The challenge of finding authentic Sri Lankan food on holiday
I visited Sri Lanka for the first time in July and I wanted to try authentic Sri Lankan food. As an adventurous foodie, whenever I travel the local food experiences are an important part of my holiday experience. Sri Lanka is one of the most difficult countries to sample the local cuisine. Most Sri Lankan people do not dine out at restaurants but prefer to cook at home, which means the majority of restaurants are catered to tourists. Understandably, when Sri Lankan’s do go out to restaurants it is usually to try other types of cuisine like Italian or Chinese. Nonetheless, when travelling in Sri Lanka (even with a tour guide) it is very possible to have some authentic foodie experiences if you have your wits about you.
For the purpose of this blog I am not going to refer to the tourist buffets. If you are exploring Sri Lanka with a local driver, they will take you to touristy restaurants enroute between attractions for lunch. These establishments are always buffet style and cater to Western palettes, which means the food lacks spice and flavour. They also provide drivers with a free meal, which is why they like to stop there too! For dinner, your driver will encourage you to eat at the hotel, which most likely will subscribe to the same principle of reducing the spice levels for foreign palettes. Whilst these experiences may be good and the food could be fresh, they do not represent authentic Sri Lankan food. The best way to experience real local food is by visiting roadside cafes (where drivers and workers stop for lunch), the local markets (to learn about the local produce), family restaurants (where you can let them know spice is okay!) and by attending a cooking class.
The best food I ate in Sri Lanka was at the roadside cafes. These are makeshift shops along main roads, usually decorated in Coca Cola advertising, where the owners make humble breads and curries on site. Whilst the food preparation does not look that hygienic, these are the places where locals go for lunch if they work in nearby offices or are driving through. And the food tastes very good.
The most basic roadside cafes will offer hot homemade roti. This is thick, fried bread that can be flavoured with coconut and is served with a side of chilli paste or curry. You can watch the owner of these shops rolling out dough and frying the bread fresh. Roti is a simple dish but oh so delicious. The first coconut roti we tried was an hour out from Colombo on the main road heading to Sigirya. We asked our driver to stop for a quick drink and a snack and were served regular black Sri Lankan-grown tea, which tasted similar to an English breakfast tea. Along with that came the most delicious bread I have probably ever tasted in my life. Thick and full of carbs, but hot and delicious. We smothered our bread with super spicy dipping sauce that came on the side. Our driver watched our faces as we ate and waited in anticipation of our complaints that the food was too spicy… but it never came!
Our next roadside cafe experience was in Nuwara Eliya. We were checking out the various tea estates and wanted a quick bite to eat without spending a fortune on the Westernised food served at the tea plantations. Just after the Glenloch estate there is a small cafe run by a single Uncle who served us hot roti with chilli paste and mushroom curry. It was a late lunch and we were hungry, and he was shocked to see us devour 4 roti each!
Throughout our journey in Sri Lanka, we insisted our driver stop at these roadsides cafes rather than tourist buffets. Although the food was more basic, it tasted better and was fresh. My best meal in Sri Lanka was when we were heading back from Ella to Negombo. On the outskirts of Ratnapura we stopped at one of the bigger roadside cafes that dished up hot roti as well as curry. The employees of this humble establishment were clearly concerned if we would like the food and warned us it ‘might be too hot.’
We loaded our plates with rice and curry from the self service section, and piled on handmade breads and bakery items. It was the end of our trip and we really savoured the hot and spicy authentic Sri Lankan food and curry. If I was to visit Sri Lanka again, I would firmly stick to these roadside eateries for lunch.
Fresh Fruit and Vegetables
Another way to appreciate local Sri Lankan food is by visiting the produce markets and plantations of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a hot and tropical country with a cool highlands and it grows many delicious and exotic fruits and vegetables. The best place to experience this is by exploring the Dambulla Dedicated Economic Centre. It is the largest wholesale market in the country where farmers come each day to sell their fruits and vegetables. The market is lively with lot of negotiation, shouting and dumping of huge sacks happening, just be careful to stay out everyone’s way.
One of the more exotic fruits we came across were betel nuts. These are highly addictive fruit that people chew for a natural high. If you have travelled southeast Asia most likely you have witnessed people with rotting teeth chewing a red substance and spitting it out. That is betal nut. Despite being cheap and readily available, chewing these fruits causes tooth decay and mouth cancer.
