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Sri Lanka: Island of rice, spice, curry and curd

Aeroplane food rarely impresses me but the fish curry I tasted on route to Sri Lanka from Heathrow was so delicious that I couldn't wait to thank the sari-wearing airhostess who'd served me. ‘Good, isn't it. Have some more,' she beamed, handing me a second pot. I greedily tucked in – with the in-flight food this tasty, I couldn't wait to touch down and taste the real thing.

Richly spiced and with a delicious depth of flavour, Sri Lankan cuisine is something to get excited about. Surrounded by marine life and blessed with fertile soils, the island is bursting with local produce and, over the centuries, everyone from the Malays and Indians to the Dutch and British have introduced new ingredients, ideas and cooking styles.

Rice and curry is the local staple, and is served throughout the day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Fish is the most common main component, but chicken is popular too, and vegetarians can expect stacks of meat-free options.

Most curries are thinned with coconut milk and flavoured with warming cinnamon, cardamom and cloves, fresh tasting fennel and coriander, and bitter turmeric, curry leaves and fenugreek seeds. No two curries sauce I tasted were quite the same but each and every one was deliciously moreish, so don't come to the island expecting to lose weight.

Curry spices. Photo: phgaillard @ flickr

Across Sri Lanka, curry is rarely served without accompaniments and, in many cases, a seemingly simple curry often arrives as a mini banquet.

Fish curry. Photo: eiko @ flickr

Fish curry. Photo: eiko @ flickr

The most common curry accompaniment is coconut sambol – a dry combination of chilli powder, red onions, grated coconut, lime juice, spices and dried fish. When sprinkled over rice and curry it gives your meal a delicious extra kick.

My first taste of coconut (or pol) sambol was during my first night on the island in Galle – a historic coastal city, a few hours south of Colombo airport. Here, the smart cafes in the ex-pat enclave of Galle Fort give an easy introduction to eating out, with fiery Sri Lankan sauces often tempered to tourist tastes. Being a spice fan however, I enjoyed heaping on the sambol to up the intensity of my tuna curry.

Pol Sambol

Simple vegetable dishes are likely to accompany your curry, based on what's in season or available at the market. Potato-like jackfruit curry made a regular appearance during my trip, as did drier aubergine curry and tomato based okra curry, alongside chunks of fresh pineapple and chopped mallung – a spiced salad of greens and coconut.

Veg accompaniments

Jackfruit curry

Lentil dhal is another favourite Sri Lankan dish, served either as an accompaniment or as a meal in itself. Creamy and salty, it's similar to Indian lentil curries but Sri Lanka's version tends to be slightly thinner and more richly spiced – reoccurring traits in the island's cuisine.


Although often served for lunch or supper, dhal is a popular breakfast dish too. One of my favourite morning meals was lentil dhal, pol sambol and a boiled egg, served with fresh white bread or rice.

Sri Lankan breakfast

For days when you've had enough dhal, un-spiced slabs of tuna or whole-grilled fish make a tantalising alternative. Some of the best fish I found was in Mirissa – a popular beach town famous for whale watching.

By day I watched fishermen bobbing out at sea, and by night their colourful catch was displayed on ice outside the beachfront restaurants: think vibrant red mullet and streamlined barracuda, flat pomfret and mackerel-like bonito, as well as enormous tuna steaks, giant prawns and chunky crabs with elastic-bound claws. One of the best meals I tasted in Mirissa was a whole red mullet, barbequed over coals and served with rice, washed it down with a passion-fruit mojito.

Masala fish

If you're not a big fan of rice, Sri Lanka has an alternative. String hoppers – thin disks of steamed noodles – can be eaten with a simple curry sauce or enjoyed with the whole shebang of accompaniments.

When I visited the central mountain region of southern Sri Lanka, one particularly enthusiastic waiter insisted on assembling my meal for me, spooning fish curry, jackfruit and sambol onto a string hopper base before topping it with a second noodle nest.

