Sri Lanka, the teardrop-shaped island just off India’s southernmost coast, is full of surprises. One of the things which regularly widens the eyes of holidaymakers here is the food, surprisingly different from what’s eaten in the neighboring country to the north. Though there are undoubtedly Indian influences in the spices, breads and pickles served in the streets, Sri Lankan food is creamier, zestier and often more imaginative.
Coconut is king here, playing a vital part in most meals. It’s a surprisingly multi-purpose ingredient; its milk gives the creamy texture to classic Sri Lankan curries while desiccated coconut serves as a rough and ready base in sambols. You can even pick up spoons, bowls and other crockery made out of the shells for brilliantly low prices.
Working in harmony with the coconut are the spices. Chili, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, cumin and curry leafs are used in abundance. Many are grown and exported from the island, meaning it’s easy to pick them up fresh.
Meals are good value, although quality varies significantly; a run-of-the-mill rice and curry packet will set you back 100 rupees (~$1.55), while a tasty lunch buffet starts at 1,000 (~$15.75). A general rule is that the busier street cafes sell the best curries, but the prices are so low it’s worth trying a few different places for size.
Vegetarians and vegans are well provided for by a wealth of Hindu-run cafes, as well as a staple selection of meat-free curries which are served at most eateries. It is worth bearing in mind that some cafes add Maldivian fish to their “vegetarian” curries. If they don’t speak English try the Sinhalese language for “don’t want fish” – malu epa.
Here’s the cream of the crop for street food in Sri Lanka:
“Rotti” literally means “bread,” but rottis are a world away from the dry bread you find in the West. Soaked in oil overnight before being fried on a hot stove, the godamba rotti is the most popular rotti for a reason. Very similar to the Indian parata, it’s both moist and crisp. Another favorite is the pol rotti, or coconut rotti, which are really simple to make at home. These small bread disks have a firmer texture than the goddam rotti, and are usually served with a sambol or chili dip.
Kottu is without a doubt one of Sri Lanka’s most delicious dishes. If you want to know if a nearby café is selling kottu listen out for the clatter of the kottu knives – two blunt blades which chefs hammer against their hotplates to cut up larger pieces of godamba rotti. The rotti pieces, once chopped, are mixed with crunchy vegetables, spices and onion leaves. Cheese kottu is a popular choice, and you can also have it mixed up with pieces of meat. A few places even mix in coconut milk to give it an extra creamy texture.
Hoppers come in three varieties: standard, string and egg. The standard hopper is a thin, pancake-like snack expertly fried in a special round pan to achieve a perfect bowl shape. The best way to eat them is by tearing chunks off to dip in curries and pickles. If you’re feeling indulgent order an egg hopper; exactly the same as a standard one but with a cooked egg at the center of the bowl. To ensure you get the best taste order from somewhere that makes them fresh. String hoppers, which are made from a similar variety of flour, are more like little nests of noodles. Best served with dal curry.
One of the most interesting components of any Sri Lankan meal is pol sambol. This coconut and spice mix is fresh, spicy and satisfyingly crisp. This taste is achieved through serving all the ingredients raw, which include desiccated coconut, lime, red onion, chili, garlic and tomato. The chilli and tomato give the dish a lovely bright orange glow.
If you’re familiar with Indian food the curries won’t blow your mind, but they do taste a bit different here. The dal, for example, is mixed with a whole lot of coconut milk, while the brinjal (aubergine) curry has a lovely honey roasted quality. Specialty curries include jack fruit, banana flower and cashew.
King coconuts, rambutans and mangosteens
The bright orange, voluminous king coconut is a classic Sri Lankan sight, made extra special by the fact that you can’t find the orange variety anywhere else. King coconuts – also known as thambili – are sold on makeshift stalls on street corners. The seller will slice the nut open for you with a machete and hand you a straw so you can drink the juice. If you’re feeling hungry afterwards you can also get them to cut the fruit in half so you can scoop out the tasty coconut insides. Around June and July is rambutan and mangosteen season. These two fruits also have a cartoon like quality – one is fuzzy and brilliant red, while the other is round and black with cute, plump, stunted leaves. Both are deliciously sweet.
If you’re in the market for something indulgent try watalappam. This desert is a bit like crème caramel in terms of texture, but the taste is a little deeper, with hints of treacle. One of the main ingredients of watalappam is jaggery, a dark brown sugar made out of sap harvested from the date palm tree. This is mixed with coconut milk, cashews, eggs and spices.
By Joanna Eckersley
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