Sri Lanka food: The best things to eat

Best Sri Lanka food includes Sri Lankan curry, hoppers, sweets, and tea

A guest post from Lotte of Phenomenal Globe.

One of the main reasons I travel is to try new and exciting dishes. So, during our travels around Sri Lanka I tried out a lot of food. Even before traveling to Sri Lanka, I researched Sri Lanka food (I am a Type A traveler) and read about many different dishes and Sri Lankan recipes with delicious ingredients like coconut, chilli, and curry spices. Sri Lankan curry and hoppers were at the top of my must-try lists!

Despite its relatively small size (438 kilometres long and 225 kilometres wide), there are many cultures, languages and ethnic groups found within Sri Lanka. As such, there is also a lot of variety within Sri Lankan cuisine, making it a great culinary place to visit as well.

From the early days of trading, Sri Lanka has been involved in the spice trade. Known as spice island, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, turmeric, curry leaf trees and chilli are just a few of the spices cultivated in and exported from Sri Lanka. All these spices play an important role in the delicious Sri Lankan cuisine. That’s why Sri Lankan curry is one of the amazing dishes you can find in a Sri Lankan restaurant.

Throughout the years, Sri Lankan traditional food has been influenced by several nations, such as Portugal, Holland, Britain, and of course India.

While there is lots of variety in the Sri Lankan cuisine, rice plays an important part in most dishes. So important in fact, that there is a Sinhalese greeting which translates into ‘Have you eaten rice?Rice (dishes) are also part of important events such as weddings and New Year’s celebrations. And rice milk or kiribath is traditionally the first solid food given to a baby.

Nevertheless, there is much more to Sri Lankan cuisine, ranging from seafood, to fresh fruits, dhal, coconut, curries, chutney and more. And let’s not forget Sri Lankan beer and Sri Lankan sweets! After spending a month in Sri Lanka and trying out pretty much everything I came across, I have put together this post to give you a little peek into Sri Lankan (street) food!

Sri Lankan food

Traditional breakfast with rice. Photo by Lotte of Phenomenal Globe.

Best things to eat in Sri Lanka

Curry and rice

As explained above, rice is definitely a staple in many Sri Lankan food recipes and eaten every day. While rice is eaten in many varieties, curry and rice is considered the national dish.

Curry and rice may sound simple, but it’s far from it. Each time you order curry and rice you will get a completely different dish. It can be a vegetable curry, a fish curry, curry with chicken or curry with something you can’t define but that always tastes delicious.

There are usually several side dishes served with the curry and rice, and while these side dishes also vary (in number and content) sambol is bound to be included.


Rice and curry may be the number one dish in Sri Lanka, but Kottu is a very close second! Kottu is delicious, I love kottu and would fly back to Sri Lanka just for a plate of this ultimately comforting (though admittedly not very healthy) food!

Kottu is a mix of chopped up roti, vegetables, and (depending on your preference) egg, chicken, or cheese. I usually asked for the spicy version. Though different at each Sri Lankan restaurant, I was never disappointed when ordering a plate of kottu.

My favourite roti kottu dish I ate in the famous Hotel de Pilawoos in Colombo, but my favourite kottu was a string hopper kottu. This type of kottu is made with very thin noodles instead of chopped roti. I bought this takeaway string hopper kottu from a tiny nondescript food truck somewhere along the road in Colombo and it was absolutely delicious!


There are numerous different types of roti found in Sri Lanka! There is vegetable roti, which usually comes in triangles, coconut roti, shaped like a small disk and egg roti, which is most often square shaped or rectangular.

I loved all types of roti and ate one or more pretty much every day of our one month Sri Lanka trip. Besides the more ‘traditional’ roti mentioned above, the Sri Lankans also serve lots of ‘exotic’ roti variations, such as pineapple roti, cheese roti, and peanut butter roti. I especially liked avocado roti and roti with banana and Nutella.

Roti is available everywhere in Sri Lanka, in restaurants, at train stations, in little streets carts by the road and even sold through train windows during short stops.

Sri Lanka hoppers

When looking for a hopper, Sri Lanka is the place to go! A hopper is a bit similar to a pancake, but with a hint of coconut and bowl-shaped. It was incredible to watch people making these tasty snacks. The layer of rice flower mixture in the pan is so thin, it’s amazing the hoppers don’t crack!

Hoppers come in several varieties. For breakfast an excellent choice is an egg hopper (a hopper with an egg in the middle).