Strong hoppers

Room for desert? Buffalo curd is hugely popular in Sri Lanka, and you'll often see it in terracotta pots outside shops. Served with runny treacle, it's loved by locals and tourists alike, but the thick, slightly lumpy yoghurt texture wasn't for me, even when I laced it with oodles of lovely local syrup.

Curd. Photo: Hafiz Issadeen @ Flickr

More to my taste was the egg custard like watalappam (made from coconut milk, eggs and sweet jaggery - concentrated cane juice). Fresh fruit is another of Sri Lanka's fortes, so expect bananas, pineapples and papayas galore, as well as juicy mangoes and watermelons.

Fresh fruits

You could also try some of the island's more unusual seasonal fruits, such as bitter wood apples and strong smelling durian fruit, red-skinned rambutans (a bit like lychees), and purple-skinned mangosteens.

Rambutan. Photo: Oliver.Dodd @ Flickr

And to wash down all that sugar and spice, you simply can't visit Sri Lanka without sipping some Ceylon Tea (best served black), glugging an ice-cold Lion Beer, or rehydrating with fresh lime and soda or tangy ginger beer.

Ceylon Tea

An alternative to rice and curry, Sri Lankan snacks, or "small eats" as locals say, can be bought from small restaurants and stalls. The best are cooked fresh before your eyes, like hoppers (not to be confused with string hoppers). These white, bowl-shaped pancakes are made from coconut milk batter swished round in a hot pan to create slightly crispy sides with a doughy base. With a mild flavour, they make the ideal vessel for fillings, from eggs or curry to curd and fruit.

My first taste of hoppers was in Yala National Park – a wildlife reserve on the south east coast, famous for its high concentration of leopards. After a sunrise safari of elephant and buffalo spotting, we stopped for breakfast in a jungle clearing and our guide set up a picnic of hoppers, fruit and strawberry jam. Reclining in a deckchair while listening to sounds of the forest and rolling a hopper round a jam-dipped banana, I was in my element.

Hoppers in Yala

One of the tastiest Sri Lankan small eats has to be the rotti. A soft flatbread piled with chopped vegetables and fish or meat, then folded and griddled, this is Sri Lanka's fast food – albeit a far healthier option than a burger or doughnut.

Watching them being made is fascinating and, with fillings as diverse as Sri Lanka's landscapes, each one I tasted was different. While some were folded in half and layered with spice-infused chicken, others resembled samosas and were packed with king prawns and cabbage. But the most filling and memorable rotti I tried was stuffed with mashed potato and spiced veg, then fashioned into a giant spring-roll.


A variation on the rotti is kotthu. Quite simply a diced up rotti served on a plate, you can always tell when a kotthu is being created, as the sound of metal cleavers drumming on the hot plate is deafening.


With my trip coming to a close, I spent my final night in the capital city of Colombo, where everything from western chains, to Sri Lankan snack bars are at your disposal. But for one final foodie fling, I took the advice of a tuk tuk driver and headed to Galle Face Green.

Gazing out over the Indian Ocean, this coastal stretch of grass is where the locals go to fly kites and eat good food, especially on Sundays, which happened to be the day I was there. From early evening, food vendors set up stall and serve home cooked curries and seafood snacks, so you can take a seat at one of the little tables and order grilled chicken and curry, or try a takeaway crab "burger," – a whole shell-on crab, crumbed and fried.

Crab burger. Photo: Jerome Decq ~ Flickr

How exactly you get your teeth around one of these "burgers" sadly remained a mystery to me as, after devouring an enormous mound of curry and accompaniments at a stall, I was beyond bursting point by the time I reached the crabs. ‘Oh well', I thought, as I rubbed my stomach, content after two weeks of delicious Sri Lankan dishes, at least I still had the curry on the flight home to look forward to.

Lucy happily eating curry in Sri Lanka

Lucy Grewcock

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Lucy Grewcock

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