An Introduction to Sri Lankan Cuisine

An Introduction to Sri Lankan Cuisine

Posted on Mar 2, 2022

"Is it like Indian food?" That's the first question most people ask about Sri Lankan cuisine — if they know where the tiny island nation is, which is rare. (It's just southeast of the southern tip of India).

My stock answer? "Sort of."

There are some common elements, to be sure. But the "rice and curry" spreads that make up most Sri Lankan meals are pretty different from the northern saag paneer or Goan vindaloo at your local lunch buffet. Sri Lankan food offers a vivid array of flavor combinations: sweet caramelized onion relishes, bitter melon, spicy scraped coconut, and the burn of curry tamed by mild rice, and palm sugar sweetened desserts. Samosas and dhal (lentil curry) look familiar, but upon closer inspection, these, too, have a definitively Sri Lankan spin: these thinner curries tend to be more heavily spiced than many Indian versions, and the cuisine is more inclusive of non-native ingredients, brought by international trade moving through the island. Foods that seemed to be known territory find exciting new applications in Sri Lanka, where noodles come in pancake form and pancakes serve as both bowl and base of the feast.

The Basics

Sri Lankan food is not for the timid eater: the fiery curries, sweet caramelized onion in seeni sambal (onion relish), and sour lime pickle are all dominant, powerful flavors that startle awake senses dulled by the thick, hot island air. While visitors to the island—or those eating in Sri Lankan restaurants outside the country—may find watered down versions, most Sri Lankan cooking is unapologetically, punch-you-in-the-face, get-the-adrenaline-pumping flavored.

Rice is an ever-present antidote to these big flavors. A meal in Sri Lanka is called "rice and curry"—a term that's almost synonymous with food in general. There's rice, of course, and usually a curry with a thin broth and large chunks of the featured protein (beef, pork, fish, goat, and on from there), plus an assortment of side dishes—anywhere from four to nine or ten, depending on the time and place. For a quicker bite, there are "short eats," a Sri Lankan term essentially denoting snacks—often a coconut roti with hot sauce, a newspaper cone of fried spiced chickpeas, or maybe a samosa.

All the food, whether coconut sambal made from coconut plucked from a nearby tree and served as part of a rice and curry, or a shrimp vadai (fritter) purchased from a vendor through a train window and wrapped in his children's old schoolwork, bears marks of Sri Lanka's geography and culture. As with many island nations, traders rampaged across the island, bringing spices (the now ubiquitous red pepper), dishes (a "Chinese roll" looks suspiciously like what we'd call an egg roll in the States), and whole categories of food (such as Dutch sweets).

75% of Sri Lankans are Sinhalese (mostly Buddhist), and the food generally described as Sri Lankan is their food. Tamils (mostly Hindus), especially those in the north, use slightly different spices and other ingredients in their curries, but the format of the dishes is similar to food found on the rest of the island. Many Westerners' only reference to Tamil culture is the Tamil Tigers, a group of militant separatists from the north. Since the government's defeat of the group in 2009, the island is quite safe for tourists, though the new reputation has not fully spread—so this exciting, delicious destination remains affordable to visit. (If this article makes your mouth water, go now!)

Muslims, mostly on the east coast of the island, have popularized dishes familiar from other parts of the world, such as biryani, and the Burghers (descendants of colonial Europeans) introduced Dutch and Portuguese candies and desserts.

Essential Ingredients in Sri Lankan Cuisine

The building blocks of Sri Lankan cuisine are rice, coconut, and native tropical fruits and vegetables. Every Sri Lankan cookbook I've found has multiple pages on the preparation of rice, with one, Ceylon Cookery, devoting five full pages to the topic. The island grows some 15 varieties of rice (down from 280 just 50 years ago, and 400 in times before that), some of which are used for various types of rice flour pancakes (called hoppers) and rice noodles (called string hoppers).

