Sri Lanka on a plate

A good helping of Indian spices, stir in some seasoning courtesy of Dutch and Portuguese influences, then finish with a dash of Malay flavours: welcome to Sri Lankan cuisine, mouth-tingling, moreish and one of Asia's great unsung foods. For starters, have a read of our lowdown on the island's fiery, fabulous cooking, then dig into our tasty 15-day Highlights of Sri Lanka tour.

The spice and vibrancy of Indian food is famous the world over. But what of the fare served up in its southerly neighbour, Sri Lanka? With civil and political difficulties of recent years now a thing of the past, the island is Asia's bright new star, a place of immense charm and character, with picturesque highlands and endless golden beaches all home to cultures infused with a rich international brew. The food is of course an expression of the land and its people, and one of the highlights of any visit. Take a look at some of the culinary musts below, then browse our 15-day Highlights of Sri Lanka tour. 

Perhaps unsurpisingly, the Sri Lankan staple is the curry, with flavours not dissimliar to those of Tamil Nadu in southern India. The aromas that percolate up on hillside trails and in village markets are in abundance on the plate and palate: fenugreek and cardamom, cloves and cinnamon are all hallmarks of the country's cookery. And another regular feature: coconut. It's the quintessential Sri Lankan ingredient, and every part of the tree is used, from finely grating the flesh into sambols, to making cooking utensils from the wood. Add coconut to rice and you've one of the dishes that visitors are sure to come across more than once in Sri Lanka - kiribath (literally 'milk rice'). Simple and traditional, kiribath is a dish served in celebrations and makes for a perfect cooling counterpoint to one of the island's fiery curries. Find a beachside diner and settled down with a bowl of fish curry, cooked with tamarind and chillies, alongside kiribath, some lunu miris (a salsa-like confection of chillies, onions and lime) and a cooling beer - idyllic.

Alongside the main dish, expect 'hoppers', bread made from rice flour and great for scooping mouthfuls of your meal up with, and sambols, side dishes. Coconut sambol is a firm favourite throughout the island, a punchy, zesty paste of ground coconut and chillies, dried fish and lime juice. Add it to your curry to up the spice factor.

In among all these spices are oddities and eccentricities well worth seeking out. Fruit curries - particularly jack-fruit and breadfruit - are definitely worth a try, the fruits' meaty flesh surprisingly suited to taking on the flavours of the sauces. Dishes often also take their cue from the Portuguese, Dutch, Arab, Malay and English influences that have at one time or another settled here. Dutch colonial influence, for example, lives on in the regularly-served meatballs and some of the 'short eats' you'll find in the snack bars and market stalls everywhere.

You'll find your mouth tingling for the majority of your visit, so it pays to know your way around the drinks menu as well. The mango lassi is the friend of many a well-spiced visitor to Sri Lanka, and the fruit juices on offer throughout the island are a joy, whether they're accompanying curries or not. For a stronger glass, order the charmingly named 'toddy', an alcoholic drink fermented from palm tree sap. More popular still is Arrack, the national drink, which takes toddy and then distils it in vats into something with a little more kick.

Desserts are heroically sweet - delicious, but you may find a little can go a long way. The Malay-influenced, treacly, eggy pudding called wattalpan is a regular. Kavun too - a deep fried cake made from rice flour. Really though, your best bet may be to grab a bunch of whatever looks good in a bakery or market stall, and munch away to your heart's content (but perhaps not your arteries').

That's just a snapshot. The pleasures of the Sri Lankan table are numerous: even a gourmand on an extended stay here would have difficulty exhausting the dining options. A 15-day tour, however, gives you the perfect start.


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