Get in My Belly: An introduction to Sri Lankan Food

It’s no secret that I’m a food lover; what can I say? Eating is just as huge a part of travelling for me as kicking on my hiking boots or paddling out into the surf. It’s huge. Not only does it help to disrupt the our routine environment, but it has the ability to take us beyond our comfort zone, making our tastebuds fizz with foreign flavours and adding an entirely new dimension with which to experience a country and it’s culture. In this introduction to Sri Lankan food, I’ve included must-try local delicacies, dishes you’ll froth over and superfoods you’ll find in their original state in Sri Lanka.

Here are 10 foods you’ll appreciate the heads up on before you travel to the country to help familiarise yourself with what’s on offer. Your tastebuds will thank me later.

#1 Lavaria

I’m just going to swoop in here and straight up tell you about my FAVE food straight outta ‘Lanka. Because IMO, this is the best thing Sri Lanka is cooking up RN. And it’s called Lavaria. It looks like a string hopper but it’s filled with a sweet coconut & jaggery mixture and is usually enjoyed at breakfast or as a morning snack. If it’s not on your breakfast platter, you might be lucky enough to find a local seller shifting some on the train or local buses. If in doubt, just have a look in their basket and see if there’s something that looks like this…

#2 Hoppers

There are not one, not two but THREE types of hoppers to look out for. Here’s the lowdown on all of them:

  • String Hoppers

Like a lavaria but without the filling, this is a little bunch of rice noodles about the size of the palm of your hand. A friend of mine called them ‘clouds’ which I think is the perfect description!

  • Egg hoppers

As the name suggests, these are made using eggs as the ‘centre piece’ so to speak. So they look like fried eggs but with a bowl-shaped batter around the outside. So imagine the pic below of plain hoppers but with a fried egg bang in the middle.

  • Plain Hoppers

Like egg hoppers but without the blatently obvious fried egg in the middle, and more like a doughy pancake as the ‘centre piece’. Enjoyed locally with a simple dahl, but also yummy with jam, honey or banana.

#3 Roti

Sometimes, when ordering roti in India or Sri Lanka it’s pretty pot-luck as to what kind of roti (or bread) you’re actually going to get. But the roti I’m talking about is available from a local ‘Roti Hut’ – you’ll see them everywhere – and you’ll have a whole menu of sweet and savoury flavours and fillings to choose from. Shape can vary but essentially this is a flour based flatbread fried on a hot plate, usually with chosen ingredients wrapped up inside – think chocolate spread, banana or honey… or a combo of all three! Get creative, these are made to order.

#4 Kottu Roti

Ok guys, I’m guna fess up here – I don’t actually like this one. BUT I’m putting it in regardless because everyone else seems to froth over it. The flatbread used to make the aforementioned roti is sliced up on a hot place (right in front of your eyes) and then stir fried up with your fave veggies and/or choice of meat. It’s kind of like a fried noodle dish, but uses sliced roti in place of the noodles.

#5 Sri Lankan rice & curry

Almost a no-brainer, I know, but let’s just be clear on what a Sri Lankan rice & curry is and how it differs from the like of your Saturday night Indian takeaway (because they are very different things). With nearly every rice and curry you’ll get puppadom pieces, dahl and rice. The rest is all to play for, but in nearly all Sri Lankan curries we had are made with fresh coconut milk, fresh veggies and spices and there’s not generally a lot of oil used meaning the curry itself is pretty healthy. You should be asked how spicy you’d like your curry, so don’t be afraid to try if you’re not a fan of spicy foods.

#6 Masala Dosha

This is for all you intrepid adventurers who head up to the less-explored Jaffna and the Northern Province, because you are actually more likely to find your traditional South Indian dishes in the local hangouts here as opposed to Sri Lankan rice & curry. Whether you’ve tried masala dosha before or not, be sure to plough your mouth into one of these rice flour pancakes filled with potato curry and served with up to four fresh chutneys. If you’re lucky, it might also be served on a banana leaf just as they do traditionally in India.

#7 Coconut sambal

AKA Pol Sambal to the Sinhalese, this savoury treat is a tasty addition to most local dishes in Sri Lanka. Quite simply, it’s ground coconut flesh (the hard white stuff), with fresh chilli and fresh tomato (but can consist of differing variations). It adds a kick of flavour to plain dahl dishes and is a key addition to any big meal or celebration in Sri Lanka. In hipster hangouts such as Salty Swarmi’s in Arugam Bay, you’ll find pol sambal used in more modern dishes such as pol sambal and fried egg sandwiches (seriously delicious!).

#8 Exotic Fruits

It isn’t called the Paradise Isle for nothing; meaning that along with the idyllic coastlines and palm-clad jungles you’ll find all of the exotic fruits you ever dreamed of. Be sure to try the following… ALL of which you’ll find being shifted by local sellers, usually roadside (when in season).

  • Rambutan

Pink on the outside with big rubbery spikes (not sharp) and a clear flesh on the inside, this is kind of like a lychee but a firmer texture. To open, just crush between your hand and peel off the rubbery skin.

  • Jackfruit

These bad boys are HUGE, about the size of your head – but doubled. So you don’t want to buy a whole one trust me. Inside this huge, green, rough-skinned fruit you’ll find yellow pods which actually taste like you’re indulging in a loot from the sweet shop. But it’s fruit… so it’s good for you right?

  • Bananas

Obvs, I know we can get bananas down the local Tesco no probs, but the bananas in Sri Lanka are different. The most common are the sweet plantains which are about half the size of bananas you’ll find down your local supermarket back home and they are super delicious. Try red bananas too if you see them… actually just try all the different bananas ok!

  • Mangostein

Deep purple on the outside and the size of a small apple, these are sweet to taste with a white flesh and a small stone in the middle. To open just crush with the hands and peel off the skin.

#9 Superfoods

And finally… if you are a casual superfood lover, be sure to look out for Gotukola, Moringa & sweet basil seed. All of which are becoming big hits on the health food scene but here in Sri Lanka you will find them in their original state! Try the Good Market on a Saturday morning in Colombo, Geckos Deli in Arugam Bay or just head to any shop, market or supermarket selling fruit and veg to check them out in their rawest form.

Now what are you waiting for, get some of this delicious Sri Lankan food in front of your face!


Have you been to Sri Lanka?

What’s your fave dish you tried, I’d love to know! Feel free to share in the comments below.

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