Fresh fruit and fruit juices are in abundance in Sri Lanka and most hotels will offer a generous fruit plate with breakfast. I particularly loved the Sri Lankan avocados. They are very large with smooth, light green skin and taste sweet. Sri Lankans eat avocado sweetened with sugar or blended in a smoothie.
There are also plenty of roadside stalls selling fresh fruit for a cheap price. It was at one stall on the road to Ella that I discovered another exotic local fruit called beli. These look similar to passionfruit at first glance. They are round and have a smooth yet very hard skin, which is cracked open with a hammer. Inside they are golden yellow and have a sticky and fibrous consistency, kind of like honey. However they taste awful! I could barely eat one spoonful. Eating beli is supposed to be helpful for stomach ailments (including diarrhoea and constipation) and can give you an energy boost.
Another wonderful experience we had in Sri Lanka was visiting a pineapple plantation. Pineapples grow out of the ground and each pineapple plant bears only one fruit. The plantation manager picked a fresh pineapple for us and sliced it up with a massive knife. It was the freshest and sweetest pineapple I have ever tasted.
If you are dining out in Sri Lanka, go to the small family run restaurants for more authentic Sri Lankan food. You can let the owner know to make the food spicy! You might need to wait a little longer for your meal as they will cook all the dishes from scratch but it is usually worth the wait.
One great experience we had was at the Gamagedara Village Food in Sigiriya. The place is small and rustic, with a husband and wife team preparing the food. The kitchen is open so you can watch them cook whilst you wait for your meal. The highlight of our experience was the vegetable roti, which was fried bread stuffed with a generous amount of cooked and seasoned vegetable. We also had fish curry and koththu, which is spicy fried parotta (bread), vegetable and meat although it tasted and looked like noodles!
Take a Cooking Class
The best way to experience authentic Sri Lankan food is by taking a cooking class. There are a number of reputable establishments run from people’s homes or family estates around Ella. However if you are like me, you might be at the mercy of your driver as to where you end up! We did a 2 hour cooking less at Grand Ella 39, which is a homestay run by a man named Iran and his family. It was an authentic experience as we took the lesson in an open kitchen and used clay pots and real fire for cooking. Iran showed us the key ingredients used for Sri Lankan cooking and taught us how to prepare six different dishes.
Sri Lankan food mostly consists of curry and rice. I was interested to learn a lot of the key ingredients used in Sri Lankan cooking are similar to other south East Asian cuisines. Ginger, garlic, cardamon, cinnamon, onion, turmeric and chilli form the basis for most dishes. However these ingredients can be roughly chopped or mixed together rather than ground into a paste using a mortar and pestle, such as in Indonesian or Thai cuisine. Sri Lankan food also uses curry powder, roasted curry powder, fenugreek, tomato and coconut milk, which help give the curries those distinctive spicy, tasty and creamy characteristics.
Together we prepared brinjal morju (fried eggplant salad), chicken curry, bean curry, devilled potatoes, dhal and coconut sambol. Compared to other cooking lessons I have done in Asia, the dishes were relatively easy to make and could easily be recreated at home. The brinjal was the most difficult due to the cooking technique, which required deep frying thinly sliced eggplant pieces in lots of coconut oil.
My favourite dish was the chicken curry. We marinated the chicken in onion, roasted curry powder, cinnamon, salt, roasted chilli, cardamon and water. In a separate saucepan we then heated coconut oil and fried ginger, garlic and curry leaves before adding the chicken and cooking for 20 minutes. We finished the dish by adding coconut cream.
Another standout dish was the sambol, which are fried pappadum with a coconut, chilli and lime salsa, and they make for great snacks.
The cooking lessons provided great insight into authentic Sri Lankan cuisine and the food tasted fresh and aromatic (although not nearly spicy enough). However it is clear that Inran is a cook and not a chef and he instructed us in a very casual manner, adding a pinch of this and spoon of that, and often cutting the vegetables roughly with no clear technique. He was also not particularly talkative and he didn’t share stories or historical information to help bring the traditions of Sri Lankan cuisine to life. Nonetheless it was a good experience.
Experiencing authentic Sri Lankan food whilst on holiday can be challenging, short of knowing a family to invite you into their home for a meal. But if you have the good fortune to try some of their really hot curries, fried breads and fresh fruits, you will not forget it.