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What’s the food like in Sri Lanka?

A few FAQs concerning food in Sri Lanka: what will I eat, is it spicy, is it vegetarian friendly, is it good for kids...

In the UK in particular, Indian food is very well-known and restaurants serving Indian food ubiquitous, (even if chefs and owners are often of Bangladeshi or Pakistani origin). However, prospective visitors to Sri Lanka are often less familiar with the island’s cuisine, so, in reply to some of the FAQs; what’s the food like in Sri Lanka; is it spicy, are vegetarians and vegans catered for, is it good for kids and are restaurants hygienic etc, here’s a brief rundown on what to expect from Sri Lankan food. Note we say brief – we’re not going to list all the dishes or describe detailed recipes – there are plenty of excellent Sri Lankan cookery sites out there.

What’s the food like in Sri Lanka?

With a location just off the southeast coast of India, there is an assumption that Sri Lankan food will be the same – or at least very similar. The Indian subcontinent, of course, covers a huge range of styles and ingredients and there are similarities with certain South Indian dishes – think Keralese fish curries for example. Being an island, fish is a mainstay of the diet while the locally prolific king coconut palms are used to create coconut cream sauces often more reminiscent of Thai or Malaysian curries than the Madras or Vindaloo in your local Indian eatery at home.

Colombo street market, Sri Lanka
The yellow-orange coloured ‘king coconut’ variety

Sri Lanka’s ethnic mix of Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim also leads to different styles while you’ll see variations in cuisine between coastal regions such as Galle, Negombo and Trincomalee and highland areas such as Kandy or Nuwara Eliya. There are also Malay and even Dutch influences. (Tamil dishes in Jaffna or Trincomalee show obvious similarities with South Indian Tamil dishes while highland cooking uses more temperate vegetables such as cauliflower or beetroot.)

Most visitors will be familiar with the locally grown spices but in addition to cumin, coriander, cinnamon, turmeric et al, fresh herbs such as lemongrass, curry leaves and pandana leaves are common ingredients. In addition to the curries and rice, you’ll see familiar dahls, flatbreads – rotis and kottu – but salads such as mallung, (vegetables with grated coconut) or gotu kola mallung, (pennywort salad), also accompany many meals. Hoppers are an iconic local speciality and consist of very thin, crispy, pancakes made from a slightly sour batter and eaten with dips and curries. (We find them somewhat reminiscent of dosas but not everyone agrees.)

What's the food like in Sri Lanka
Some of the fresh produce on display at a village market in Hamilewa District
Is Sri Lankan food spicy?

While herbs and spices abound, chillies are used with restraint and on the whole Sri Lankan food is not very spicy in the hot sense. Some curries and even salads may have a bit of a kick but it’s easy enough to request ‘mild’ while in many hotels and restaurants catering to visitors, you may even find yourself asking for ‘spicy’ as dishes will generally be toned down for perceived tastes. The chilli hit, if so desired, generally comes from sambal – a spicy side dip usually made from grated coconut, lime juice, chillies etc. (There are infinite varieties.)

Does Sri Lankan food cater for vegans and vegeterians?

With the salads, dahls, rotis and sambals mentioned above you’ve probably already realised the answer is a resounding yes. Pescatarians will be in their element while most eateries and hotel restaurants will have a selection of vegetarian and vegan options on their menus. Tofu is not as widely found as in Southeast Asia but young jackfruit or pumpkin are common curry ingredients instead of fish or chicken.

Sri Lanka tour, Matale
SJust a few of the samples at a spice garden in Matale

Dairy products are not generally a feature of Sri Lankan cooking so will rarely be seen outside of hotel buffet breakfasts and while a hopper and egg is a common breakfast the egg is of course an option.

Is it good for kids?

We’ve certainly never had any issues on our Sri Lanka family tours and the rich, creamy and mild curries generally go down very well as do the variety of flatbreads, chutneys and dips. (Just be a bit careful with some of the sambals.) If the kids do want a change from curry and rice then all hotels and resorts will have the usual selection of Western favourites and yes, younger Sri Lankans like pizza and burgers too!

Is Sri Lankan food hygenic?

In any hot, tropical destination you can’t completely throw caution to the wind but, compared to many neighbouring countries, our answer would be a definite yes. Hotel and resort restaurants will take particular care while, in our experience, even the street food and local cafes are generally fine.

Typical Sri Lankan dinner
Typical Sri Lankan dinner; curry, rice, sambal, salad and dahl
Sri Lankan meals

As with much of Asia, meals are often eaten communally so you’ll choose your main curry, (vegetable, tuna, chicken etc) and a variety of side dishes – sambal, salads, dahl, breads and so-on – will be shared amongst a family or group of friends. European-style 3 courses of starter, main and dessert are not traditional although certain eateries catering to visitors may make concessions in this respect.

The above-mentioned hoppers are a very traditional breakfast which you can try if you wish although obviously, hotel buffet breakfasts will cater to all tastes. The wealth of local sweet concoctions are principally eaten as snacks along with fruit or savouries such as samosas although, again, you may find these offered as part of set menus.

On our Sri Lankan tours – as with others – certain meals are inclusive others not so. Our tour leaders will take you to family homes for dinners, show you markets and street food and find some of the best and most authentic dishes in local cafes the majority of visitors (and Tripadvisor) don’t know about. For other meals, you’re free to wander and larger towns such as Galle, Kandy and Negombo have a wide range of local and foreign eateries if you’re feeling ‘riced-out’, while your tour leader will be ready with suggestions if need be.

So…what’s the food like in Sri Lanka? Brilliant; as mild or spicy as you want it, great for kids and offers a wide and varied choice for vegetarians and vegans.