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Wild produce, electric spice, and mesmeric fusions all come together to make Sri Lankan food one of Asia’s most exciting and memorable culinary experiences.
Historically being a key stop on the Maritime Silk Road opened up local Sri Lankan cuisine to a wide array of influences from across Asia and Europe, in time leading to a truly unique blend of native ingredients and foreign dishes.
While you may encounter some of these dishes in other cuisines on the subcontinent, preparation, spices, and other ingredients will vary in different regions and countries.
For foodies with an adventurous streak, you are truly in for a treat. Buckle up for a culinary adventure full of flair, spice, and color as Shakira, a Sri Lankan writer and foodie, tells us all about Sri Lankan food through 18 of its most popular dishes.
Sri Lankan Food
1 – Appa (Hoppers)
Appa is the go-to comfort food in Sri Lanka. I’d have it at any time of the day, and I’m sure most Sri Lankans would relate. Hoppers have a soft center, coated in a crispy layer of batter. Paired with a suitable curry, appa will keep you reaching across the dinner table for more.
The batter is made from wheat flour, rice flour, coconut milk powder, dried yeast, salt, warm water, and, if preferred, sugar. The batter can also be refrigerated for up to three days, allowing you to make several batches of this beloved dish.
There are many variations, including egg hoppers (a center of runny egg), milk hoppers (a center of coconut milk), and jaggery hoppers, where jaggery is added to the batter to sweeten it.
2 – Idiyappam (String Hoppers)
While on first glance you’d believe Idiyappam are very similar to appa, they are two very different dishes. Idiyappam are prepared from a batter of rice flour, salt, and hot water.
The batter is poured into a specialized utensil and squeezed into noodle-like strings, which are then steamed. String hoppers require plenty of practice and patience to achieve the ideal consistency.
String hoppers pair wonderfully well with beef curry, chicken curry, dhal, sambol, and many other dishes. Often, when eating them with curries and sambol, you’ll find yourself gobbling down more than you could ever imagine!
Being a lightweight dish, Idiyappam can be eaten at any time of the day, including breakfast. Naturally, due to its name, the dish is very popular in its origin cuisine in South India.
3 – Kiribath (Milk Rice)
Only when you can prepare kiribath are you truly considered Sri Lankan! This popular dish is a staple in almost all Sri Lankan households. When there is a crowd, it is cost-effective and easier to prepare kiribath, as the dish only needs a few ingredients and little time.
The two main ingredients of milk rice, naturally, are rice and coconut milk. The rice is cooked until it becomes super soft, and then thick coconut milk is added to create a creamy texture. You can also season the dish with a pinch of salt.
Once the batter is fixed, it is cut into diamond-shaped pieces. Kiribath is often enjoyed with lunu miris, and can also be made sweeter by adding kithul treacle on top.
Though a simple meal, milk rice is one of the country’s special dishes, traditionally prepared for New Year festivals.
4 – Kottu Roti (Cut Roti)
Sri Lankan roti is a widely popular flatbread made from wheat flour, and it is the foundation of one of Sri Lanka’s most beloved street foods: kottu roti.
Literally meaning ‘cut roti,’ you can easily find this dish at food markets or sold by street vendors. The process itself, where the vendor or chef rhythmically cuts the roti and other ingredients with two blades, is so mesmerizing, you could sit and watch them at work all day.
Kottu roti comes with so many different ingredients. Cheese, beef, vegetable, and egg kottu roti are just some of the many variations available.
Keep your eyes peeled for more adventurous roti, such as crab meat, and some vendors will even serve it smothered in a special gravy. As street foods go, you simply have to try this when in Sri Lanka.
5 – Lamprais
A dish synonymous with the Burgher population of Sri Lanka, lamprais is a wholesome curry dish, consisting of a fusion of two special curries, commonly a meat curry and a vegetable curry, wrapped in a banana leaf and baked.
Commonly, a deep-fried hard-boiled egg is also added to the center of the dish, and the rice, traditionally yellow and wambuta rice, is cooked in various spices, butter, and ghee, before finishing in a meat stock.
First coined by the Dutch Burghers, an ethnic group of Dutch, Portuguese, and Sri Lankan descent, lamprais brings an incredible fusion of flavors to the table. Aromatic, sweet, spicy, and hearty, lamprais is a truly unique dish.
6 – Parippu (Lentil Curry)
While parippu often divides opinion, there is no doubting the widespread popularity of this creamy, spicy vegetable curry. It is made from an abundance of lentils that are cooked to a soft consistency in a curry sauce of coconut milk and various spices.
