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fruits and coffee breakfast near the ocean with sea view

Sri Lankan Food Experience: Traditions, Spices And Surprises

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Are you planning a trip to Sri Lanka? Then you are in the right place!

With this thorough guide, you’ll find everything you need to know about Sri Lankan food. After reading this, you will not only easily recognize the most famous food in Sri Lanka, but will also get familiar with the prices, local preferences and will easily survive in Sri Lanka with any kind of diet restrictions.

More than that, you’ll get the idea of a typical breakfast and dinner in Sri Lanka and learn to be open to many local surprises!

This all comes from personal experience after I spent a full month traveling around Sri Lanka. Only real practical up-to-date advice! Whether you come to explore tea plantations and UNESCO sites or just want to see the beaches of the south coast of Sri Lanka, their food is something you’ll be reminiscing about years after.

I also share with you my favorite restaurants and tell you about the amazing experience I had attending a cooking class in Sri Lanka.

Ready to dive into Sri Lankan food world with me? Let’s go then!

Food Portions Are Huge

I mean, really huge!

We weren’t ready for this and the first couple of days repeatedly ordered way more than we could possibly eat.

Whether it is fried rice or noodles, you may be sure you get not a normal portion, but what looks like a mountain on your big plate.

typical sri lankan food - rice and curry
Rice and curries for one person – one of the smallest portions I had!

There were many times when we ordered something and then realized we could have easily ordered half of it.

So if you happen to travel to Sri Lanka with a friend or a partner, consider taking one meal for two first. You can always order more later if you aren’t full – but believe me, it’s never the case.

Another thing is that when we stayed in homestays, we would usually have dinner made just for us by a host family – and for some reason, I felt bad eating just a little of it and letting everything else go to waste. I guess in restaurants when I’m just one of the many customers, it’s much easier for my conscience.

Funny thing, a lot of times when the host asked ‘How was the food?’, my answer was ‘A lot!’.

But it’s not just me! A regular portion of rice and curries that we would usually get for the two of us could easily feed five people!

Sri Lankan food is very rich and delicious (although sometimes you’ll find yourself eating rice and curry twice a day), but also quite high in fats and carbs. Beware of the portions if you care about your waist!

Can You Order Non-Spicy Food In Sri Lanka?

Absolutely!

But you have to always ask for it in advance.

Requesting “a little bit spicy” or “medium spicy” doesn’t work. This is all or nothing game.

spices in sri lankan cuisine
Natural spices from Spice Garden, Kandy

It doesn’t really matter if you often cook spicy recipes at home, Sri Lankan version of ‘spicy’ is a whole other level. Unless, of course, you are from Asia.

As I see it, Sri Lankan taste buds are very shifted in terms of spiciness compared to ours. When we attended a cooking class, our host gave us to try his homemade salsa at the tip of a teaspoon – and we found it quite spicy! After that, he showed us that he could easily eat a spoonful of it and then both him and ‘granny’ who helped us cook had a piece of bread with the generous amount of this salsa – and obviously enjoyed it!

cooking class with local family in sri lanka
Typical home spices collection for a local in Sri Lanka

Another thing we noticed in restaurants, especially in smaller family business kind, was that sometimes it seems Sri Lankan people have no idea how to cook non-spicy. Once we asked for non-spicy and ended up with two full plates of food with almost no taste at all.

It seemed as if they decided not to put any spices or herbs at all – not even salt. Don’t know if that was the case, but this is how it felt like.

Of course it’s not always like that! There are some great places used to tourists and their taste buds – those guys can cook you ‘medium spicy’ no problem.

I’ll mention some of the restaurants we liked close to the end of this post.

It’s Super Easy To Be A Vegetarian In Sri Lanka

First of all, fruit it super cheap in Sri Lanka.

Once we stopped at a fruit stall on the side of the road – and were amazed by how many bananas we could buy for the same price compared to Ukraine!

banana fruit stall in sri lanka
Bananas heaven
happy banana loving husband in sri lanka
Happy husband

When you have breakfast at a homestay, you usually get a plate of various fresh fruit first – which for a smaller lady like me is sometimes enough to get full. But then they bring you the main breakfast…

Of course, you can’t only eat fruit (unless you are a fruitarian), that’s not my point here. But fruit can be a substantial part of your diet as it’s cheap, widely available in Sri Lanka and very healthy.

fruit plate - breakfast food in sri lanka
Usual fruit plate for breakfast in Sri Lanka

On this island, it’s not common at all to cook so-called one-pot meals. To be honest, during a cooking class we attended in Kandy I was constantly thinking in the background about the huge amount of dirty dishes we would leave after cooking all the curries. Thank God we didn’t have to wash them!

