referring to the two main ingredients used to make this spicy condiment.
The red onions and red chillis are usually combined with salt, pepper, lime juice, and Maldive fish, and the mixture is then ground using a mortar and pestle.
13. Parippu (Dhal Curry)
Parippu, or Dhal Curry, is the most common curry in all of Sri Lankan cuisine, and most commonly consumed staple in any restaurant or household. It is made using masoor dhal (split red lentils) which are combined with a beautiful blend of spices like cumin seeds, turmeric, fenugreek, mustard seeds and curry leaves. Fresh ingredients, such as onions, tomatoes and fresh green chilies are sautéed and also added to this mix. A few spoons of fresh coconut milk are then added to create a rich flavour and creamy texture.
It goes with everything, but is perfect with rice, fresh roti or paratha flatbread.
14. Pittu (Coconut Funnel Cakes)
Sri Lankan Pittu funnel cakes are a combination of flour (either rice of karukan), fresh shredded coconut, and a handful of desiccated coconut. The cylindrical cakes are traditionally steamed in bamboo, but now are sometimes steamed in cylindrical shaped moulds.
Pittu is best enjoyed with fresh sweetened coconut milk, sugar, Lunu Miris, spicy meat or fish curries etc.
15. Polos (Green / Young Jackfruit Curry)
Sri Lankan food is famous for its curries and Polos, or Young Jackfruit Curry, is definitely worth trying. This curry is prepared with young green jackfruit, similar texture to potato or cassava, which is sliced into bite-sized chunks and boiled until soft. Additional ingredients are then added including garlic, ginger, onions and spices such as chili powder, mustard seeds, turmeric, pandan leaves and curry leaf. The last step is to add coconut milk to the curry
It is best served with a plate of rice and a tasty sambal.
16. Pol Sambol (Coconut Relish)
Pol Sambol is a simple blend of finely shredded coconut, red onions, dried whole chilies or chili powder, lime juice, salt and Maldive fish. The ingredients are diced or ground, then combined in a bowl.
This tasty blend of spice, tang, salt and a mild sweetness from the grated coconut is a very popular garnish or side dish. It goes well with curry and rice, pol roti (coconut roti), a fresh paratha flatbread, hoppers, and string hoppers.
17. Sri Lankan Crab Curry
Of all the Sri Lankan cuisines, the Sri Lankan Crab Curry is probably the most famous and it is well deserved! This delicious curry is made with a combination of crab meat (blue swimmer or mud crabs), lime juice, milk or coconut milk, curry leaves, grated coconut, ginger, shallots, garlic, cinnamon, turmeric, fenugreek seeds, and red chili peppers. The curry is cooked until the crabs are fully cooked and the gravy develops a thick consistency.
It is recommended to serve this dish hot with rice and flatbreads on the side.
We tried this famous Sri Lankan dish at the Ministry of Crab restaurant in Colombo and it didn’t disappoint!
18. Sri Lankan Rice and Curry
Rice and curry is referred to as the National Dish in Sri Lanka and recipes differ depending on where you are in the country and the available ingredients.
Generally, Sri Lankan rice and curry consists of hot, fluffy boiled or steamed served with a variety of side dishes commonly called curries. There are typically a variety of different curries served along with the rice, one of which is usually based on fish or meat. Another two or three curries are based on vegetarian dishes such as Parippu (Dhal), Polo (Jackfruit), beetroot, or pumpkin curry. In addition, dishes are accompanied by pappadams, pickled fruits or vegetables, chutneys and sambols.
19. String Hoppers (Indi Appa or Idiyappam)
As opposed to the Hoppers previously mentioned, String Hoppers or Iddiyappam are made from a thick dough made from rice meal or wheat flour. The dough is pressed through a string hopper maker, like a pasta press, to create thin strands of noodles. These noodles are then placed on small wicker mats in the shape of nests, and then steamed.
String hoppers are very popular for breakfast, but they are also eaten for dinner and paired with a curry and used to soak up the sauces.
20. Wambatu Moju (Eggplant / Brinjals Pickle)
Served mostly with rice and curries, Wambatu Moju is candied eggplant (brinjals) pickle, and has an amazing flavour. This amazing eggplant dish is made by deep-frying eggplant (aubergine) strips, and it is then caramelized with sugar, vinegar, red onions, green chilies, mustard seeds, chili powder and a pinch of ground turmeric until the colour turns almost black.
This dish is a taste sensation! The soft and juicy texture of the eggplant will melt in your mouth, and slightly sweet, sour and salty flavours linger on the palate.
Expect hot and spicy, tangy and sweet flavours as you taste the many traditional foods in Sri Lanka. With their liberal use of local fruit such as coconut and jackfruit, seafood and a vast array of spices, Sri Lankan cooking delivers an abundance of incredible dishes.
Have you visited Sri Lanka? What was your favourite traditional Sri Lankan meal? Post your tips and comments below.
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