Combining intricate flavours, incredibly fresh produce and a culinary heritage that blends indigenous and extraneous influences, Sri Lanka is perhaps the original Spice Island. Eating out here is a delight, whether it’s tucking into an authentic roadside rice and curry or enjoying surf-fresh seafood from an oceanfront restaurant table. You'll also find Western and other Asian (Chinese, Thai and Japanese) dishes available in the most popular resorts.
Sri Lanka has a fine range of eating options. The most popular high-end restaurants in Colombo and at the main resorts should be booked in advance; elsewhere, it's very rarely necessary to book.
- Restaurants Found in the capital, Galle, Kandy, beach resorts and upmarket hotels throughout the country. Tend to be expensive and quite formal; usually offer alcohol.
- Hotels Not 'hotels' in the usual sense, these basic local eateries serve no-nonsense local grub at affordable prices.
- Cafes Found in cities and beach resorts; serve sandwiches and snacks.
- Bakeries Offer 'short eats': bread rolls, pastries, patties, vadai (deep-fried doughnut-shaped snacks).
The Year in Fruit
Sri Lanka’s diverse topography means that the variety of fruit is staggering.
Many fruits including bananas (over 20 varieties!), papayas and pineapples are available year-round.
The first mangoes appear in April in the north: the Karuthakolamban (or Jaffna) mango thrives in dry parts of the island and is prized for its golden flesh and juicy texture. Rambutans (a peculiar-looking red-skinned fruit with hairy skin), meanwhile, are at their best in June. They taste like lychees; you’ll see them stacked in pyramids by the roadside.
It’s peak season for durian, that huge spiky yellow love-it-or-hate-it fruit that smells so pungent that it’s banned on the Singapore metro – you won’t find this one on the breakfast buffet. Mangosteens, delicately flavoured purple-skinned fruit, are also harvested at this time. The fruit do not travel well, so it's best to sample these at source in the tropics.
- Governor's Restaurant, Colombo Classy hotel-restaurant that's perfect for Sunday lunch.
- Margosa, Jaffna This 19th-century manor house makes a sublime setting for a memorable meal.
- Empire Café, Kandy An old favourite in atmospheric colonial premises.
- Royal Dutch Cafe, Galle Sip fine teas and coffees or enjoy a meal in this elegant colonnaded structure.
- Old Railway Cafe, Galle Fine cafe well worth venturing outside the Fort's walls for.
- Dutch Bank Cafe, Trincomalee Great snacks and meals in a converted colonial building that faces the harbour.
- Dambulla Heritage Resthouse Restaurant, Dambulla Tour the caves, then recharge with a coffee here.
- Queens Art Cafe, Unawatuna An inviting shady spot for a bite and a drink just off the beach.
- Barefoot Garden Cafe, Colombo Stylish courtyard cafe in the Barefoot gallery.
Time for Tea
- Kotthu A spicy stir-fried combo of chopped rotti bread, vegies and meat or egg. Try it at the Hotel De Pilawoos, Colombo.
- Paratha A filling flatbread that's pan-fried on a hot plate. Those at Mangos in Jaffna are excellent.
- Vadai Generic term for disc- or doughnut-shaped deep-fried snacks, usually made from lentils.
- Coconut rotti Sold by street vendors, locals eat this toasted minibread with a chilli-salt topping.
- Samosa The ubiquitous snack, usually stuffed with spicy cooked vegies.
Sri Lankan Specialities
Rice is the staple of Sri Lankan cuisine and the national dish (rice and curry) and rice flour is also a basis for some unique foods. Many Sri Lankans are vegetarian, so meat-free eating is easy and vegetables are plentiful. Coconut is also added to most dishes. 'Devilled dishes' are any type of meat or fish cooked in a spicy, sweet-and-sour-style sauce with onion and peppers.
Hoppers Bowl-shaped pancakes (also called appa or appam) made from rice flour, coconut milk and palm toddy. If eggs are added it becomes an egg hopper. Sambol is often added for flavouring.
Dosas (thosai) Paper-thin pancakes made from rice batter and usually served stuffed with spiced vegetables.
Kola kanda A nutritious porridge of rice, coconut, green vegetables and herbs.
Rice and curry The national dish is a selection of spiced dishes made from vegetables, meat or fish.
Biryanis Fragrant basmati rice cooked with plenty of turmeric, garlic and cardamom, often with chunks of chicken or lamb.
Mallung Slightly like a tabbouleh, this salad combines chopped local greens (like kale), shredded coconut and onion.
Jackfruit curry The world’s biggest fruit combines beautifully with rich curry sauces, as its flesh actually has quite a meaty texture.
Bakeries are common throughout the country, but can be disappointing.
Rotti Thick flatbreads cooked on a hot plate and served with sweet or savoury fillings.
Kotthu Chopped rotti fried with vegetables and/or egg, cheese or meat on a hot plate. Try Hotel De Pilawoos in Colombo.
Uttapam A Tamil speciality, this thick pancake is prepared with onion, chillies, peppers and vegetables.
Jaffna crab Recipes vary but in the north tamarind and coconut are key ingredients to bring out the flavour of this unique dish.
Ambulthiyal This fish curry is a southern speciality, made with goraka, a fruit that gives it a sour flavour.
Pol sambol Shredded coconut, lime juice, red onions, chilli and spices.
Lunu miris Red onions, salt, chilli powder, lime juice and dried fish.