When asked if I recommend Sri Lanka as a vacation destination, I'd say yes to everyone—unless they're allergic to coconut. Stacks of yellow king coconut are fixtures on the side of the road, ready to be hacked open by a young man or little old lady wielding a machete. The liquid inside puts commercial coconut water to shame; the real stuff has a perfectly clean, sweet-without-the-sticky taste. (Pro tip: after you finish your king coconut, hand it back to the vendor, who will crack it open and craft a spoon from the side, so you can scrape out the coconut meat within.)

But coconut's not just for drinking: every rice and curry is served with pol sambal, a scraped coconut condiment that varies in spiciness from table to table. Coconut is a major ingredient in the greens dish mallum, and, of course, it's a big player in the island's sweets. When I started testing Sri Lankan recipes, the first thing I did was buy a giant bag of desiccated coconut.

Stroll through the countryside and the fragrant smell of cardamom and curry leaves will inevitably grab you. In the city, piles of turmeric and fennel seed sit in ceramic pots at the market, waiting patiently for their turn in a curry. These spices are fundamental to the cuisine, serving as the base for the many curries, sambals (relishes), sundals (salads), and mallums (greens dishes) served with most meals. Black pepper is native to the island and was the most powerful spice in Sri Lankan cooking before spicy peppers arrived on colonial era trading ships. Black pepper curries still pop up on menus, and are worth seeking out for the original flavors of the island—and because they offer an entirely different type of heat.

Once chili peppers arrived, they took off: over 60 types grow on the island, and you can judge the spiciness of most dishes by how much of the blush of red pepper, used fresh or dried, it has taken on. To continue making a curry, you'll likely need fenugreek, cardamom, cumin, fennel seed, cloves, and coriander, all used whole or ground. From underground, garlic, ginger, and turmeric are often added in chunks, while curry leaves and pandan leaves are used fresh. Finally, a list of Sri Lankan curry ingredients would be incomplete without the local cinnamon, often called Ceylon cinnamon, after the island's former name. (What we usually call cinnamon in the US is actually the less subtle and balanced cassia, rather than the warm, gently spicy and floral-scented Ceylon cinnamon).

The real distinction of Sri Lankan cuisine is not the individual spices used, but the prominence with which they're featured. Mercy John, the Tamil proprietress of Victoria Guest House on the east coast of Sri Lanka and a masterful cook, says that all spices should be fried in mustard oil before they are used in a curry. Ceylon Cookery, an instruction manual geared toward Sri Lankan young people just starting their own households, offers instructions on unroasted, roasted, and fried spice curries. Whatever the starting base of the curry, it is often topped in the end with a smattering of fried spices (the process of frying them and adding at the end is called tempering), so that vivid flavor is never missing.

There's one more key component to many dishes: Maldive fish. It's bonito tuna that's boiled, dried in intense sun until rock-hard, and shredded. While it's used to add savoriness, it is not as pungent as the fish sauce or dried or fermented fish or shrimp of Asian cuisines further East. "Care should be taken," Ceylon Cookery instructs, "not to allow the Maldive fish flavour to predominate over other flavours." Meat and fish curries are generally left to develop their own strong flavors, but nearly every vegetable dish gets the fish's umami injection. It is nearly imperceptible, other than an underlying boost to the flavor, much like that of MSG—you'll hardly notice a "fishy" flavor.

Sri Lankan Curries

Sri Lankan curries feature sizable chunks of fresh protein swimming in bright, fragrantly-spiced broths. Along the coasts, you'll often see fish, shrimp, or crab. In the high hills of central Sri Lanka, pork is used; chicken, beef, goat, and lamb are found island-wide. Crab curry is the stunner, and rightly famous, with the delicate local crab meat absorbing brilliant Sri Lankan spices.

A curry's color is determined by how various spices are initially used and treated. Pork curry, which you'll see in every color from light yellow to a nearly black shade, is often made with golaka, a dried fruit somewhat like tamarind, which gives sticky, sour notes to balance the otherwise rich broth (the pork is always cooked with all the fat left on). Deep red "Jaffna curry," usually Tamil-style versions from the northern part of the island, is most often made with goat and with seafood. The goat version tends to be the hotter, with even more peppers than you'll find elsewhere, standing up to the strong flavor of the meat. Seafood curries, meanwhile, often have an additional secret ingredient: the ground, dried stalk of the palm fruit. Used as a thickener and for its nutty flavor, it's not an easy ingredient to find outside Sri Lanka.

