I always remembered Sri Lankan food fondly, with the seafood and fruit being particular favourites. However, it is safe to say that the food was an absolute highlight during our trip there in September (2023). Local, seasonal and fresh, food is at the heart of Sri Lankan life and culture and the variety and quality was amazing. Here’s a taste of what we enjoyed
Breakfast always meant fresh fruit which was papaya, pineapple, mango (sometimes) and melon. The fruit juices were very varied with green orange, passion fruit and wood apple being particular favourites. Hoppers are the classic Sri Lankan breakfast dish and come as either egg hoppers (bowl shaped pancakes with an egg inside) or the totally different string hoppers which were noodle like. Because of the amount of preparation required these needed to be requested the night before, in all except the bigger hotels. In all cases they came with a mixture of relishes, sambals, dal and curries. Particular breakfast favourites were the fish curries on the beach, the herb porridge and the multi-coloured string hoppers at the Coffee Bungalow in Kandy with Mum’s special tomato curry! The only difference was we sometimes had rice cakes and/or milk rice – always with the variety of side dishes with varying degrees of spiciness. You could always have a classic European breakfast, toast, marmalade, egg etc, if you wanted it, but we never did – the Sri Lankan breakfasts were so tasty, and healthy, that they won every day.
All of the above was of course washed down with excellent local tea. This would be drunk all day as would the gorgeous fresh coconut milk, the nut chopped, as needed, on the spot.
The national dish is Rice and Curry and this phrase simply does not do justice to it. As a lunch and/or dinner we were always in for a treat. It was reasonably similar to South Indian food, sometimes spicier and sometimes not. As you would expect mountains of rice play a central part of this, usually with small fired popadums. Alongside was a plethora of accompanying dishes from coconut relishes and onion chutneys to a variety of vegetable curries. You would usually choose a chicken or a fish dish and this would be accompanied by a range of vegetable curries, anywhere from 3 to 8 extra dishes and dhals. It was always a treat and you never really knew what you were going to get as vegetables tended to be from the local garden and so varied across all parts of the country – Baby Melon, Okra, Drumstick, Lotus plant, Beetroot, Long Bean & Bitter Gourd. Particular favourites were the smorgasbord in Sigirya, a very neat lunch at the Olde Empire and Kandy and a fish rice and curry on arrival at the beach – the best of all according to our driver/guide Sudi!
The main variation to the rice and curry theme was on the southern beach & coast where seafood kicked in, big time. Breakfast hoppers were with a fish curry, the seafood platter at Sielen Diva was sublime (the contents depending on what was in the market), crab curry and wonderful yellow-fin tuna in Unawatuna, oodles of oysters at Wijaya Beach with the waves crashing nearby and squid at the Elita in Galle Fort.
We should also mention kottu which we all had at different times – chopped up roti was served with chicken, vegetables and egg in one dish. Without failing this was very filling! Another different treat we had was stopping at the Hela Bojun Hala, a women’s co-operative run by the Ministry of Agriculture with branches all over the country. The ladies sell their home cooked food from a central market place and it is truly delicious. Whenever we saw them they were busy and we particularly enjoyed the snacks and short eats we picked up for the train ride from Nuwara Eliya to Demodera.
On out final day we had one of the standout meals in the gorgeous Maniumpathy Hotel in Colombo. Owned by a Tamil family its lunch specialty was a Jaffna Thali. This was going to be very different to any rice and curry we had before and we were very keen to try it. Sitting out in their charming garden, on a hot day, we tucked into what was the hottest set of dishes we had had in over 2 weeks. A fiery pepper rasam (gravy) to start with, helped down with curd, with assorted vegetable and chicken dishes, pickles and a sweet pudding. It was a totally different taste, much more peppery, and it set us up perfectly for an exploration of Colombo Fort.
Honourable final mention must also go to the Ministry of Crab, in Colombo, a restaurant we’ve dying to visit for years and where we have sent many happy clients to. Set in the 400 year old Dutch Hospital in Colombo Fort this is all about the mighty crab, more particularly the Sri Lankan Mud Crab, sustainably harvested in the lagoons of the Jaffna region. What did we go for? The signature Pepper Crab with Jumbo sized crustacean – we weren’t sure we could handle the Crabzilla. What a treat and a feast!
Day after day we ate exceptionally well and if one or two rice and curry meals a day sounds boring, it wasn’t. Fresh ingredients and freshly cooked, it was a gift that kept on giving. We would definitely be rating the food in Sri Lanka as one of its many top highlights.