Sri Lanka has been enchanting visitors for centuries. Early Arab traders called it “Serendib”, which evolved into the English word “serendipity”, defined as a fortunate happenstance producing a wonderful outcome. That description perfectly depicts the island’s culinary delights in addition to its fascinating history and verdant beauty. Sri Lankan food is a cuisine truly flavorful — sweet, fiery, tangy and sour, sometimes all at once, and dishes from this original “spice island” are not for the faint-hearted. They’re created to unapologetically kickstart the taste buds and often manage to get the adrenaline-pumping as well!
Due to its location and history as part of the trade routes, Sri Lanka has a captivatingly idiosyncratic gastronomic heritage. The combination of local produce and the myriad of spices introduced throughout the centuries by everyone from the Dutch to the Malays has resulted in an extraordinary fusion of flavors. There are endless dishes to sample and here is a selection of essentials chosen as a starting point for your Sri Lanka holidays:
Rice and curry
This is the island’s staple dish and is often flavored with local products, including coconut, black pepper, cinnamon and cardamom. Usually served with a dollop of sambol, an often eye-wateringly combination of onion, Maldive fish (sundried tuna, and also known as Umbalakada), coconut and chili powder, the dish can range from a simple mound of rice with a spoonful of curry to a banquet with up to fifteen side dishes.
Another common and somewhat gentler dish in Sri Lanka is dhal curry. This is made with red lentils blended with spices and a dash of coconut milk, and is served with all manner of rice and bread.
As far as green vegetables, gotu kola sambol (Asiatic pennywort) is often used as a medicinal herb. However, it is also shredded and prepared with onion, tomatoes, chili and grated coconut meat and lemon juice to create an herbaceous salad that can be a refreshing antidote to a blazing curry.
The coconut reigns supreme in Sri Lanka and pol sambol is a simple but integral side dish that grinds finely grated coconut, dried whole chilies, red onion, lime juice and Maldive fish. The mixture is often served as part of a meal or eaten as a dip with bread as a snack. It’s a must-try for coconut lovers.
It’s impossible to discuss Sri Lankan food without mentioning the wood apple. A Southeast Asian fruit of which the paste can be eaten straight from the shell, its flavor resembles a cross between tamarind and fermented raisins. It’s also delicious (and commonly consumed) when blended with sugar and drunk as a juice.