For most Sri Lankans, rice and curry is a staple meal that can be had for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Depending on the meal, the rice and curry can be either very simple or incredibly rich in flavour and choice of curries. During breakfast, for instance, the rice is served as milk rice (kiri bath in local parlance) along with a single dollop of spicy chilli mix or accompanied by a fish or meat curry. For lunch, the canvas is greatly expanded: steamed rice is accompanied with a lentil stew (dhal or parippu), a meat or fish main and an assortment of vegetable curries including the ubiquitous pol sambol. This is a feast for the senses - the colours will dazzle, the aromas will hypnotize, and the taste buds turn into a stage for a dance of flavours. We recommend caution if you are unfamiliar with spicy food - replace the spicy 'red' curry with 'white' curries such as potato stew, gotukolla (Centella asiatica), beetroots.
You can eat rice and curry with cutlery, but you'll delight your local hosts if you can learn the fine art of eating with your right hand. Sri Lankans also take pleasure in teaching travellers how to eat with your hand.
But rice and curry isn't the only culinary option available. Sri Lanka's signature dishes can be perfect substitutes for the ever-present rice and curry. Look for hoppers, rotti, string hoppers, pittu, naan - all originating from rice, wholemeal flour or lentils so it's perfect for vegetarians today. These basic dishes, available island-wide, can be had for breakfast or dinner, accompanied by a range of vegetarian or non-vegetarian dishes.
This is a lacy pancake-like dish that is a good substitute for rice. Like its much-loved culinary cousin, string hoppers can be had with a variety of curries. We recommend starting with Parippu (Lentil Stew) and Pol Sambol (Coconut Relish) before adding a spicy Kukul Mas (Chicken Curry) or Maalu (Fish Curry)
Rice and Curry
The island’s most celebrated and revered meal consists of boiled or steamed rice served with curry. It usually consists of a 'main curry' of fish or meat, as well as several other curries made with vegetables, fruit (the local mango curry is divine!). Sri Lanka curries are famous for their blazing hot, tangy spicy flavors, while coconut milk is a distinct feature of the native cuisine. However, do keep in mind that ‘hot' is not to be taken lightly and it can prove challenging to a first timer's palette, so ensure you request that it not be overwhelming. There are also a plenty of mild curries are available as well.
Rice and curry can be enjoyed anywhere in Sri Lanka. Rice is served with an accompaniment of side dishes from vegetable, egg and meat curries to fish cooked with peppers and scrumptious spices often with coconut milk. The other traditional meals are String Hoppers (a noodles conceived of rice or wheat flour), Hoppers, (cup-shaped pancakes of rice flour), Rotti (a flat bread made of wheat and grated coconut) to Thosai (a sourdough pancake). Sambol is another unique side dish, and will be a mainstay during your visit. Whether you choose to spend your holiday in a Resort or Holiday Bungalow in the jungle, sambol will be on offer to tickle your tongue with a dash of spice thanks to the hot peppery flavor. It is made of scraped coconut mixed with a tinge of salt and plenty of red pepper. It is sometimes finely grounded into a paste and works well with bread.
Leaving aside the abovementioned, Sri Lanka offers a wonderful confluence of cuisine from our South Indian neighbors, Arab and Moorish traders, the Portuguese and Dutch settlers.
These are concave pancakes, made with a mixture of rice flour and coconut milk that have crispy sides and a soft centre. These hoppers can be eaten accompanied by spicy curry, pickles or a dollop of butter and sprinkled with sugar. Absolutely incredible when eaten hot.
For locals, the jackfruit can be an almost endless source of sustenance. When ripe it is a sweet, juicy pungent fruit - but when unripe it is almost a vegetable in its characteristics. In the case of the latter, the flesh of the jackfruit is boiled and marinated in spices to create what is known as polos curry in Sri Lanka. The curry has an almost meat-like texture that is a culinary disorienting for those who have never tried the delicacy before.
