The ultimate guide to the best Sri Lankan food (with recipes)

Sri Lankan Food is hands down some of the most delicious food we have had on our family travels. In fact, BBC Good Food has said that Sri Lankan food is its No.1 trending food in 2019. Everything is so fresh and tasty with some cheeky heat from the chillies!

If you visit Fose fruit and vegetable market in Colombo’s Pettah district, you’ll get a sense of what goes into your food to make it so delicious. The market really is an assault on all the senses, but well worth a visit.

The boys checking out some unfamiliar vegetables in Pettah market

The boys checking out some unfamiliar vegetables in Pettah market

Key ingredients in Sri Lankan food

Sri Lanka was on the old spice route for a reason, and if you go on a spice tour as part of your trip you’ll see why. We were lucky enough to have a guided walk around our tea estate accommodation near Matale – Strathisla Tea Estate.

On the walk we saw tea plantations (of course!) but also all sorts of spices. It’s easy to see why Sri Lanka is also called by some, ‘The Spice Island’. On a tour you will see spices growing wild (although some are farmed). The main spices are:

  • Curry Leaves
  • Turmeric
  • Clove
  • Cinnamon
  • Pepper
  • Lemongrass
  • Nutmeg
  • Mace

Flashpacking family out and about on a spice tour at Strathisla Tea Estate

Flashpacking family out and about on a spice tour at Strathisla Tea Estate

During the tour the kids got to smell and taste some of the spices. Knowing what goes into their food helps them have a greater appreciation for it and it was very educational for them.

Here are our favourite Sri Lankan dishes with a little explanation as to what they are. We’ve also included a few recipes for the simpler ones that we have tried out at home.

Egg hoppers

These are our family favourite. They are bowl shaped pancakes with crispy edges, and a breakfast staple across the island. The batter is poured into a small wok and swirled around to give it the bowl shape. Part way through cooking, an egg is cracked in. Traditionally these hoppers are served with a variety of onion sambol, chillies and coconut sambol but they are so versatile. In Unawatuna we tried eggs benedict hoppers with bacon at Bedspace Kitchen.

Something to be aware of, however, is that not everywhere will offer them for breakfast. The batter has to ferment for a few hours, and if they have not made it the previous night, they won’t be able to make them on demand at breakfast.

If you want to try hoppers before you go and are based near London, you can go to Hoppers – a hugely popular restaurant at the moment. You could also try making them yourself by following the BBC Good Food recipe.

Eggs benedict hoppers at Bedspace Kitchen in Unawatuna

Eggs benedict hoppers at Bedspace Kitchen in Unawatuna

Coconut sambol

We were so enamoured with coconut sambol (served with pretty much every meal in Sri Lanka), that we decided to try cooking lessons to see how it’s made. We ended up on a frenzied shopping trip around Galle by tuk tuk on the hunt for a coconut grater. We think you’ll agree it is not your usual tourist souvenir but nothing else grates the coconut as well as this.

Our very own coconut grater

Our very own coconut grater

We found one eventually and here’s the recipe we use to make coconut sambol at home:

  • 2-3 cups freshly ground coconut
  • ¼ red onion finely chopped
  • ½ small tomato
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ½ – 1 tsp of chilli flakes
  • ½ tsp chilli powder
  • Pinch black pepper
  • Juice of ½ a lime
  • Mix all the ingredients together… done!

Sri Lankan rice and curry

If you see Sri Lankan rice and curry on the menu, it will usually be served as a curry of your choice with several accompanying vegetable curries. These can be jackfruit or pumpkin and they are served with plain rice and dahl. There are many different variations so there will be something for everyone but this will most likely be pre-made and so varying the spice level for the kids is not always easy.

Selection of Sri Lankan curries at Matey Hut in Ella

Selection of Sri Lankan curries at Matey Hut in Ella

Dhal curry

Dhal curry is served with most meals. It is made from red lentils cooked in coconut milk. Added to this are sautéed onions, garlic, tomatoes (optional) and fresh green chillies. Mix in other spices like cumin seeds, turmeric, mustard seeds and curry leaves. Such a lovely creamy coconut infused dish. Watch out – it can be spicy!

If you would like to try making it, here is a recipe from a cookery class we took in Ella

  • 1 cup lentils
  • ½ cup water
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 green chilli
  • ¼ red onion
  • Handful curry leaves
  • ½ teaspoon turmeric, cumin seeds and mustard seeds
  • 1 x 400ml tin coconut milk

Wash and soak the lentils for 30 mins. Sautée the onions and garlic with the chilli for a few minutes. Then add the spices and mix in the lentils. Slowly simmer in the water and when the lentils are soft, add coconut milk. Season to taste.

Dhal curry (middle!) is a delicious side dish and great accompaniment to your other curries

Dhal curry (middle!) is a delicious side dish and great accompaniment to your other curries

Kottu roti

If you hear a lot of clanging and banging coming from a kitchen in Sri Lanka, chances are you are listening to someone making kottu roti. It started out as street food but is very common to see on restaurant menus now. It’s basically a stir-fry with pieces of roti (bread) mixed together with finely shredded vegetables or pieces of meat, soya sauce, spices, ginger and garlic, on a flat iron skillet using two metal cleavers with wooden handles. It isn’t usually spicy so it’s a great dish for the kids. A modern twist is to add cheese but this was not a winner with us!

Chicken rice

This sounds a little boring but it was an absolute winner with our boys. It’s not spicy and it’s quite like the Chinese style egg fried chicken with rice. There are some green bits which, despite having an irrational fear that anything green will poison them, they wolfed down with no complaints.


Lamprais actually comes from a Dutch word that translates as ‘a packet of food’, and was originally made by descendants of colonial Europeans. It consists of boiled eggs, eggplant, frikkadels/meat balls, mixed meats (soya for vegetarians) and sambol (see explanation above). This is mixed with rice and then infused with some lovely Sri Lankan spices like cardamom, cloves and cinnamon before being wrapped in a banana leaf and baked in the oven at a low temperature for several hours.

Eggplant/aubergine curry

A truly classic Sri Lankan dish and one of our favourites. It is called a curry but is actually more like a relish so we ordered it as a side. The eggplant slices are deep-fried until brown and then combined with, chilli powder, ground mustard seeds, cloves, salt, sugar and vinegar to create the almost sweet caramelised relish. This is then added to fried shallots, crushed garlic and shredded ginger. Mouth-wateringly good!

Top Tip : if you would like to try authentic local food where the locals eat (and we would highly recommend this), then go to somewhere that is very busy! The locals are not going to eat somewhere with a poor food hygiene reputation and it will undoubtedly be delicious.

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The ultimate guide to the best Sri Lankan food (with recipes) 5

Elephants at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage
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  1. […] cookery lesson on our first visit to Ella and we still have the recipes that we use today. We love Sri Lankan food and the cookery lesson was a real highlight of our trip. If we hadn’t already done a cookery […]

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