Side Dishes

On the table with the main curry, there is always a pappadum (lentil crisp), some coconut sambal, and a lentil curry (dhal). This is not so different from any dhal you'd find at an Indian restaurant, though Sri Lankan dhal tends toward a thinner texture, and, again, the spices are amplified.

What else to serve with a curry? Some version of savory onion sambal (lunu miris) is common, with chopped shallots, lime juice, Maldive fish, and red pepper to provide a sharp, spicy bite with a touch of raw shallot crunch. Seeni sambal (sweet condiment), usually made with rich caramelized onions brings a softer, more mild spice, tamed by the sugary sweetness. There is no road map for how to eat the condiments served with Sri Lankan food, but since you're digging in with your fingers, scooping up a bit with your rice and curry is usually easiest, though sambal can also be spooned onto a roti or pappadum.

When it comes to vegetables, the British influence is evident, with curries featuring carrots, potatoes, eggplant, and pumpkin. More indigenous vegetables used in the similar preparations include the straw-like shaft of the drumstick plant (eaten by scraping out the insides with your teeth, as you would an artichoke leaf, it has a vegetal flavor vaguely reminiscent of asparagus), the tender heart of the jackfruit, and the pucker-inducing bitter gourd. Aside from being curried, any of these might instead show up deviled (heavily spiced and cooked with onions, peppers, and often tomatoes), or in a sambal-type condiment (fried, then mixed with shallot, green chili, Maldive fish, and lime juice). Leafy vegetables receive a different treatment in dishes called mallum: literally, to "mix up." Mallum is made from shredded leaves (kale, mustard greens, cabbage, or others) with scraped coconut, lime juice, onion, chili, and Maldive fish.

Breakfast in Sri Lanka

Though most meals—whatever the hour—consist of rice and curry, hoppers are also a breakfast staple, taking over the starch portion of the meal. These bowl-shaped pancakes, cooked in a rounded pan (like a miniature wok), are best with an egg fried into the bottom. Made from fermented rice flour, they are used to pick up many of the same curries and accoutrements that rice would, especially the sweetened seeni sambals.

String hoppers are rice-flour noodles, thin as vermicelli, drizzled into a flat circle, steamed, and piled into a many-layered stack to form a sort of noodle pancake. A thin coconut curry gravy is often added to any curry tray with string hoppers.

Another popular breakfast, Kiribath, is "milk rice": rice prepared with coconut milk, flattened, and shaped into diamonds or squares. Kiribath is served with seeni sambal and curries, or sometimes simply jaggery (palm sugar) as a sweeter option. Pittu also makes an appearance in the morning. Made of roasted rice flour mixed with coconut, it's steamed inside bamboo until just solid enough that it barely holds together as you swipe it through a curry.

The non-rice-based starches that you'll see in Sri Lankan food tend to be the dishes that come from Indian neighbors: dosa (sometimes spelled thosai) and gambota roti (like a Southeast Asian roti, a flaky, layered pancake). There's also a uniquely Sri Lankan version of roti, made with coconut flour. It forms a thick disk, and can be found at breakfast and throughout the day as a "short eat" at roadside stands, where a generous dollop of chili sauce makes it a sustaining snack.

Sometimes served for breakfast, but also appearing as a snack or dessert, buffalo curd is another iconic local food. A thick, yogurt-like concoction made from the milk of the water buffalo, it's sold throughout Sri Lanka in disposable pottery. It's often drizzled with what's called treacle, but is actually the sap of the kithul palm. The cool, thick curd has the flavor of fresh cream laced with umami, and a texture almost as thick as ice cream—but at refrigerated temperature. The flavor of treacle, closer to a strong maple syrup than a light honey, is an excellent contrast to the cool, clear curd, with textural differences as well: sticky syrup on soft dairy.

Short eats.