My point is, in Sri Lanka they usually cook everything separately. Like, literally, a new pan for each vegetable and a new pot for each dish. I think at home I don’t even own as many cookware items as we used for that single class.

With that said, when they make for example a chicken curry, the chicken itself is cooked in a separate pot and then served on a separate plate. Even if you accidentally order this dish, you can just skip one plate and eat everything else – rice and vegetable curries. Same applies if you are at someone’s home and they serve you a meal not knowing that you are a vegetarian.

They also use coconut milk a lot in homemade food, so it’s really easy to avoid dairy. Most of the popular dishes either have the fillings served separately or don’t imply meat at all – unless you specifically ask for it.

Should you choose to cook by yourself, it’s even easier! There are plenty of Sri Lankan veg recipes out there that you will find in no time.

It’s Hard To Be Gluten-Free With Local Food In Sri Lanka

Okay, this one is the opposite of the previous one.

Unless you cook everything at home or are, as I mentioned before, a fruitarian, it’s really hard to stay away from gluten.

Just have a look at this typical Sri Lankan breakfast and you’ll see that wheat flour is almost in every dish.

sigiriya local breakfast in a homestay
Traditional Sri Lankan breakfast

I doubt that we even once had a meal without gluten – and we tried a lot of local food, believe me!

Rice and curry might seem on a safe side, but beware that vegetables are deep fried and what’s known as ‘tempura’ – which implies bread crumbs.

Although it’s hard, it’s not impossible.

Some things are even more affordable than we have at home – for example, rice flour is widely used here instead of wheat flour and rice noodles you can buy pretty much everywhere. The latter is not the case for Ukraine, unfortunately.

To sum up, you’ll totally survive in Sri Lanka on a gluten-free diet, but don’t rely on restaurants for this to avoid staying hungry and disappointed.

Get Acquainted With Unfamiliar Food

We tried a lot of new things in Sri Lanka – and food is not an exception.

Half of the vegetables we used at a cooking master class were new for us!

Not only Sri Lanka has a very different culture from ours, but the supposedly known food sometimes appears to be now known at all.

For example, we didn’t recognize a cucumber at a local market because it looked nothing like our cucumber! It’s big (more like the size of a squash), smooth and white! Whereas our familiar cucumbers are green, thin, at least twice as small and sometimes prickly.

Quite a test for your view of the world!

Another thing is local homemade treats. Sometimes people offer you something which either doesn’t have an English name or they don’t know it – and you just go with it. Usually it’s something delicious! But you have no idea what it is – and may never know.

traditional sri lankan tea time snacks
One of our homestay hosts offered us some free treats – ulundu and samosa

These treats on the picture were complimentary given to us when we had our first coffee in a homestay in Talalla. I made the guy repeat the names a few times until I successfully googled them. The round one is called ulundu and the triangle one is samosa.

You might guess that those are sweets – and you’ll be wrong. Ulundu is actually a savory dish made from lentils, and samosa has spicy potatoes inside – which we would never guess by ourselves!

Always be open-minded and ready to try new things in Sri Lanka – as there are many!

Is Food Expensive In Sri Lanka?

First of all, prices on a menu are always in LKR, so keep in mind your approximate currency rates at all times to not get confused.

There was one time when we miscalculated and left way too much for tips and only figured this out later. No wonder the waiter was so happy!

Second, most restaurants in Sri Lanka are cash-only, so keep your wallet close and filled with rupees at all times!

Now, as we cleared all this out, let’s talk prices.

I should say, we expected Sri Lanka to be much cheaper!

Everyone tells you how Asia is dirt cheap and with Sri Lanka being a poor country… let’s just say we assumed it will be not expensive at all.

How wrong we were!

I don’t know if it’s a common misconception or Sri Lanka just got too popular in recent years and prices jumped up.

Before we went there, I’d heard a lot about how you can eat $1 meals and live on $5 a day, but the reality is nothing like that.

