Getting to taste and try local food is one of the most exciting aspects of travelling for me. Sri Lankan food may sound simple but is deceptively complex. What is listed on the menu as Rice and Curry is often comprised of four or five different curries with additional sauces. We’ve found the food to be fresh, tasty and very spicy – here are a few of our favourites:
Breakfast – String Hoppers & Dahl
Most guesthouses around Sri Lanka will provide you with breakfast and the quality can vary greatly. A good Sri Lankan breakfast will fill you up for most of the day, getting you ready for whatever activities (or beach lounging) you have planned.
We often get served String Hoppers, which are little nets of rice flour noodles, accompanied by Dhal and Potato Curry. This goes really well with a fried egg where available, and is often served with coconut sambol – a delicious mix of coconut and spices that really heats up your breakfast.
You might also get some fruit, typically banana, pineapple and papaya. There will be plenty of tea and coffee available, though juice is less common.
Your breakfast might be included in the price of your stay, if not it should cost between 200 and 500 LKR ($2 to $5 AUD).
Lunch – Rice & Curry
Rice and Curry is the lunchtime staple that powers the nation. From hole-in-the-wall stalls to fancy restaurants, this ubiquitous dish is different in every place you eat it.
Usually you receive a large plate of rice with a number of small individual curries that vary each day. Common curries include Dhal, Beans, Onion Sambol, Jackfruit and Lady Fingers. Most are vegetarian, but it’s best to double check because some vegetable curries include dried fish. Rice & Curry is often served with papadums and chutney. It’s can also be very spicy – luckily lots of restaurants also sell small tubs of curd or yoghurt to cool you down!
We primarily ate vegetarian curry, though at most places you can order a piece of chicken or fish to go with your meal (we found these were sometimes suspect and mostly bone). A vegetarian curry at a local restaurant will set you back between 150 and 300 LKR ($1 to 3 AUD).
Dinner – Kottu & Hoppers
I’m a big fan of Anthony Bordain’s ‘No Reservations’ but I don’t think he’s done a show featuring Sri Lanka yet. I might have to write to him because Kottu Rotti is right up his alley. Like a good kebab, Kottu is best enjoyed after a couple (or many) beers. Vegetables, egg and rotti bread are all combined on a large hot plate and loudly chopped into a million pieces until you get this perfect combination of savoury, salty, spicy deliciousness.
Kottu Rotti is Sri Lanka’s fast food. It is sold at roadside stalls all over the country and you can hear the clanging of the metal spatulas as soon as the sun goes down. It’s sometimes served with chicken (check that it’s boneless first though, most of the time it’s not) and the Colombo specialty is with cheese (unbelievably naughty and good). We like to order it with a side of chicken gravy (essentially a meatless curry) and some hoppers.
Like Rice & Curry, no Kottu recipe is ever the same – every restaurant and roadside stall does it their own way. Most will ask you if you like it spicy, and if you go back to the same place a few times they usually dial the spice up to see how much you can take! A half Kottu is generally about 100 to 200 LKR ($1 to 2 AUD) – a full one will usually serve two. We often order extra and then fry it up for breakfast the next morning like a hash brown, topped with a runny egg!
Snacks – Short Eats & King Coconuts
You can find ‘Short Eats’ everywhere – just look out for the glass cabinets at the front of shops, restaurants, cafes, bus stations, train stations and pretty much everywhere else! Short Eats are pastries or rotti bread with delicious fillings, and like everything else they are different in most places you try them.
There are no menus for Short Eats, so just ask the attendant and they will tell you what is in inside. Most common are vegetables or curried egg, while fish and meat are more rare. Lots of them are quite spicy!
Our favourites are the ‘egg rolls’ – a puffy rotti triangle that has been filled with boiled egg and curry, and then deep fried to give it a crispy, golden crust. These are the perfect snack when you are on the road, taking long bus trips or going on a hike.
A great way to wash these down is with a King Coconut (also called Thambili). You will see collections of golden coconuts, usually still on the branch, at roadside stalls and shops throughout the country. Just take your pick, wait for the attendant to cut the top off with his machete and then enjoy the sweet, refreshing coconut water inside. Don’t forget to bring a metal straw so you don’t need a plastic one!
An egg or veggie short eat will set you back between 30 and 50 LKR ($0.20 to $0.40 AUD) and two or three will fill you up for a few hours. A King Coconut will usually cost between 50 and 100 LKR ($0.40 to $1 AUD) with prices tending to be higher in tourist-heavy areas.