10 food and drinks to try in Sri Lanka
Sri Lankan food was a complete surprise for us. We knew nothing about it before arriving, yet discovered a new cuisine full of culinary delights.
We did however quickly learn that you should ask for mild, otherwise you’re in for a spicy surprise!
#1 RICE AND CURRY
Rice and curry is the traditional staple dish in Sri Lanka. It’s eaten everywhere, usually twice a day by almost everyone.
Rice and curry refers to a several small plates of curry yummies varying from chicken and fish to vegetarian dishes like dal, garlic curry, aubergine curry, pumpkin curry, green bean curry… always served with rice and a few small plates of pickled vegetables.
There is no uniform way of making these curries, so each one tastes different, just like a Nepalese daal bhat or an Indian thali. Each ‘rice and curry’ is a culinary foodgasm, which caused many fights between the two of us…
We were impressed by the variety of curry dishes available in Sri Lanka. Other interesting ones we encountered were jackfruit curry, beetroot curry and pineapple curry. All extremely tasty!
Another innovative use of vegetables (well, technically a fruit!) was a pumpkin soup served in a pumpkin:
#2 DEVILED PRAWNS
‘Deviled’ refers to spicy dishes in Sri Lankan cuisine. Anything with ‘deviled’ in the title means you’re in for a fiery meal ahead of you…!
The most popular deviled dish we encountered was deviled prawns, which we learnt to make in Ella.
#3 EGG HOPPERS (BITTARA APPA)
Hoppers (appa) are pancake batter, mixed with coconut milk and cooked in a small wok like pan so that the dough cooks thick and soft on the bottom and thin and crunchy around the edges.
A fried egg is added in the middle to create the iconic egg hopper:
#4 STRING HOPPERS
String hoppers are made from a rice flour batter base, which is squeezed into thin noodles and steamed. String hoppers are usually served with a curry and are also popular for breakfast.
In Nuwara Eliya we ordered this tasty plate of various snacks to accompany our curry, which included string hoppers on the left:
#5 VEGETABLE ROTIS
The triangle snacks in the middle of the plate above are the delicious vegetable rotis.
Rotis are popular in south Asia and are flat breads made from wholemeal flour. Vegetable rotis are rotis stuffed with cooked vegetables inside.
There are meat and fish variants of rotis, but we found the vegetable ones the tastiest (and the ones that sold out first at the Sri Lankan bakeries!)
Vegetable rotis made these two greedy boys very happy throughout our travels in Sri Lanka.
#6 KOTHU ROTI
Kothu roti is a Sri Lankan Tamil dish, which is literally a plate of chopped up roti mixed with curry sauce and served with vegetables and meat or eggs. It originated in Jaffna, north Sri Lanka in the 1960s as a cheap, takeaway meal for lower socioeconomic classes.
But it’s a food that has since transcended social boundaries in Sri Lanka and has now become a staple for everyone. It is particularly popular among the young who have it as a midnight snack after a night out.
#7 THE SRI LANKAN DESERT: WATALAPPAM
Watalappam is a heavenly Sri Lankan desert introduced by the Malay immigrants.
It is made from coconut milk, cashew nuts, egg, jaggery (a sweet brown like product from sugar cane) and various spices, particularly, cardamom, cloves and nutmeg.
It’s a popular desert for religious festivals and large celebrations. We LOVED this!
#8 COCONUT ARRACK
Coconut arrack is a distilled strong alcoholic drink made from the fermented sap of unopened flowers of a coconut palm.
Due to its high concentration of sugar and yeast content, the captured liquid naturally ferments into a mildly alcoholic drink. This is then distilled again to reach a high alcohol content of 33-50%.
Arrack tastes like whiskey or rum and is usually made into a cocktail mixed with coke or lemonade, or it’s just flavoured, like “Green Apple”:
#9 THAMBILI THE KING COCONUT
Our favourite beverage in Sri Lanka (well throughout Asia really) is coconut juice and fruit. Sri Lanka is particularly famous for its king coconuts, called thambili, which are slightly sweeter than normal coconuts.
The thambili king coconut is also a source of Vitamin E, iron, calcium, phosphorous and high dietary soluble fibre. It’s also very tasty and was another popular treaty for us:
#10 CEYLON TEA
Ceylon is the colonial name of Sri Lanka during the British occupation pre 1972. The British influence also led to large industry of tea export. Tea plantations were built in large numbers, particularly in the hill country around Nuwara Eliya.
Sri Lanka is one of the world’s largest exporters of tea, popularly known as Ceylon Tea. It’s up there with China, India and Kenya and accounts for over 19% of the world’s exports – pretty impressive for such a small country.
We visited the Pedro Tea Factory in Nuwara Eliya and learnt about the varieties of different teas (green, white and black) and also enjoyed (several) freshly brewed cuppas:
Watch our travel video diary of our adventures through Sri Lanka as we ate our way through this tropical island, took some beautiful train journeys and enjoyed excellent safaris spotting leopards at Udawalawe and blue whales at Mirissa.
Sri Lanka travel recommendations
Transportation: first, there is no need to stress about getting taxis around the capital. Uber is heavily used in Colombo Airport and in Colombo. If you've never used it before, we give you your 1st ride for free using this link. To get to Kandy, Nuwara Elya or Ella, we highly recommend you take the train because the landscapes are stunning, tickets are cheap and it is an amazing adventure.
Travel insurance: whether you go on a safari in Yala National Park, scuba diving in Unawatuna, hiking at Ella Rock or just lay on the beach all day long in Hikkaduwa, you need travel insurance. We use World Nomads because they offer considerable coverage especially for adventure travellers. They also make it easy to make a claim as it’s all done online.
Flights: flying domestically in Sri Lanka doesn't make much sense because the train has more comprehensive coverage across the country and is far cheaper. For international flights, flying to Sri Lanka can be expensive. We recommend Google flights to search for the cheapest fares, and Momondo for booking airfares. In addition, flights from Sri Lanka and India to The Maldives are very affordable, so don't miss out on the opportunity!
Hotels: Sri Lanka has a huge diversity of accommodation options. Make sure you check out our Sri Lanka content for hotel recommendations first. TripAdvisor is also a good place to start researching places to stay and find the best activities to do. Going to the hotel in person and negotiating the price face to face will most of the time result in a cheaper price compared to what you find online. But if like us, you're a bit of a control freak and like planning ahead, we recommend using Booking.com to find the best deals and book your accommodation online.