We traveled a full month around Sri Lanka and dined in all kinds of places, so I can talk from real experience. Food is NOT cheap. Eating in restaurants is much more expensive than you probably expect. And let me give you some examples…

Average food cost in Sri Lanka

  • Average meal for one person is 500 to 2000 LKR
  • A glass of juice is 400-600 LKR
  • Rice and curry varies from place to place and can be from 550 LKR (very rare, small local no-name restaurant) to 1500 LKR
  • Appetizers often cost as much as the main dish, can be anything from 300 to 1500 LKR
  • Fried rice or noodles with chicken/seafood/veggies is around 800 LKR
  • Any grilled seafood starts from 1000 LKR
  • Kottu (shredded roti with seafood/ham/prawns/chicken) – 650 LKR
  • Plain chicken sandwiches – 500 LKR
  • Grilled fish – 1000 to 3000 LKR
  • Poori/chapathi/dosai with one curry – 400 LKR

You get the idea.

In more touristic areas prices can be twice as high.

Just for comparison: a big homemade dinner for two (chicken rice) in a homestay in Tissamaharama costed us 700 LKR, whereas a simple breakfast bowl for one in Hiriketiya was 1200+ LKR, and it wasn’t even that good.

Juices might seem refreshing, but they are expensive and it adds up fast. If you both have two glasses of juice during dinner, it’s 2000 LKR for juice only! Sometimes we would end up spending more on juice than on the rest of the dinner.

Although juices are delicious and fresh, if you are on a budget I’d recommend aiming for a pot of Sri Lankan tea or coffee instead. It’s also 500 LKR, but it’s enough for two or sometimes even three cups.

In general, traditional Sri Lankan food is cheaper than anything western.

You can see that most of the foods on my list are local Sri Lankan dishes as this is primarily what we ate. That’s why the prices are not that high. An average pasta or burger will cost you 1200-1700 LKR.

This means that if you aim to try more local recipes and eat less known food, you also end up saving money!

Typical Sri Lankan Breakfast

Breakfast is perhaps the most important meal when you travel because it fills you up and gives you energy for the day of wandering around new places.

In Sri Lanka, breakfast is usually so big that you feel you don’t need any more food that day!

Most of the time it starts with a plate of various fresh fruit…

typical fruit plate for breakfast sri lanka
Fresh fruit for breakfast in Ella, Sri Lanka

… and when (or if) you finish it, here comes the rest.

breakfast in sigiriya sri lanka - enjoying sri lankan food
Our breakfast in Sigiriya

We stayed in 11 different places in Sri Lanka and saw many versions of Sri Lankan breakfast. Of course it varies from homestay to homestay and is even more different at a fancy hotel, but the base is always the same: fruit and bread.

Sometimes they let you tell them what you want, other times you can choose between Sri Lankan or Western breakfast, but most often you are stuck with what’s on the “menu”. “Surprise me!” also works if you are open to trying new unknown yet dishes.

Traditional breakfast in Sri Lanka includes (besides all the fruit) roti, either plain or egg hoppers and something sweet like string hoppers with coconut or pancakes.

traditional local breakfast in sigiriya
Another breakfast in Sigiriya

BTW, beware of coconut sambol!

It’s either a filler or a side dish made from coconut and some other ingredients, but it includes raw onions – and it’s not something you want to smell like the rest of your day!

Though our host in Ella was really surprised when we asked not to include coconut sambol into our breakfast. Maybe other guests weren’t that picky and wouldn’t care about the smell…

The best breakfast we had in Sri Lanka was at the Cozy Homestay in Ella. They introduced us to some new dishes like wade or coconut pancakes we haven’t seen before and besides that, they had the best selection of beautifully served fruit ever! The fruit plate from the image above is from there. And we had something different for breakfast every day!

The worst breakfast we had in Sri Lanka only consisted of toasted bread, butter and jam, and one egg – but this was at a cheap homestay for 12 per night so we didn’t expect much.

As you can see from the picture, Sri Lankan breakfast is high in carbs, contains a lot of bread and is not as healthy as everyone says.

The best tip I can give you when it comes to Sri Lankan food is to stay in homestays and book the option with breakfast included. We never once regretted this decision and this is what introduced the most authentic variety of local food to us.

Is There A Typical Sri Lankan Dinner?

Of course, first thing that comes to mind is Rice and Curry!

rice and curry in Ella - most popular food in Sri Lanka
Rice and curries – our dinner in Ella

According to locals we talked to, they can eat rice and curries every day and with some variations even more often.