Sri Lanka food

A dosa served with sambol in Sri Lanka. Photo by Lotte of Phenomenal Globe.


While it’s a bit of an ongoing debate whether dosa originated in India or Sri Lanka, Sri Lankans do dosa well. Very well! [Editor’s note: I’m with the people of Udupi, Karnataka, who believe the dosa was invented there. Mariellen]

I ate my favourite dosa ever in Jaffna, in a local restaurant that was extremely busy with locals. The ghee dosa was superb, it was dripping with butter and so tasty. I would do the four-hour train ride from Anuradhapura to Jaffna all over again, just to eat one of those delicacies.

Other popular varieties are the ‘regular’ dosa or masala dosa.

Coconut rice

Breakfast is often said to be the most important meal of the day. The hostess at one of our lovely (budget) accommodations in Sri Lanka took this very seriously and made us such an extensive and delicious breakfast, including the aforementioned kiribath. Mixed with coconut and honey they made for an excellent (and very filling) breakfast!

Pani pol (coconut pancakes)

Another excellent Sri Lankan creation are these delicious coconut pancakes. Stuffed with sweetened coconut mixture, these rolled up soft crepes are a highly addictive. They can be eaten at breakfast but also at tea time. While not very healthy, pani pol is a very typical Sri Lankan food that you must try (at least once) during your trip.

Sri Lanka tea

Sri Lanka is one of the biggest exporters of tea. Photo by Lotte of Phenomenal Globe.


When a country used to be called Ceylon, no food list is complete without mentioning tea (even though it’s a drink).

The cultivation of tea in Sri Lanka started after the British colonized the island and imported tea plants from China. The climate of Sri Lanka turned out to be perfect for tea and in 1867 the first tea plantation was founded by James Taylor. Tea remains one of the most important export products of Sri Lanka, in fact, Sri Lanka is the third biggest producer of tea in the world!

We visited several tea plantations during our Sri Lanka trip. On our train trip through the mountains between Ella and Nuwara Eliya, we drove through beautiful green tea plantations for hours. On the plantations you can sample many different kinds of tea and buy special types of tea as a souvenir.

Fruit juice

Also a drink, nevertheless, fruit juice should be included in this list. Due to Sri Lanka’s tropical climate and fertile soil, many different native tropical fruits are cultivated.

For me personally, nothing beats a fresh pineapple fruit shake, though the mangoes in Sri Lanka are also amazingly tasty. And if you’re up for it you can try wood apple juice, a typical Southeast Asian fruit which smells a bit like blue cheese.

Though this may not sound like a very appealing drink, it’s actually not bad and definitely worth a try. Usually mixed with jaggery (cane sugar) and some water, it has a very typical sweet and sour flavour that many Sri Lankans absolutely love.

Vegetable fried rice with sambol

Officially a Chinese dish, but available all throughout Asia, vegetable fried rice is a great dish to eat for lunch. Or dinner. Or even breakfast! What makes vegetable fried rice in Sri Lanka special, is not so much the fried rice but the sambol. Sambol is eaten pretty much at every meal in Sri Lanka and why not, it makes everything taste better! (Pol) sambol is made from grated coconut and lots of chilli. Sometimes red onion, lime or fish is added as well.

General information about Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a beautiful island located in the Indian Ocean, about 1400 kilometres off the south coast of India. This tropical island is also called the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, and with good reason: Sri Lanka is a wonderful place for a holiday.

With mountains, rain forests, ancient cities, beautiful beaches, and national parks where you can find elephants, leopards, crocodiles, and more, Sri Lanka offers a whole lot of things to do! We’ve spent one month in Sri Lanka and not nearly managed to see everything Sri Lanka has to offer.

History buffs must include Sigiriya, Anuradhapura, and Pollonnaruwa on their itinerary, while surfers should head to Arugam Bay, Unawatuna, and Weligama. Hikers will love to the mountains around Ella and Haputale. The mountains are also the place for train lovers, as the (dirt cheap) train rides are amongst the most scenic in the world.

Sri Lanka food: in conclusion

I hope you have enjoyed this list of the best things to eat in Sri Lanka. But don’t limit yourself to just these dishes as there is much more to try in this colourful country!

Lotte is a thirtysomething adventurer from the Netherlands who tries to combine a full-time job and traveling the world with her husband and 1y old son. She writes about their family adventures on her blog Phenomenal Globe, her favourite countries are Canada, New Zealand and Japan.

