10 food and drinks to try in Sri Lanka

Sebastien Chaneac

Sri Lanka was an interesting place for us. Whilst we love the scenery and think Sri Lankan food rates as one of the legit best in the world, as a gay couple, we struggled with the fact that being gay is illegal here.

We explored the LGBTQ life in Sri Lanka as part of our trip, and on the whole found locals we encountered to be generally accepting. There was this sweet and quite endearing curiosity towards us a gay couple, particularly in the guesthouses we stayed at. But the best thing of all with staying in a homestay as part of your trip is that you get to do some cooking with locals. We don't say it lightly that we found Sri Lankan food to be one of the best in the world!

In this article, we explore some of the best Sri Lankan food and drinks you need to try out.

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 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.

Learning to make rice and curry in Ella
Stefan about to go face down in these plates of delicious freshly made curries

We were impressed by the variety of curry dishes available in Sri Lanka. Other interesting ones we encountered were jackfruit curry, beetroot curry, pumpkin and pineapple curry. All extremely tasty!

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 this greedy gay couple!!

Another Nomadic Boys food fight
Another Nomadic Boys food fight about to break out over this delicious rice and curry

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.

Learning to cook deviled prawns at our home stay in Ella
Stefan learning to cook deviled prawns at our home stay in Ella
Sri Lankan devilled prawns
Sri Lankan devilled prawns recipe

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:

Egg hoppers for breakfast
Freshly made egg hoppers for breakfast

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:

A plate of string hoppers, vegetable rotis and various vadai (lentils based) snacks
A plate of tasty Sri Lankan snacks including string hoppers, vegetable rotis and various vadai (lentils based) snacks

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.

Tucking into delicious vegetable rotis
Vegetable rotis are a cheap, delicious and filling snack, which kept us very happy!

Kothu Roti, a delicious snack!

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.

Stefan tucking into a plate of kothu roti
Tucking into a plate of kothu roti with friends after a night our in Colombo.

Sri Lankan dessert: 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 dessert for religious festivals and large celebrations. We LOVED this!

Watalappam Sri Lankan desert
Watalappam was our favourite Sri Lankan treat

Coconut Whisky

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”:

Stefan with green apple flavoured arrack
Stefan with green apple flavoured arrack: very high alcohol content alert!!

Coconut is King

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:

Our king coconut selfie
Our king coconut selfie: every morning was defined by a fresh thambili coconut throughout our travels in Sri Lanka

The best tea comes from Sri Lanka

Ceylon is the colonial name of Sri Lanka during the British occupation pre-1972. The British influence also led to a 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:

Sebastien at the Pedro Tea Factory in Nuwara Eliya
Sebastien at the Pedro Tea Factory in Nuwara Eliya with a variety of freshly dried tea leaves
Travel advice for LGTBQ community

Advice for LGBTQ travellers to Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has retained its archaic colonial anti-gay laws, which whilst are rarely enforced, in practice gives licence to corrupt police officials to elicit bribes from the LGBTQ community. As a gay tourist, however, people are more respectful to you, regardless of your sexuality. We had no problems booking a double bed in the hotels and guesthouses we stayed at throughout the county. In public, however, we would recommend exercising caution in relation to PDAs. Read more in our interview with Kaluu from Colombo about what gay life in Sri Lanka is like from a local's perspective.

See more in our Sri Lanka travel video:


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The best food and drinks you need to try when in Sri Lanka
Sebastien Chaneac

Sebastien is the co-founder, editor and author of nomadicboys.com. He is a tech geek, a total travel nerd and a food enthusiast. He spends the majority of his time planning Nomadic Boys' travels meticulously right down to the minute details. Sebastien has travelled to over 80 countries with his partner in crime and the love of his life, Stefan. He regularly shares his expertise of what it’s like travelling as a gay couple both on Nomadic Boys and on prominent publications ranging from Pink News, Matador, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian and many more. Originally from France, Sebastien moved to London in the early 2000s where he pursued a career as a computer programmer for Thompson Reuters and Bloomberg. He subsequently left it all to explore his passion for travelling around the world with Stefan to hand, and thus Nomadic Boys was born. Find out more about Nomadic Boys.

13 thoughts on “10 food and drinks to try in Sri Lanka”

  1. You have covered lots of things in your article about Sri Lankan foods. I have a good experience with them and always love the taste. String hopper is one of my favorite Sri Lankan breakfast. I love to eat them with spicy chicken curry and coconut sambal.

  2. Haha, just love your faces in those photos! Sri Lankan food is awesome and you’ve done a great round up of it in this post…
    We ate so much during our 2 month trip there, those stuffed rotis were too good to resist, plus all the fried snacks too. Hoppers (both varieties) are just one of the best foods and I wish that you get get them everywhere on the planet! So good for vegan travelers like us, must admit we got a bit far from all the eating!

    • Hi Caryl, thanks a lot for your message and kind words 🙂

      OMG- the food awesome right? We were just impressed by the massive variety of curries they make from basically any fruit or veg… Jack fruit and pineapple curry FFS- who would have thought!! One of our favourite cuisines on pur travels to date by far.

      • As a sri lankan, I am happy to know that you’ve enjoyed your stay in our country, and best of all, you’ve embraced our cuisine. From rotis to string hoppers to just plain hoppers, you’ve encountered the diversity of the srilankan cuisine. If any of you think of holidaying in sri lanka again, try these delicious sri lankan staples too- pittu, Katta sambol, wadé, prawn wadé, ( the ones at the galle face beach are the best ) milk rice and pol sambol. Hope I have not made you envious me eating all these delicious food on a daily basis though

  3. Stumbled upon your blog fom Raja & Whale Facebook page and what a nice prep read to my trip that’s happening on 19 Feb 🙂

    Nice to e-meet you guys on this blog and will be checking out for more great travel stories!

    Cheers,
    Mingyi / F
    Singapore

    • Hi Mingyi, thanks for dropping by and for your comment.

      You’re in for a great time with Raja and the Whales- they take good care of you and are so friendly.

      Lovely to e-meet you too. Are we stalking each other yet on FB?

  4. What a wonderful and nostalgic posting you both did! BRAVO !!! I love Nuwara Eliya and went up there each time I came to Sri Lanka. ( there is a beautiful mansion all made of teak high up in the village and I stayed there with my friends over night for free! It was being watched over by a Buddhist monk. we were treated like royalty!)

    We would travel around the whole southern part of the island on motorbike. wonderful!!

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