Biriyani and Lamprais
Rice, being a staple dish, allows for many a culinary enhancement. One such variant is the Biryani. Cooked in stock like paella and risotto, the Biriyani is more aromatic as this one-pot dish becomes a theatre for meat - usually chicken, but mutton, beef and even prawns make for fabulous additions - and vegetables to soak their flavours into the rice. Meanwhile, other embellishments such as spices, ghee, mustard seeds, coriander leaves and cashews are added to make Biriyani a truly opulent culinary experience.
The lamprais is another rice-based variant that we recommend you try at least once during your visit to Sri Lanka. Here the rice is boiled in turmeric, coconut milk and yellow spices. The rice is then packed in a banana leaf along with onion pickle salad, Maldives fish chips, a boiled egg, and large chunk of chicken breast or mutton - the banana leaf seals the aroma, while contributing a distinct leafiness to the wall of competing aromas.
Kiri means milk, and bath means rice; Kiribath is the centre-piece dish when ushering in Sri Lankan New Year or any special occasion. In recent times, it has become a staple during breakfast time. Easy to eat - it requires only one accompaniment - and is much loved.
Soft, steamy and crumbly, Pittu is made with rice flour and grated coconut, steamed in a mould that is bamboo-trunk in shape. Eaten with dhal, pol sambol and a meat curry.
Made on a hot plate, thosai is a Sri Lankan pancake. The batter is made from lentils - have it prepared either thick and fluffy, or paper-thin with golden orange centre; in the latter case, some eateries offer masala variants of thosai which is basically a stuffed pancake. The stuffing can either be potatoes, mushrooms, or caramelised onions. The thosai is accompanied by sambar (spicy vegetable stew) dip, chutney or pol sambol.
Kottu (or Kottu Roti)
The roti - a flat bread made out of wheat flour - is chopped (ergo kottu) and mixed with fried vegetables, meat or fish. The process of making it is typified by the loud, rhythmic clanging that you hear in eateries visited by locals.
Kukul Mas Curry (Chicken Curry)
This is a chicken that is marinated in authentic spices, herbs and cooked in thick coconut milk. The curry gravy is so good you'll be licking your fingers.
Parippu (Dhal Curry)
This dish is essentially lentil stew - dhal is a favourite accompaniment to rice, roti, pittu, or string hoppers. It is less spicy - though adventurous locals do make one for the spicier palate - and is cooked in coconut milk, with turmeric powder, salt, green chillies, onion and curry leaves.
Pol Sambol (Coconut Relish)
Along with dhal, the favoured accompaniment to just about any Sri Lankan dish - including a recent trend that has seen it be as filing for cheese sandwiches - this is a concoction made out finely grated coconut, mixed and ground finely with sliced onions, dried red chilli along with just a helping of salt and lime. Some pol sambol can be hot and spicy.
Gotu Kola Sambol (Pennywort Salad)
We've all been told to eat our greens, but honestly it'd be easy if our greens were presented like a gotukolla. The Gotukolla (Centella asiatica) is thinly chopped with coconut, sliced onion and green chillies. Like the pol sambol, salt and lime can be added for seasoning.
For locals, the jackfruit can be an almost endless source of sustenance. When ripe it is a sweet, juicy pungent fruit - but when unripe it is almost a vegetable in its characteristics. In the case of the latter, the flesh of the jackfruit is boiled and marinated in spices to create what is known as polos curry in Sri Lanka. The curry has an almost meat-like texture that is a culinarily disorienting for those who have never tried the delicacy before.
Sri Lanka has tropical fruits including pineapple, guava, mangoes, wood apples, bananas, watermelons that are available almost throughout the year, and seasonal fruits - rambutan, durian and mangosteen – which are favourites among locals and visitors. In the central hilly regions, you'd be hard-pressed to find more delicious strawberries.
Traditional Sweetmeats and Dessert
Sri Lanka has a rich tradition of desserts. The best time to sample these would be during festivals, especially the Sinhala and Tamil New Year in April, during Ramadan and Thai Pongal. These desserts range from oil cakes such as kavvum and kokkis, to curd and treacle, watalappam and sweet rice.
Maalu Curry (Fish Curry)
Similar to the Kukul Mas curry, this involves marinating a fish (usually Tuna fish), in thick coconut gravy along with spices and herbs.