For many travellers, the quest for a memorable food experience is paramount when considering which destination to visit next. If you’re craving a cuisine rich in flavour and delicately spiced, then Sri Lanka has plenty of mouth-watering options for you to indulge in.
Travel to: Sri Lanka
This country is blessed with a tropical climate, which offers fresh vegetables, coconuts, fruit and spices in abundance. Being an island destination, Sri Lanka’s food offering includes an array of fresh fish and seafood too. Whether you’re eating from a street vendor, a roadside cafe or in a hotel restaurant, there’s plenty of delicious food to try. This is where to find the best food experiences in Sri Lanka.
Where to find the best food experiences in Sri Lanka
Eat breakfast like a local
Wander along the streets of any town or city in Sri Lanka in the morning and you’ll see cooks working hard within each shop front or cafés juggling small woks over an open fire. They’re filling and twirling these little pans and dishing out hoppers to hungry diners.
Hoppers are bowl-shaped pancakes made from a mixture of rice flour and coconut milk. The mixture is spread evenly around a small wok-like pan and put over heat. They take only moments to cook, then filled with ingredients of your choice.
Savoury hoppers can include cooked egg, cheese, spiced minced meat, fried onions or coconut sambol. Hoppers are often served with a small bowl of dahl (yellow lentils, onions, spices) on the side.
You can also find hoppers with sweet fillings, like honey or coconut palm syrup and fresh curd (buffalo yoghurt). Yum!
Another typical Sri Lankan breakfast includes a plate of string hoppers (small nests of steamed rice vermicelli noodles) and warmed roti (flatbread). This is served alongside a bowl of dahl, coconut sambol and a small bowl of fish or vegetable curry.
Foodie tip: The best string hoppers in Colombo can be found in many cafes along Galle Road.
Consume endless amounts of rice and curry
This is the national dish of Sri Lanka – you’ll find it on almost every menu, a plate costs only a few dollars. Sri Lankan curries are colourful dishes made from vegetables, lentils, chicken, mutton or fish and are served with pickled fruit and vegetables, chutneys and sambol.
Coconut sambol is especially popular, and is made with freshly grated coconut and blended with onion, curry leaves and chilli powder. It’s eaten alongside curry to add sweetness and texture to the dish.
For a real cultural food experience and to enjoy rice and curry just as the locals do, then do away with the cutlery and eat with your fingers. Lower your head close to the plate, take small scoops of food with your fingertips and try not to put your fingers in your mouth.
What’s the secret? Use your thumbs to push the food into your mouth. Eating with your hand is the best way to enjoy the flavours and textures of the food and there’s something about making a personal connection with your food that makes it taste better. As with many countries in Asia, remember to use only your right hand to eat as the left hand is reserved for sanitary activities – so don’t get the two confused.
Foodie tip: A great restaurant to try Sri Lankan curries – Upali’s Restaurant – Address No. 65 C W Kannangara Mawatha, Colombo
Enjoy short eats while you’re on the go
A mix of cheap snacks bought from small cafés or street food vendors is always available throughout the country called short eats. They’re eaten on the go, mainly for breakfast or during the evening.
Short eats include scrumptious little pastries filled with vegetables, meat or fish. Another choice is the popular meat or vegetable roti (flatbread stuffed with filling, rolled into different shapes and cooked on a hot plate). One of the best snacks you’ll find is paper cone full of hot, fresh chickpeas and spices, fresh herbs, slivered almonds and chilli. Short eats are a great option to take on those long bus journeys to your next destination. You’ll pay about 50 cents for each and always try to request the freshest ones when ordering.
Foodie tip: The main street of Kandy is fantastic for street food options. This is a heavily populated Muslim area and you’ll find delicious mutton curries and biriyani dishes here too, cooking away in huge pots. You know it’s going to be good if that’s the only thing they serve.
What I enjoy the most are the friendly personalities, spicy cuisine and the amazing wildlife. Sri Lanka has so many endemic species, especially reptiles and amphibians, so if you visit for the time, you will be blown away by the biodiversity that you will find just outside your door. Sri Lanka also has so many micro-climates as you move across the island, so you can discover a variety of flora and fauna, wherever you decide to explore. Yala National Park, Singharaja Forest Reserve and Uduwalawe National Park are my top three wildlife locations to visit. Another one of my favorite places to visit is Nuwara Eliya. This is where the tea plantations are located and it’s much cooler than the rest of the country. If you are trying to escape the heat, then this is the place to go!
