As with many of our trips, the lure of sampling a new cuisine was a major drawcard for our holiday to Sri Lanka. It took us a while to find our culinary way, to work out where to get some decent meals and appreciate what was on offer. There were a few missteps and average meals consumed, but in the end we were able to sample the full range of what was on offer and had some amazing food experiences, and a very memorable trip.
Sri Lankan food is so much more than just curries, though curries are often a major part of restaurant menus, and they do come in a lot of different styles. Some of the curries we had include chicken, fish, okra, unripe banana, eggplant and onion, onion, eggplant and banana, daal, jackfruit, beetroot. There are some unusual combinations and flavours, but always tasty.
Curries are often served as an assortment of small curry dishes, along with rice. This reminded us of the Indian meal of Thali. It allows you to try multiple different styles and flavours in the one meal. Some of the curries are wet with a gravy, and some are dry but still very flavoursome.
A new dish to us was the Sri Lanka breakfast meal called hopper. It is a thin pancake cooked in a bowl or round pan, cooked with an egg inside. It is so very unique to this country and was a fabulous snack or meal in the morning.
There is also a variety called string hoppers, made with the same batter as a regular hopper, but it is made into a fine web like disc. It is often eaten at breakfast with daal curry. We once had a string hopper ‘pancake’ filled with coconut and honey, served with breakfast. This was quite tasty, though the strong coconut flavour wasn’t to the kids liking.
The roti in Sri Lanka was an easy pleaser for the kids. Roti is an ‘any time’ meal, which suited us just fine. It is made starting with a small ball of dough, which is flattened by pulling and flinging it in the air over and over. It creates a more chewy flat bread, which is filled, folded over and cooked on a grill. They can be savoury or sweet.
The roti can be filled with anything from egg, vegetables, and chicken, to sweet options like chocolate and banana (the kids’ favourite). We even ate one called banoffee roti, which was banana chocolate caramel and biscuit crumb, all served with ice cream! A real English-Sri Lankan fusion! Delicious and a hit with the kids!
Another dish that was new to us, and a very pleasant surprise, was Kottu, also known as koththu rotti or kothu roti. It is a Sri Lankan dish made from roti and vegetables, egg and/or meat, and spices.
Kottu is very dramatically made by chopping up the roti with large metal cleavers directly on the hot plate. This makes for very noisy preparation, so you always know when you’re meal is being cooked. Even before you enter a restaurant you will hear the distinctive chopping sounds from the kitchen, and know that Kottu is on the menu. This is a really delicious meal, just walk on in if you hear it.
Coconut sambal is a side dish served at breakfast often or other meals to spice it up. It consists of grated fresh coconut mixed with chili, lime and spices, It is so very simple, but has the most fabulous fresh taste.
Lumprais, or lump rice as some spell it, is actually a Dutch word lomprijst, which has a loose translation of packet of food. The base is rice, served with 10 curries, usally 3 or 4 meat based curries, as well as a deep fried boiled egg. This is all wrapped in a banana leaf and baked in the oven. It can be served with papadums, coconut sambal and mango chutney, and is amazing in the range of flavours you can taste.
Eggplant modju is more like a pickle than a curry, but is eaten with curries and rice as an extra condiment. It is made using tamarind, a really tart flavour, with sugar to balance it out. This was one of my favourite dishes I ate in Sri Lanka.
Being an island, it is not surprising that there is an abundance of seafood available along the coast. It is best eaten fresh, and nothing is better than sitting at a beach restaurant watching the world go by while enjoying some freshly cooked fish.
Curd, is a traditional type of yoghurt prepared from Buffalo milk. It is often eaten with breakfast, or blended with fruit to make a delicious and refreshing drink called a lassie. Banana and mango lassies are the best combinations.
Short eats; little vans or stalls selling bread products and the like. Sweet buns, buns with jam inside, savoury vegetarian doughnuts, egg and vegetable samosas, sweet pastry filled with ground split pea, a special new year sweet.
The fruit available in Sri Lanka is nothing short of impressive. In this tropical environment there are so many beautiful juicy tropical fruits grown. Maybe it’s because of the season but there is not the variety that we have found in Indonesia, where we lived for a year. The pineapple we ate was particularly sweet and juicy. The watermelon, which is round not oblong like in Australia, is juicy and sweet too. Plus they have the tiny finger bananas that are found in most other Asian countries too.
Papaya also grows prolifically here and is eaten daily by locals. There were mango trees everywhere, as well as eaten ripe, the locals also eat them green with chilli powder.
The katu anoda, also known as soursop or custard apple, was another unusual fruit we came across.
The sweet desserts on restaurant menus did not provide a huge variety of options, often just variations of fruit and ice cream. We came across a pudding called watalappan, made of coconut milk or condensed milk, eggs, jaggery (an unrefined sugar) and vanilla. The taste was like caramel, very sweet and yummy! The kids also tried a jellied custard which was a bit different to the usual custard taste, but very nice.
When you think of Sir Lanka, one of the things that come to mind is tea. Tea is the preferred drink of Sri Lanka, not surprisingly as they are one of the biggest producers of tea in the world and they definitely drink a lot of it.
We had an excellent tour of the Halpewatte Tea Factory in the hill town of Ella, and learnt a lot about the different styles that are made. The tea is commonly offered as a welcome drink or drunk in the afternoon, well anytime really, just the way I like it! Sometimes you can get Indian style milky chai tea, not surprising considering how close they are to India.
Coffee is not something they specialise in, and they generally don’t make it the way we like, espresso style. You can sometimes get espresso coffee at the tourist locations, but usually not that great. Otherwise, it’s anyone’s guess what you get. Sometimes it’s coffee grounds straight in a cup, with powdered milk. Which we found undrinkable!
Milo drinks were a staple for the kids, handy to give them some energy when they don’t eat all the food. It was available at every corner store, unfortunately not always cold though.
Fresh coconuts are the best way to stay hydrated in the hot climate. The locals just machete the top off and insert a straw… too easy!!
Freshly squeezed or blended juice drinks were also a popular choice of hydration and energy for our action filled days.
Ginger beer is a national drink as well, if you believe the advertising! Always available, and very gingery!
They don’t drink a lot of alcohol in Sri Lanka due to religious beliefs, but the tourist areas cater for the demand (thankfully Rob was able to add to his collection of a beer in every country). Lion beer is a locally produced light lager, which is easy to drink in this hot humid weather. We did indulge a few times to refresh our hot and tired bodies! Interestingly they often don’t write it on the menu, but if you ask they will often have some coldies down the back!
Being so close to India, it is no surprise that there is also a lot of Indian food available.
There are plenty of options on the long train trips too. Samosas came to us on the train.
When travelling in a foreign country for a couple of weeks, eventually there is the urge for some familiar western food. For the kids this urge comes along more often! When we had the munchies for something familiar, western food options were available at most of the restaurants in the tourist towns, such as burgers, wraps, jaffles, plus sometimes Chinese, Mexican, and Indian of course. As the locals don’t always hit the nail on the head when it comes to the taste, it is typically Western with a twist!