Parippu can be cooked in so many ways, and Sri Lankans, as with many other curry dishes, pride themselves on adapting and customizing the core recipe to create variations with slight tweaks that enhance the texture and flavor to their preference.
A diverse dish, Sri Lankan lentil curry can be served with many different sides, including rice, bread, roti, and hoppers. For those in particular who love vegetable-based curries, this is a must-try dish.
7 – Pol Sambol (Spicy Coconut Relish)
One of Sri Lanka’s simplest dishes to prepare, pol sambol is a Sri Lankan-style relish, made from shredded coconut, chili powder, sliced onions, and lime juice.
Wildly popular across the country, pol sambol is commonly eaten with fresh bread, hoppers, or a side of rice. Some Sri Lankans also enjoy it with Maldive fish, a cured tuna fish.
In a cuisine of density and complexity, pol sambol brings simple, hearty cooking to the forefront of the country’s vast cauldron of culinary experiences.
8 – Lunu Miris (Onion Chili Mix)
Lunu miris is another quick, go-to dish in Sri Lanka. It only requires a few minutes to prepare, and it is made from a handful of simple ingredients: salt, chili, and onion.
Sometimes, lunu miris is served with Maldive fish, to add freshness and saltiness to the dish. Served together, this Sri Lankan favorite pairs wonderfully with both appas and hot peppers.
9 – Thibbatu Thel Dhala (Stir-Fried Turkey Berry)
Many young Sri Lankans are not keen on this curry, but older generations, who prefer to eat a little healthier, generally love thibbatu thel dhala. It is a wholesome dish, but it does need a good amount of preparation and clean-up time.
You need around 30 minutes to clean and cook the turkey berries. Traditionally, the berries are smashed, washed, and drained, and once prepared, added to a mixture of Maldive fish or dried sprats, sliced onions, chopped garlic, green chili, curry leaves, mustard seeds, spices, and salt.
The dish is made by sauteing the ingredients, added one at a time, to a pan of hot oil. Some Sri Lankans also like to add coconut milk, to help thicken and bulk up the volume of the curry, particularly if entertaining a large group. This is a technique also used for many other Sri Lankan dishes.
Thibbatu thel dhala can be enjoyed with a side of rice and is a truly unique and flavorsome curry dish.
10 – Kadala Thel Dhala (Stir-Fried Chickpeas)
Though here categorized as a side, kadala thel dhala is a famous Sri Lankan street food. This dish is an ideal grab-and-go food and pairs perfectly with a side of warm, fresh bread.
Kadala thel dhala is a dish of boiled chickpeas, which in time is thickened, enhanced, and flavored with curry leaves, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, red chili, chopped onions, sliced coconut, and salt. Each ingredient is tempered in oil first, before being added to the chickpeas mixture to stew.
Enjoyed with tea, this is a dish with some serious spice. If you want to eat like a true Sri Lankan, kadala thel dhala is a must-try dish, albeit not for the faint-hearted!
11 – Prawn/Shrimp Curry
Sri Lanka is renowned for its fresh seafood, so it should come as no surprise that seafood found its way into a range of curries. Prawn or shrimp curry can be made in many different ways, and many Sri Lankans have their own preferences and secret ingredients on how best to make this dish.
Famous and popular, this flavorsome curry can be made from salty fresh stir-fried prawns or shrimp with fenugreek seeds, mustardseeds, tumeric powder, chopped onion, garlic, cloves, thick tamarind paste, coconut milk, curry leaves, curry powder, oil, and seasoning.
Flavorsome and delicious, this is a curry, as you can see from the list of ingredients, packed with plenty of heat and flavor. The aroma is delightful, the seafood is tender, and the taste is so good, it’s not difficult to understand why this is such a popular Sri Lankan dish.
12 – Kalu Pol Wattakka (Pumpkin Curry)
Kalu pol wattakka is a diverse pumpkin-based curry, with a wide range of variations. The creamy pumpkin curry, however, is one of the country’s most beloved versions.
While not a popular ingredient in Sri Lankan cooking, pumpkin is very much the star of this unique dish. The pumpkin is cooked in a creamy curry sauce, with a gravy-like consistency, which is made by first roasting shredded coconut and rice, and then adding them into a curry-base with coconut milk.
Kalu pol wattakka, in particular, has a truly sweet and alluring aroma. While pumpkin may not be everyone’s choice of a key ingredient in a curry, this dish is definitely worth a try for intrigued and curious foodie travelers.
13 – Wambatu Moju (Eggplant Curry)
A curry with plenty of richness and acidity, wambatu moju is a Sri Lankan dish that brings a range of textures and flavors to the plate.
