For such a small island, Sri Lanka’s culinary offering is diverse, and its histories are interwoven with the colonial influence of the Portuguese and Dutch, and fused with centuries old methods of preparation from our island’s own rich indigenous cultures. With so much on offer, we’ve put down 12 must-try dishes on your next trip through Sri Lanka.
1. Kiribath (Milk Rice)
In the west, you’d pop open a bottle of bubbly to celebrate a special occasion, in Sri Lanka, we celebrate with kiribath. A breakfast staple, kiribath (milk rice) is normally only served in the mornings, and is the local go-to dish to serve when marking auspicious occasions (a wedding, birthday, new year or the opening of a new space etc.). White or red rice is cooked in coconut milk with a pinch of salt over a low flame until it forms a mushy consistency. Once cooked, it’s cooled to room temperature before cut into diamond shaped slices, and served with an array of accompaniments which could include, but is not limited to, ripe bananas, lunu miris (a concoction of red onions pounded to a thick paste with with lime, red chilli, salt), and a chicken or fish curry.
2. Pol Sambol
No rice and curry is complete without a pol sambol, which is used to add an extra layer of flavour (and heat) to your overall meal. A traditional pol sambol can range from mildly spiced to fiery hot, so approach with caution. The simplest sambol is made using salt, chilli powder, onions, Maldive fish (optional), green chilli, pepper, lime and grated coconut. All this gets blended well by hand, or traditionally in a large pestle and mortar. It’s often served as an accompaniment to rice, string hoppers, pol roti or with local bread.
The island’s most popular street food, this dish is generally only served over dinner and consists of chopped parata roti (made of wheat flour), a meat of choice like beef, chicken or seafood, a scrambled egg, onions, carrot, leeks and chilli. All of these ingredients get chopped together with cleavers while they sizzle on a hot griddle.
4. Pol Roti
Possibly one of the most unique flat breads in the region, and the world, pol roti uses just a handful of simple ingredients and among them a Sri Lankan staple, freshly grated coconut. Combining coconut, wheat flour, salt, water, and a handful of chopped green chilies, onion and curry leaves, the dough is kneaded into a ball and requires no resting time. It’s then separated into smaller balls and flattened out using a rolling pin for a neat finish, or simply your hands. It’s then cooked over a hot, flat griddle for a few minutes on each side. pol roti is commonly served with curries like dhal, chicken or seafood curries or seeni sambol. We love the pol roti made at Camellia Hills. You might like to request for it made without the green chilli, onion and curry leaf combination, for a plainer version that goes down well with kids. Try it served warm with butter, jams or Marmite.
Lamprais, an Anglicised derivative of the Dutch word lomprijst, is a Sri Lankan dish introduced by the country’s Dutch Burgher population. The word Lamprais loosely translates to a packet or ‘lump of rice’, and believed to also have roots in the Indonesia dish Lemper. White rice is cooked in a flavoursome chicken broth, with several accompaniments that are mildly spiced, which normally include from chicken or pork, a fish cutlet, fried ash plantains, a boiled and fried egg, all assembled on the rice, which is then wrapped in a banana leaf and baked in an oven. The result is an feast that is comforting and unlike any other rice dish you would have tried before.
6. Crab Curry
Preparations for the iconic Sri Lankan crab vary, and depending on what you’re after you might like it hot or mildly spiced. The best places in the country to sample crab curry include the south coast, Jaffna crab curry in the north, the east coast, and Colombo’s acclaimed Ministry of Crab.
Egg Hoppers are made using a base of rice flour and coconut milk, and cooked in unique way that forms a natural basket shaped crepe of sorts, with a crisp outer shell and a soft, fluffy interior pillow, which can sometimes feature a poached egg. Hoppers are traditionally accompanied with a range of sambols and curries.
8. Tender Jackfruit (Polos) Curry
You may be familiar with tender jackfruit in western markets, an alternative ingredient to a beef patty in a burger, or as a vegan alternative filling in sausages, but here in Sri Lanka we slow cook chunks of it in a rich, dark blend of spices for a curry that is packed with flavour. The texture of tender or young jackfruit in its natural form remains meaty, making it a staple among vegetarians.
You may have tried a dhal (lentil) curry before, but it’s nothing like a Sri Lankan dhal curry which is mildly spiced and creamy, making it popular among anyone who has low spice tolerance.
10. Rice & Curry
Rice and curry ranks highest among Sri Lanka’s national meal. As many as 15 varieties of rice are grown on the island, and you may come across anywhere between 5 to 20 different curries served alongside it in a given meal which will traditionally include one protein and several different vegetable dishes. Preparations of curries vary as you travel between provinces on the island, but most curries are made using fresh coconut milk as a gravy base, incorporating a blend of spices and herbs, sometimes mild and sometimes fiery, setting our curry flavour profile apart from other sub-continent nations.
11. Ambul Thiyal and other fish curries
Originating from southern coastal villages of the island, Fish Ambulthiyal is a classic and signature dish, now popular across the country. The dry dish is made with dried garcinia and black pepper, which gives the fish a mildly spiced and sour flavour, and a method of preserving fish without refrigeration. Being an island nation, there are a dozen or more unique preparations for fish and seafood, ranging from mild coconut gravy based ‘yellow’ curries which are a popular method for prawns and white varieties of fish, or spicy tempered or red curries, which are more generous with the use of chillies.
12. Curd & Treacle
Sri Lankan curd is a more natural form of yogurt, made using fresh buffalo milk and set in breathable clay pots. Served with a drizzle of Kithul treacle, which is the local equivalent to maple syrup or honey.