Desserts & Sweets
Wattalappam (vattalappam in Tamil) A coconut milk and egg pudding with jaggery and cardamom.
Pittu Steamed in bamboo, these cylindrical cakes are made from flour and coconut.
Curd Slightly sour cream that tastes like natural yoghurt; it’s served drizzled with kitul treacle made from raw palm sugar.
Pani pol A small pancake made with a sweet topping of cinnamon and cardamom-infused jaggery.
Bolo fiado A layered cake said to have been first introduced by the Portuguese.
Ice Cream Widely available; indeed there are two specialist places in Galle.
Where to Eat
Compared with most Asian countries, Sri Lanka is quite unusual in that most locals prefer to eat at home. Things are different in beach resorts and the capital, but in many towns there are actually very few restaurants, or even street-food stalls.
Accommodation You’ll usually eat breakfast in your hotel. Evening meals are often available too, though guesthouses will ask you to order ahead, so they can purchase ingredients. Larger hotels usually offer buffet lunches and dinners with Western and local food.
‘Hotels’ When is a hotel not a hotel? When it’s in Sri Lanka. Confusingly, restaurants here are also called ‘hotels'. Usually these places are in towns and cities, pretty scruffy, and will consist of a store at the front selling snacks and drinks and tables at the rear for sit-down meals. Rice and curry is the lunchtime staple; for dinner kotthu, rice and noodle dishes are popular.
Restaurants In Colombo, beach resorts and tourist-geared towns (like Galle), you’ll find excellent restaurants offering everything from Mexican to gourmet local cuisine.
Bakeries These sell what locals call 'short eats', essentially an array of meat-stuffed rolls, meat-and-vegetable patties (called cutlets), pastries and vadai. At some places, a plate of short eats is placed on your table and you’re only charged for what you eat. Many bakeries (and some restaurants) also offer a 'lunch packet', which is basically some rice and a couple of small portions of curry.
When to Eat & Drink
Sri Lankans generally eat three meals a day. Interestingly the type of food consumed at each meal is quite distinct, so you usually won’t find lunch foods (like rice and curry) available at dinner time.
Breakfast A typical local breakfast might take place around sunrise and consist of hoppers and some fruit. Milky tea is usually taken with breakfast; in the cities some favour coffee. In hotels and guesthouses popular with tourists, Western-style breakfasts are almost always available.
Lunch Eaten between midday and 2.30pm. Rice and curry, the definitive Sri Lankan meal, is an essential experience that simply can’t be missed – it can be quite a banquet or a simple pit stop depending on the place.
Dinner Usually eaten between 7pm and 9pm. If you really don't fancy a hot curry for dinner you'll find seafood and fish usually very lightly spiced, and fried rice is mild.
Sri Lanka’s heat means that refreshing beverages are an important – if not vital – part of the day’s consumption.
Tea & Coffee
Tea with spoonfuls of sugar and hot milk is the locally preferred way to drink the indigenous hot drink. If you don’t have a sweet tooth, be very assertive about lowering the sugar dose.
Coffee, while not traditionally favoured, is now literally a hot commodity in Colombo and areas popular with tourists. Cafes with espresso machines are catching on, though are not that widespread as yet. Out in the sticks be prepared for instant, or something fresh-ish that tastes like instant.
Lime juice is excellent. Have it with soda water, but ask for the salt or sugar to be separate. If not, you could be in for a serious sugar hit. Indian restaurants and sweet shops are a good spot for a lassi (yoghurt drink). Ginger beer is an old-school, very British option, offering refreshment with a zing – look out for the Elephant or Lion brands. Thambili (king coconut) juice still in the husk can be found on sale at roadside stalls everywhere.
Locally brewed Lion Lager is a crisp and refreshing brew that is widely sold. Lion also sells a very good stout (also known as Sinha Stout) with coffee and chocolate flavours, though it's lethal at 8.8% alcohol. Three Coins and Anchor are less delicious local lagers. The licensed versions of international brands like Carlsberg and Heineken are also available.
Craft beer is available in Colombo, but very rare elsewhere.
Toddy & Arrack
Toddy is a drink made from the sap of palm trees. It has a sharp taste, a bit like cider. There are three types: toddy made from coconut palms, toddy from kitul palms and toddy from palmyra palms. Toddy shacks are found throughout the country, but are very much a male preserve. Arrack is a fermented and (somewhat) refined toddy. It can have a powerful kick and give you a belting hangover. The best mixer for arrack is the local ginger ale.
Rice & Curry
The national dish, Sri Lankan rice and curry is a complex, intricately spiced array of individual vegetable (and often meat and fish) dishes, served with rice. Chutneys and sambol (a condiment made from ingredients pounded with chilli) add heat and additional flavour. Poppadoms are usually present too.
Virtually all Sri Lankan curries are based on coconut milk and a blend of spices: chilli, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, rampe (pandanus leaves), curry leaves, mustard and tamarind. Dried fish is also frequently used to season dishes.
As you’re travelling around the country, you’re likely to pull over at many a local restaurant for a rice and curry feed. Some of the best places are simple family owned roadside restaurants with a selection of around five to 10 individual dishes (mainly vegetarian but there's usually a meat or fish option too).
Many restaurants only serve rice and curry at lunchtime. Guesthouses will often prepare it for dinner but you'll need to order it early in the day and leave the cooks to work their magic.