It is made by deep-frying sliced eggplant in plenty of oil, then stir-frying the eggplant with green chili, onion, and a range of spices. Before serving, the mixture is left to rest in a bowl of sugar and vinegar to truly let the flavors meld and mature.
Although classed as a curry, wambatu moju is far closer to pickle in its preparation and taste. Each mouthful explodes with sweet, spicy, and sour notes, making it one of the most unique foods to try in Sri Lanka.
14 – Annasi Curry (Pineapple Curry)
Pineapple very much divided opinion when first added to the Hawaiian pizza, and there is a similar feeling for many when it comes to the annasi curry. Sri Lankans’ resourcefulness, however, means that through the years, they have been able to craft curry dishes from fruits, nuts, and many other ingredients.
A curry of pineapple and various spices, the balance of sweet and savory in this striking and flavorsome dish is perfect for those who prefer milder, sweeter curries.
Served with rice, or eaten on its own, annasi curry is one of the hidden gems of Sri Lankan cuisine. It may raise some eyebrows, but it is packed with flavor.
15 – Malu Ambul Thiyal (Sour Fish Curry)
Sour fish curry is Sri Lankan specialty, and one of the country’s must-try dishes. Many Sri Lankans go crazy for this curry, and after a single mouthful, you’ll no doubt understand why.
The fish is cooked in a customized spice mix of black pepper and goraka (garcinia cambogia), which not only helps preserve the mixture for up to a week but also contributes to the depth and unique flavor of this seafood dish.
Malu ambul thiyal is a dish that has been passed down through generations of Sri Lankans, and it is widely believed the recipe has not changed from its humble origins.
16 – Samosa
The classic triangular-shaped snacks packing plenty of punch, samosas are the perfect way to get a taste of Sri Lankan curries, without having to commit to an entire dish.
A popular fried pastry, renowned for its crunch, samosas are popular across Asia. In Sri Lanka, they are commonly filled with either beef or potato curry.
The savory crunch of the pastry provides the ideal balance for the heat and spice of the curry enveloped within. Samosas are a great grab-and-go snack and can be enjoyed before a range of main meals.
17 – Wattalapan (Famous Pudding)
Aside from cricket, wattalapan is the next best thing that unites Sri Lankans. It is a food integral to Sri Lankan culture and one of the most popular dishes enjoyed during Eid festival, which marks the end of the fasting throughout Ramadan.
Undoubtedly the country’s most popular dessert, wattalapan is renowned for its silky texture and fragrant aroma. A pudding with the melt-in-mouth consistency of marshmallows, it is made from a combination of sugar, coconut milk, ground nutmeg, vanilla extract, ground cinnamon, ground cardamom, eggs, and cashews.
Truly indulgent, with both sweet and spiced notes in every bite, the soft texture of this wonderous dessert alone will have you coming back for more, let alone the taste.
18 – Lavariya
A traditional dessert and a great source of pride for Sri Lankans, lavariya is the perfect sweet snack for breakfast, with tea, or following a hearty main.
Delicious when gobbled down fresh from a hot pan, lavariya is a wholesome dessert made from rice flour, shredded coconut, jaggery, cardamom, water, and oil.
Making lavariya is something of an art form, and many home chefs perfect this dish over weeks and months, crafting it with passion to create a dish of such elegance and beauty.
Sri Lankan Food Summary
A world of adventure, flavor, and heat await you when it comes to Sri Lankan cuisine. Undoubtedly one of Asia’s most dazzling array of dishes, there is so much to get excited about in Sri Lankan food.
This vast and unique island, historically, was home to a cuisine of fresh, exotic ingredients and cooking practices dating back centuries.
In time, European and Asian influence found its way into Sri Lankan food, cultivating a truly exceptional array of dishes and fusions, all alive with color, spice, heat, and flavor.
From the rich and fiery chilis that go into a Sri Lankan curry, to nourishing and refreshing fresh coconut milk that is used in a wide array of both sweet and savory Sri Lankan dishes, your love for Sri Lankan food is only set to grow the more of these foods and dishes you try.
If you ever visit Sri Lanka, or are curious to try some of these dishes at home, be sure to keep our list of the most popular Sri Lankan foods handy. That way, you’ll always have the most authentic route into Sri Lankan cooking. Enjoy the spice, color, and flavor!
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Add plenty of spice and flavor to your life by saving these Sri Lankan foods for safekeeping, be it for a future trip or to bring some of these dishes into your home kitchen.
Contributor: Shakira Shareef is a professional ghostwriter, hailing from Kandy, Sri Lanka. She writes on a range of topics for various publications and is passionate about Sri Lankan travel, cuisine, and culture.
Images licensed via Shutterstock