Sri Lanka is an often overlooked country. It sits in the shadow of India and yet it is uniquely different than its vast neighbor. Long sought out by traders and explorer due to its rich spice trade, Sri Lanka has through the ages managed to creatively blend cultural traditions from Indian traders to Arab settlers to Dutch colonists into its own unique island heritage. The result, at least when it comes to the food of the island nation, is a delicious success.
In general, Sri Lankan cuisine is very spicy, often even more so than that found in India. Chillies are used generously and while the locals can handle the heat, most visitors should ask for dishes with “medium” spice. That being said, the spice is often more similar to Southeast Asian cuisine, in that curries and spicy dishes are usually mixed with coconut milk.
Speaking of curries, the staple dish of Sri Lanka, no matter where you go in the country, is rice and curry. Never called curry and rice, the dish features rice as the main element with a variety of different curries served, depending on the region. Plates are usually served as simply a large pile of rice, topped with a big spoonful of vegetable curry, a piece of chicken or fish, and a side of sambol. Sambol is the extra kick of the meal and is meant to be mixed into the rice and curry. Pol sambol is the most commonly served, and also one of the hottest versions, with lunu miris and the sweet-and-sour seeni sambol being other popular options.
Most Sri Lankans eat at home, especially their daily rice and curry, and it can be hard to find simple, quality food in the larger restaurants, catering mainly to tourists. Sometimes the best rice and curry is found in smaller family run hostels, where you can order the same meal as what the staff might eat. Small cafes and street stalls also sell good rice and curries around lunch, especially in the busier business sections of town. This is as local and authentic as you’ll get though if you have a sensitive stomach, you might want to opt out.
Besides rice and curry, Sri Lankan cuisine features a number of other specialities. By far the most popular snack is a hopper (appa) which is usually eaten around breakfast or dinner. The snack consists of rice flour, coconut milk, and palm toddy mixed into a batter and cooked in a wok-like pan. It can be topped with any number of things ranging from a fried egg to yogurt and honey for a dessert version. Locals often add a bit of sambol to their hoppers as well.
One of the best parts about exploring Sri Lankan cuisine is that you are unlikely to ever taste the same dish twice. Recipes are rare here and each cook has their own prefered ratio of chillies to coconut milk to other spices. Regionally, there are also many differences with the colonial influences leaking into local dishes. Lamprais, derived from a Dutch recipe, are popular in some areas while kottu rotti, a uniquely Sri Lankan dish, can be found in Muslim communities.