Imagine dahl curry for breakfast, vegetable curry for lunch, and chicken curry for dinner. And this is not an uncommon way to eat for locals!

The variety of curries you can see on the image above is what you often get in a homestay or in a cooking class. There is a number of separate fried vegetables, beans and lentils, as well as some chicken or fish.

Of course, locals don’t eat that much every day – this is their famous generosity for guests (and the reason why you get fatter after each vacation!). I was told that they usually have 1 to 3 curries max per dinner. This way they don’t eat too much and can have different meal every time.

Besides rice and curry, fresh fish is also popular for dinner. Often times in a smaller restaurant the owner is also a fisherman and his wife cooks for guests whatever he’d catch that day. Usually, they tell you what’s available when they bring the menu. ‘No fish today’ can also happen on a less lucky fishing day!

In bigger restaurants you can see a wide selection like below. They let you choose the fish and negotiate the price and then they cook it for you. On average one fish will cost you somewhere between 1000 and 3000 LKR depending on the fish and your bargaining skills.

fresh raw fish for dinner in sri lankan restaurant
fresh cooked fish for dinner in sri lanka restaurant

Other local dinner ideas might consist from some kind of flatbread, for example, roti, dosai, poori or chapathi, served with fish, chicken or vegetable curry. Fried rice and noodles with the filling of your choice are very common too.

What About Sri Lankan Traditional Sweets?

The most popular dessert is Sri Lankan pancake. My personal favorites were the ones with coconut filling and the other ones with pineapple filling.

Mmm, delicious!

I even cooked my own pancakes during the cooking class we attended in Kandy! It was actually easier and faster than I expected.

coconut pancakes - traditional dessert in sri lanka
Pancakes for dessert in Sri Lanka

Beware of calories though! They might look thin and light, and so tasty that you can eat a whole bunch in one sitting, but they are quite high in calories and sugars which might not be good for your waist. I warned you!

Actually this plate on the photo above was not my dessert, but my lunch. As I already mentioned, portions in Sri Lanka are enormous and I could never possibly eat a dessert after a full meal. This was my kind of cheating!

Not into pancakes? No problem!

We haven’t seen a huge variety of desserts anywhere (or maybe I’m just spoiled by European chocolateries and gelato shops), but in any restaurant you’ll find two or three go-to dessert options on the menu.

Here are some desserts we tried in Sri Lanka:

cheese cake dessert in sri lanka
sri lankan dessert

Lastly, don’t forget about the fruits! If you crave something sweet but wanna stay on a healthy side, aim for a banana, a mango, or a pineapple! We already know how affordable and available they are.

10% Service Charge Is Usually Included In Your Bill

Yes, they call it bill, not check, in case you wondered.

Not much to say here, the title basically says it already. Just remember that in Sri Lankan restaurants they will add 10% extra to whatever you order. In such cases, we didn’t leave any tips on top of that, but later we heard that it’s still encouraged as that 10% often go directly to the owner and not stuff…

More often than not we dined at some small local place where the owner himself or his family cooked and served us the food. This way we supported small local business and basically ate homemade food!

Lastly, as I already mentioned in my article about cultural differences in Sri Lanka, you will almost always pay in cash, so don’t forget your wallet!

What You Should Try In Sri Lanka: The Most Popular Local Food

Okay, let’s sum up everything I mentioned here and there in one big list of the foods to try in Sri Lanka!

So, here comes popular Sri Lankan food!

Kinds Of Flatbread:

  • Roti
  • Dosai
  • Chapathi
  • Poori
  • Papadum

Kinds of curry:

  • Chicken curry
  • Fish curry
  • Dhal curry (orange lentils)
  • Beetroot curry
  • Jackfruit curry
  • Cabbage curry
  • Shrimp curry
  • Potato curry
  • Basically any vegetable or legumes can be cooked as curry

Popular drinks in Sri Lanka:

  • Pineapple juice / orange juice / mango juice / mixed fruit juice
  • Sri Lankan coffee pot
  • Lassi (yoghurt drink)

Tropical fruits:

  • Melon
  • Pineapple
  • Papaya
  • Passion fruit
  • Banana
  • Mango
  • Lime

Traditional food:

  • Rice and curry
  • Coconut sambol
  • Plain or egg hoppers
  • Kottu
  • Wade
  • Fried rice with chicken/seafood/shrimp/veggies
  • Noodles with chicken/seafood/shrimp/veggies
  • Various flatbread with various curry

Sri Lankan sweets and desserts:

  • Roti with banana & chocolate
  • Coconut, plain, banana or pineapple pancakes
  • Toasts or some kind of flatbread with jam
  • Ulundu and samosa for tea time

Why You Should Take a Cooking Class In Sri Lanka

We attended a cooking class in Kandy and it appeared to be one of the highlights and most memorable parts of our trip!