Top 10 things to see and do in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, the “pearl of the Indian Ocean”, is going through a renaissance right now. Tourists have been flocking to the island since one of its luxury beach resorts was featured in the reality program Made in Chelsea earlier this year.

Sri Lanka is easy to access with direct flights from several hubs to the capital city of Columbo, and for around £75 a day you can stay in a cheap hotel or an Airbnb property, hire a driver and eat out for lunch and dinner.

Though small, not much larger than Wales, Sri Lanka has ancient cities, Buddhist ruins, hillside tea plantations, wildlife sanctuaries and glorious beaches.

We pick our 10 favourite activities.

1Climb Sigiriya

Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

The ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya near the town of Dambulla is a soaring example of ancient urban enterprise. The remains of 5th century palace built by King Kaspaya sit atop the 200m high rock formation. Visitors can climb to the summit via a series of dizzying steps leading to a gateway in the form of a lion, complete with huge, stone paws that have been carved into the rock. The palace of King Kaspaya, which was later used as a Buddhist monastery, is decorated in colourful frescoes depicting celestial nymphs (or perhaps King Kaspaya’s concubines). The surrounding landscape, with its water gardens and lush, green forests, really adds to the drama and has secured Sigiriya as one of Sri Lanka’s World Heritage Sites.

2Discover the ancient kingdom of Polonnaruwa

Sri Lanka Polonnaruwa Buddha lying
(c) Martino Matijevic

The ancient city of Polunnaruwa, now a World Heritage Site, was built in the 11th and 12th centuries AD. It was once a thriving metropolis containing grand buildings, beautiful parks and even a 25 km² lake, but by the 13th century AD had faded into insignificance and was eventually abandoned. The city ruins are now a popular tourist attraction and provide some fantastic photography opportunities. This includes the 13m high King’s Royal Palace, which once housed 50 rooms over seven floors. Today most of the structure is an empty shell of crumbling walls, but it is still a very impressive site. There are also numerous Buddha statues dotted around Polunnaruwa, most of which are in varying states of decay. However the four Buddhas at Gal Vihara, cut from a single slab of granite, are in near perfect condition.

Click on the image to enlarge. All photos © Martino Matijevic.

Top tip: one of the most enjoyable ways to explore the ancient ruins is by bicycle, which can be rented from nearby guest houses and cafés.

3Participate in a religious ceremony at Sri Dalada Maligawa

Sri Lanka Kandy drummers
Kandy drummers (c) Martino Matijevic

Also known as the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Sri Dalada Maligawa is a Buddhist temple in the city of Kandy in central Sri Lanka. It is located in the royal palace complex of the former Kingdom of Kandy and houses the relic of the tooth of the Buddha, which legend tells us was retrieved by his disciple, Khema, just before he was cremated.

Click on the image to enlarge. All photos © Martino Matijevic.

The interior of the temple is richly decorated in white, red and gold, and features some colourful painted murals depicting elephants in procession. In the evenings, you can watch the Kandyan Dance, a ceremonial dance that is accompanied by red and white-clad drummers.

4Take the train from Kandy to Ella

Sri Lanka blue train Kandy to Ella
(c) Martino Matijevic

The striking blue and red train that makes the daily journey from Kandy to Ella is a terrific way to experience the varying and dramatic landscapes of Sri Lanka. The express train takes around six hours (there are plenty of stops on the way) and on route you will pass cascading waterfalls, misty mountains, dense forests and local people tending to the lush green pastures of the tea plantations.

Click on the image to enlarge. All photos © Martino Matijevic.

While you can reserve a seat in advance, you will get more out of the journey if you buy a cheap ticket on the day, costing only 240 rupees (less than £2) and stand in one of the carriage doorways. The views are worth sacrificing your seat, and you’ll also experience a welcome breeze as you snap away at the incredible scenery.

5Visit Udawalawe National Park

Sri Lanka Udawalawe elephant and jeeps
(c) Martino Matijevic

If you love elephants, Udawalawe National Park is one of the best places to observe these majestic creatures in the wild. The country has seen a brutal decline in the Sri Lankan Elephant thanks to 2000 years of ivory trading. However they are now a protected species and the 200 or so elephants at Udawalawe National Park enjoy both freedom and protection. The park, which is located in the southern part of Sri Lanka, is also relatively small and significantly less than the nearby Yala National Park. The park consists of dense habitat of tributaries, forests and grasslands, which is a haven for over 500 species of flora and fauna. As well as elephants, deer and water buffalo, you may spot more secretive mammals including the rusty spotted cat and sloth bear.