Sri Lankan cuisine is my all time favorite – there’s something for everyone. Rice and curry are a staple, and the variety of side dishes you will be served at restaurants are mouth watering. I think about pol sambol (spicy coconut), mallum (green salad), crab curry and parippu (moong dal) on a bed of rice all the time. Since Sri Lanka is an island, they really specialize in their seafood dishes, so trying the fish and shrimp dishes is a must. Also if you get the chance to try kothu roti, please do! Even watching how it is made is really fun. If you need to grab something quickly, you will find that Sri Lankans love their pastries and short-eats, like mutton rolls and fish buns. These savoury treats will keep you filled until your next meal.
I should also give credit to food that needs almost no prep like the fresh fruits! If you get the chance, stop by a roadside fruit stand and help yourself to all the mangoes and rabutan that you can! – Thanushi, Thanushi Eagalle
Feast on Kothu roti everywhere
This is another staple dish and it’s available everywhere. You’ll no doubt consume a few of these during your visit. A roti (flatbread) is chopped into pieces and fried up with any ingredient that is on hand; onions, spring onions, cabbage, grated carrot, egg, bacon, chicken pieces and chilli. It’s the equivalent of a pho in Vietnam or Pad Thai in Thailand because it’s tasty, cheap and quick to prepare. You’ll hear this dish being prepared before you see it.
All ingredients are thrown onto a hot plate and rapidly chopped and flipped with two meat cleavers making a loud racket, but that’s also part of the performance to entice you over to order a serve.
Head to the beach for seafood
When you reach the coastal towns of Sri Lanka, the best food experiences are all about the fresh seafood. There’s no better place to grab your meal of choice then head to the beach. Most evenings in many of the coastal beach towns that you must have on your go-to-list (Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna, and Mirissa to name a few), you’ll find small restaurants and tables set up on the beach. Fish, lobster, crabs & prawns caught that day are on display and you can choose what you like. Meals are usually served with chips, potatoes or salad.
Expect to pay around $11 per person for a fresh grilled fish, half a dozen big prawns served with fries and salad. The atmosphere dining on the beach is always an enjoyable experience. You can’t beat a tropical breeze, the sound of the ocean and a cold beer or fresh coconut to accompany your meal.
Foodie tip: Eat delicious seafood in Colombo, try Ministry of Crab Address: No 04, Old Dutch Hospital, Colombo 01
There’s something for everyone in Sri Lanka – pristine beaches down South, the North of the countryside with mountain ranges and tea plantations, places of cultural and religious significance for the Hindus and Buddhists, wildlife and ocean sanctuaries, and just the most exquisite food. But what I remember most fondly about my trip to Sri Lanka are the people. Never in any of my travels have I met such warm, friendly, articulate locals who would go out of their way to help tourists out. Not to mention the immense pride they resonate for their country via their ever smiling faces.
I remember this fantastic sea food meal we had during our home-stay in Hikkaduwa, where our hosts treated us to a fresh catch of shrimp and trout. They then proceeded to grill these in the backyard using local spices which we polished off with their local spirit Arrack. The combination of the simple yet immensely flavorful meal, coupled with the entire experience of eating with the locals made this a meal I’d never forget. While in coastal Sri Lanka, don’t forget to treat yourself to an array of sea food that is so fresh, you can literally taste the ocean in your mouth. – Zenia, Branded Bawi’s Biography
Top foodie tips
Here are a few handy tips to ensure that you don’t miss out on finding the best food experiences in Sri Lanka. In fact, these tips apply to all of your culinary adventures around the world!
Also worth noting is that a great food experience doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive. You’ll probably find that the simple and affordable dining spots you happen to stumble upon during your trip will be the most memorable.
- Ask a local: It’s incredible what valuable information you can get, if only you just ask. Once you’ve arrived and settled in, simply ask your hotel or host (or even your tuk-tuk driver) where they would eat. Ask them to recommend you somewhere that is affordable, local and not full of tourists. Particularly in the busier cities like Colombo or Kandy, there are great places to eat but sometimes a little harder to find for visitors. If you’re on a budget, perhaps ask some students on the streets where they eat.
- Eat where the locals eat: Keep a lookout for eateries that are busy with locals dining inside, not tourists. Locals live in the area, so they know where to find the best and most affordable food. Ask the waitperson to advise you of the signature dish or what they recommend is best. It’s always a good idea to look around to see what other diners are eating.Often, you’ll find that they’ve ordered something cooked fresh that day and usually the best value too.
My favorite memories of Sri Lanka are climbing 12,000 steps up the legendary rock of Sigiriya, hiking through the cooling hills of Nuwara Eliya, visiting temples in Wellawaya and Dikwella, playing on Mirissa beach, and exploring the charming shops and cafes in the city of Galle whilst getting a custom-made silver ring for a great price! After traveling through the country for a week, my last meal there turned out to be my favorite – at Paradise Road the Gallery Cafe in Colombo. -Joyce, Kinky Blue Fairy
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