I’m probably gonna write a separate post about this experience with all the details, so stay tuned!

Now I’ll just sum up why it was so cool:

  • We visited a local food market and took part in choosing the ingredients for our class
  • We got to know and cook a lot of vegetables we’ve never seen before
  • We used local products that we would never buy ourselves
  • We dived into authentic local food preparation guided by a local cook
  • We felt like a part of this Sri Lankan family after a few hours of cooking together in their kitchen
  • We learned how to scrape coconut and made our own coconut milk
  • We cooked about 15 different Sri Lankan dishes!
  • We learned a lot about spices they use
cooking class in sri lanka
Cooking with a local family in Sri Lanka

And they even took photos of us in the process and sent us some recipes in the end!

Read Also: 7 International Cooking Classes You Can Attend From Home

Cooking classes are something I’ll definitely try to incorporate in our every single trip from now on! This is a real unique experience you can’t get anywhere else.

Sri Lankans Love Their Coconuts!

freshly open coconut - typical sri lankan food
Freshly open coconut on our village tour

While in Ukraine you can find only one kind of coconuts – this brown hairy one – and it would cost around 4 US dollars for a small one – in Sri Lanka they cost almost nothing and are on every step!

Brown ones are used for making coconut milk, whereas orange smooth ones from the pictures below – known as King Coconuts – are usually treated as a healthy drink.

Our driver suggested we try their famous King Coconut so we stopped at the nearest coconut-selling guy on the side of the road and bought one out of curiosity. It costed as little as 100 LKR, which is about 50 cents in US! Such a contrast with our prices for tropical fruit at home!

To be honest, I didn’t understand the hype.

It was refreshing, but nothing special.

However, they seem to really love it all over Sri Lanka. King coconut is used in Ayurvedic medicine to make mixtures and packaged coconut water is exported to many countries.

welcome drinks in Sri Lanka

coconut water welcome drink in Sri Lanka homestay

When we checked in to our homestay in Talalla, we were greeted with these cute King coconuts as a welcome drink. It was a hot day and cold coconut water appeared to be very relevant to freshen us up after a long journey.

What Are The Best Restaurants In Sri Lanka?

Some of our favorite places in Sri Lanka I can recommend:

smoothie bowl sri lanka
My smoothie bowl in Hikkaduwa

Did you enjoy reading this? Tell me in comments one food you’d wanna try in Sri Lanka!

Conclusion on Sri Lankan Cuisine

Now I’m sure you are ready for your foodie trip!

fruits and coffee sri lankan breakfast near the ocean with sea view
Our breakfast near Madiha beach in Sri Lanka

You know how to find the best Sri Lankan food, aware of big portions, tips and prices and have a list of local things to try.

You won’t miss an opportunity to drink some coconut water and are excited about cooking classes with local families.

You know that traditional ceylon food is cheaper than western food and eager to try all kinds of Sri Lankan curry and flatbread.

You will easily distinguish kottu from roti and samosa from ulundu.

You are ready to binge on tropical fruit and remember which breakfast food to avoid in Sri Lanka.

I guess my work here is done now. Enjoy your meals!

Pin this or save to bookmarks for later!

sri lankan food experience
food guide in sri lanka

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4 comments

Avatar
Becky May 2, 2020 - 7:11 pm

Wow, those fruit plates look incredible! Thanks for including what to expect regarding the service charge- that’s so helpful!

Reply
Juliet Dreamhunter
Juliet Dreamhunter May 2, 2020 - 7:30 pm

Thanks Becky, happy to help!

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Avatar
Alexandra B May 5, 2020 - 9:42 pm

WOAH! Those food portions are HUGE! The fruit looks delicious too 🙂

Reply
Juliet Dreamhunter
Juliet Dreamhunter May 16, 2020 - 11:30 pm

Right?! Thanks Alexandra! I’m sorry I don’t have photos from the biggest positions we had, those are really huge. But you get the idea!

Reply
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