Click on the image to enlarge. All photos © Martino Matijevic.

Top tip: If you are in central Sri Lanka, you may wish to visit Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, which is home to around 80 elephants. This includes baby elephants who have been found orphaned or abandoned in the wild.

6Learn about Sri Lanka’s 150-year-old tea industry

Sri Lanka tea leaves

Tea was first introduced to Sri Lanka during the British colonial era, and nowadays has become a booming industry, with 28 different grades of Ceylon tea. Kandy is the birthplace of Ceylon tea, where it is grown at an elevation of 2,000-4,000ft, producing a relatively strong and rich-coloured beverage. However the best place to learn about the tea industry is not in Kandy, but in Nuwara Eliya, known for its fresh climate, British colonial buildings and stunning scenery. The area can get quite busy times, so it is best to visit Nuwara Eliya out of season between June and February.

Click on the image to enlarge. All photos © Martino Matijevic.

There are several tea plantations open to visitors, one of which is Mackwoods, which was founded in 1841. You can book a tour of the plantation, which involves learning about each step of the tea making process while observing the workers in full swing. The tour itself is a bit underwhelming, but the views and brews are worth the investment.

7Practice the art of yoga in a forest retreat

Sri Lanka hilltop yoga
hilltop yoga (c) Ulpotha

The forests of central Sri Lanka are home to the Ulpotha Yoga & Ayurveda Retreat, which promises to bring you to a zen state in the most stunning of sceneries. The retreat is about a four-hour drive from Columbo city and covers 22 acres of forest; home to macaque and langur monkeys. A variety of yoga styles are on offer (including Hatha, Sivananda, Iyengar and Astanga) and locations vary from the open-sided “Yoga Shala” hall to the top of Monkey Rock. The retreat encourages its guests to unwind, rejuvenate and get close to nature, and there’s no pressure to attend the yoga classes if you would prefer some time to yourself. The retreat also has a warm heart: the Ayurvedic treatment centre, which serves paying guests, is used to fund the year-round Free Clinic for the surrounding villages.

8Go dolphin and whale watching off the coast of Kalpitiya

Sri Lanka whale watching

Located in the less touristy North of Sri Lanka, Kalpitiya consists of 14 islands and is an excellent spot to observe dolphins and whales in their natural habitat. Observe huge pods of spinner dolphin, sometimes in their thousands, surfing the waves in perfect synchronisation. These curious and playful dolphins can often be seen swimming alongside boats and leaping out of the water, showing off their acrobatic prowess. As you venture further from the coast on your boat trip, there’s ample opportunity to observe sperm whales as they swim to the surface, flashing their distinctive tail flukes as they return to the ocean depths. If you’re really lucky you may even see a blue whale, a rare pleasure, as they tend to avoid coastal areas.

9Surf your way to serenity at Arugam Bay

Sri Lanka Arugam Bay surfer at sunset
Arugam Bay surfer at sunset (c) Dennis Binzen

Arugam Bay on the south east coast of Sri Lanka is one of the island’s best surfing spots. The moon shaped bay attracts a laid-back crowd eager to sample the watery playground that is the Indian Ocean. Surfer dudes flock to The Point, where the waves can reach up to six foot. However there are plenty of (quieter) areas to enjoy surfer paradise including Crocodile Rock and Pottuvil Point, a long stretch of deserted beach dotted with huge boulders along the water’s edge. If you’re not worried about catching the best waves, visit Arugam Bay during the low season (November to April), when the area is quiet and serene. Just bear in mind that some shops and restaurants might be closed for business at this time of year.

10Sample Sri Lanka’s favourite dish: rice and curry

Sri Lanka rice and curry
rice and curry

In Sri Lanka, rice and curry is just what it says on the tin: a pile of white, fluffy rice accompanied by various curry-based dishes, traditionally eaten with hands rather than cutlery. Depending on the time of day and occasion, the delicious dish can range from a simple curry in a thin broth to a banquet of richly spiced meat or fish curry with up to 10 side dishes, including sour lime pickle and sweet seeni sambal (onion relish). Most dishes come with a punch, although more touristy restaurants will serve watered down versions of what they cook at home. Rice and curry can be purchased from street vendors and in the fanciest of restaurants. There’s no need to fret if you don’t eat meat, as the basis of rice and curry is always Vegetarian – you simply order the meat on top.