Top 05 Dishes you must try in Sri Lanka

Updated: Oct 21

Sri Lanka has always been known as a country of natural beauty and ancient history. We however, feel that the rich flavours and mouth watering dishes deserve a louder shout out. So here we go!

Sri Lanka made its mark on the world map from ancient days, in most part, due to the rich spices that were exported far and wide, winning world renown. The cinnamon, pepper, cardamoms, nutmeg, cloves and everything else that made the lankan dishes so aromatic and rich were being shipped across oceans for centuries. This also meant that people of many cultures flocked to Sri Lanka, bringing with them their own culinary heritage. Today Sri Lankan food is a magical mix of dishes and flavours thanks to the many culinary paths that converged on this island.

Having to pick 5 of the best is impossible but here are 5 we think you should definitely try if you are travelling in Sri Lanka.

01) Hoppers

Hoppers are as exciting as they sound. It is made from rice flour fermented in coconut milk, poured into what looks like a miniature wok to get a bowl shaped pancake of sorts that is crispy around the edges and soft and warm at the center. This is the basic hopper. Then comes the frills!

A plain hopper is often had together with an egg hopper or two. An egg hopper is made by cracking an egg into the hopper when it is still in the pan and seasoned with salt and pepper. Hoppers and egg hoppers are usually a staple breakfast or dinner item accompanied with either a sautéed onion dish called seenisambol that is spicy and mildly sweet or a straight up chili and onion mix called lunumiris.

While the two savoury hoppers are fan favorites, the undeserving underdogs in the hopper family are the sweet variations. One is the peni appa or treacle hopper where treacle from the fishtail palm is added into the batter giving the hopper a golden brown and a subtle caramelised sweetness. It is the slightest bit chewier than the crispy hopper but is a fantastic accompaniment to a hot cup of tea!

The second sweet hopper is a milk hopper which is mostly a regional delicacy that is seen in the Jaffna peninsula. They are made just like plain hoppers but while in the pan, slightly sweetened coconut milk is added to the center of the hopper. It is a regular evening tea time snack in Jaffna and should not be missed.

02) String Hoppers

String hoppers are the distant cousins of the hoppers above. While the hoppers are stiff and crispy, string hoppers are light and fluffy. Rice flour is brought together with water and salt into a dough and squeezed through a special presser into cakes of strings onto woven wicker trays that are then steamed to be enjoyed for breakfast or dinner. They are usually doused in a mild coconut gravy, kiri hodi, and paired with coconut sambol and a protein of choice. There is a lightness and a heartiness that makes it such a fan favourite.

03) Milk Rice

Milk rice, more fondly known as ‘“kiri bath” is the mark of a special occasion. Rice is cooked in coconut milk with a pinch of salt till it is thick and luxurious. It is then served onto a platter and shaped into place with the aid of a banana leaf. What looks like a cake of rice is then cut in diagonals to serve out individual diamond shaped pieces. The essential accompaniment is a sambol of shallots and chili with seasonings ground together bringing a fresh, spicy tang. A spicy chicken or fish curry is also favoured by most.

Milk rice is the star of the spread as Sri Lankans celebrate the dawn of the Sinhala and Hindu new year in the month of April, with a slew of other dishes, sweet meats and fruits. Kiribath is served at the homes of the bride and groom on their wedding day while some even choose to cut and serve it instead of a wedding cake at the wedding itself. Birthdays, first day of a new job, the day you move into a new house, first of January at the start of the year, the star of a new business or in some houses, the first day of every month, is marked with a kiribath breakfast! Of course it is loved so much, it makes random appearances whenever it is fancied as well.

04) Kotthu

While all the other dishes on this list have been around for generations, kotthu is relatively new. While the history isn’t crystal clear, it likely originated in the 80s on the east coast of Sri Lanka. Godamba rotis have been a staple that is served with spicy curries at every night-kade or small eatery that is open through the night. One night kade decided to chop up the leftover godamba roti, adding gravy, an egg or two and some freshly chopped vegetables together and now it is found at every street corner in Sri Lanka. The word kotthu means cut up in Tamil and Kotthu the humble kotthu roti that was made from leftovers at a small night kade is now seen even at fancy hotels and has even morphed into a variety of dishes.

The chicken cheese kottu is the most widely ordered kotthu but you can get vegetable, egg, cheese, chicken, beef, mutton, seafood to combinations of these but also variations such as string hopper - self explanatory, chicken palandi kothu - fried chicken cooked down in curd with spices and veggies before adding the cut up rotti making a delicious sloppy kotthu and dolphin kotthu! Fear not, dolphin kotthu does not serve dolphin meat and in fact, has nothing to do with dolphins at all. It is just a bigger better kotthu where the roti is bigger, chicken is chunkier, spice levels are higher and probably the only kotthu that is named with marketing in mind.

It is fair to say that the temple for authentic way side kotthu roti is Pilawoos in Bambalapitiya, Colombo where you can order it to the car at two in the morning and wash it down with a very sweet lime juice or milo but if we start naming good kotthu spots, that is going to be a very long list! You ca find a kotthu anywhere in Sri Lanka.

05) Crab Curry

All along the coastal belt of Sri Lanka you can find many delicious recipes for crab curry. They could vary from place to place or family to family but all of them will be spicy and delicious! However, one crab curry stands out above the rest and that is the Jaffna crab curry from the northern peninsula. It is made using mud crabs and a hoard of ingredients from the staple onions, chillies, garlic and ginger to a wide variety of spices which includes the signature Jaffna spice mix and tamarind paste. It usually comes piping hot in a pot one size too small, the aroma of spices carrying across the room, with a rich gravy and succulent crabs. Be warned that you will not find crab shell crushers or any utensils and nor would they be of any use. It is going to be a messy but delicious affair where you will need both hands and will stain your face and clothes.

A crab curry can be enjoyed with any starch but we enjoy it best with “roast paan” , a flat pan bread. Even if you are not going to Jaffna, you might still be able to find it on the menu at many other places.

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