According to the Ceylon Daily News's Cookery Book—a sort of Sri Lankan Joy of Cooking—"short eats" are derived from the tidbits Europeans on the island served with sherry at six in the evening, a sort of cocktail party nosh. Now they're ubiquitous snacks, served from midday onward and encompassing far more than tea sandwiches.

Kotthu or kotthu roti takes flaky roti bread and chops it up on a flat top with vegetables, meats, and/or eggs, resulting in a fried-rice-like dish, where tiny pieces of chopped bread replace the grains of rice. Those same roti can be found folded around egg, chicken, or any number of other fillings to become something of a mini-wrap. It's a delightful little package.

Cutlets are more like croquettes—breaded balls often made of beef, chicken, or shrimp. And as long as we're talking deep-fried wonders, it would be a crime to miss the vadai—various deep-fried lentil fritters. There are many doughnut-shaped versions: corn-studded vadai, spicy vadai dotted with the green of curry leaf, and ones with tiny shrimp sticking out. They are dense, and tend to be hard on the outside, but moist on the interior, and as Fernando says in Rice and Curry, "the perfect cure for the munchies." Further exploration of short eats turns up more familiar dishes: spicy chickpeas served in a paper cone, empanada-like patties, and samosas with various spicy fillings.

Sri Lankan Dessert

If you're not full after all that, Sri Lanka has you covered on desserts. Owing much to the Dutch and Portuguese traditions of sweets—and a little to the Brits and Malays—it's hard to go far in Sri Lanka without running into a sugary treat. In a restaurant, the dessert you'll most likely find is watallapan. (How to pronounce that? As user churro89 on Reddit put it, it sounds like "what will happen.") It's similar to flan, but made from coconut and, like any good island dessert, the coconut palm sugar jaggery. Air bubbles keep the thick dessert from getting too heavy, and a good dose of chopped nuts on top gives a little bit of crunch to the otherwise soft sweet.

If you're traveling in Sri Lanka, you may spot tall, narrow trucks or modified tuk-tuks with clear sides driving around, displaying baked goods and sweets for sale. They offer coconut pancakes and string hoppers (much like the savory breakfast kind described above), both wrapped around jaggery. The mild, starchy wrap contrasts the blast of crunchy sweetness. You'll also find the enticing-looking halapa: a mix of kurakkan (red millet) flour, coconut flour, and jaggery wrapped in a kanda leaf and steamed. It has the subtle flavor of the leaf (somewhat similar to a banana leaf), and a distinctive, thick texture, which had me guessing, mistakenly, it was made in part from dried bananas. If your sweet tooth's not satisfied yet, head to the markets or mini-marts for vast selections of packaged sweets: fudgy toffees, British cakes, and Indian candies.

How and Where to Eat Sri Lankan Food

Now that I've gotten you all excited about Sri Lankan food, here's the bad news: it is it isn't that easy to find. Even in Sri Lanka, the best way to eat good, authentic meals is to knock on the door of "rests" (the local version of a guesthouse) and ask them to cook you dinner later that night. Tourist hotels and guesthouses catering to Westerners tend to do watered-down versions of local food or pretty terrible attempts at Western food.

Finding recipes to cook Sri Lankan food at home is equally difficult. In the two books we bought in Sri Lanka, geared toward Sri Lankans, measurements were often vague or non-existent, while in the one we bought geared for Americans, they were clearly just wrong. Either way, you're forced to simply cook as they do in Sri Lanka: adding a little of this and a little of that, cooking by instinct and seasoning to taste. If you're in New York, you can follow this guide to Sri Lankan food, or, if you're near Vancouver, BC, you can hit up House of Dosas for a taste.

Wherever you find it, the key to enjoying Sri Lankan food is simple: don't be afraid of strong flavors. Armed with a big appetite, and a big bowl of rice to cool off after tongue-searing curries, you'll be ready to conquer a table full of curry, dhal, mallum, sambal, and all the rest.

Note on spelling: English spelling of Sri Lankan dishes varies in cookbooks, on signs, and on menus throughout the country. I've adopted what seems to be the most common version as my spelling preference.

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