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15 Local Dishes to Try When You’re in Sri Lanka

The tear-drop shaped country, Sri Lanka is a melting pot of amazing flavours and rich cuisine. This island with a tropical climate, its dishes are a potpourri of colours, textures and spices with fishes, rice and coconuts being the centre of it. Having rich doses of influence from the South Indian, Dutch, Portuguese and Malay cuisine, Sri Lanka has a few dishes to offer that are a must-have whenever you visit this beautiful island.

Parippu (Dhal Curry)

Curries are eaten everywhere and served alongside almost everything, from the humble mother’s kitchen to roadside stalls and restaurant buffets. Sri Lankans love their spices and a lot of it goes into making a good curry.

Masoor dhal (split red lentils) are boiled and used with fresh ingredients like curry leaves, onions, tomatoes, green chillies that are sautéed and mixed with a variety of spices. Finally, the dhal is cooked over flame till it turns a yummy yellow. For a nice creamy consistency, a splash of coconut milk is added and is finally served as a side to rotis and parathas or eaten with rice.

Upali’s is one of the best restaurants in the city to sample authentic local cuisine with flavourful Sri Lankan curries.

Pol Sambol

Coconut is something this country thrives on and Pol sambol or coconut relish is the staple serving with most dishes. It is a fine blend of the almighty coconut, chilli powder, lemon juice, red onions, salt and sometimes Maldive fish, all of which is diced or ground and combined.

This crunchy bowl of deliciousness tastes like a miracle with every bite. Eaten with almost everything from rice, pol roti, hot parathas to hoppers or even with plain slices of bread and sometimes just by itself. If you enjoy coconuts, this is your dream garnish. Every household prepares its own Pol Sambol and most restaurants serve this with their dishes.

Lunu Miris

Lunu miris is a spicy sauce, or as the Sri Lankan’s call it, a sambol. Made from pounded red onions, chili powder, crushed red pepper, lime juice and smoked Maldives fish, this is an amazing combination of easy-to-find ingredients. These are ground into a chunky paste using a mortar and pestle. Most households have their own versions using ingredients from their own regions, but this superb chili sauce is enjoyed heavily by the locals, served with almost everything as a sauce or a topping.

Wambatu Moju

Sri Lankans are very creative with their pickles, and a brinjal pickle might come as a surprise to you, but not them. Made from brinjals in vinegar, Wambatu Moju is made by deep frying, slicing and then caramelizing the brinjals with lots of salt, sugar and soysauce. Once cooked, it can be kept in glass bottles for days like most other pickles. Eaten as a side with most dishes, it adds a layer of taste that gives your taste buds a great time. Sweet, savory and sour, it complements the curries they are often served with.

Fried Salted Fish

Fish is something that is a part of the staple diet in Sri Lanka given that it is a coastal country. Eaten in various forms, fishes are relished by the locals and the tourists that come here. One of these dishes is the fried salted fish that are heavily salted and deep fried until crunchy. Unlike the normal saucy fishes curries, this crunchy delight goes well with any plate of rice and curry. They are also included in a range of different sambols like chili sauces or lunu miris and is a must try if you ever step into Sri Lanka.

Fish Ambul Thiyal

Sri Lanka being an island has a culture of rich seafood. Fish Ambul Curry or Sour fish curry is one of the hot favourites. Curries vary from household to household and everyone has their own grandma’s recipe but the basics are the same. The fish (usually tuna or something large) is cut into cubes and sautéed with a lot of spices like turmeric, garlic, curry leaves and the most important – garoka (a small fruit responsible for the sour taste). Coconut milk is sometimes added along with water and the entire curry is simmered until the liquid reduces, leaving a rich creamy fish curry where each fish cube absorbs the flavor and spice and is eaten with rice or theta paan.

Devilled Sweet & Sour Fish Curry

Influenced by the Portuguese and Dutch communities in Sri Lanka, this is one of the most mouth watering dishes among the Sri Lankan public especially among the youth who love to have these as a side dish during special occasions. This dish, also called ‘Devilled Fish’ contains fried fish smothered in delicious sweet and sour sauce which comes from adding sugar and vinegar. Slightly fried with red onions, capsicums and banana peppers and garnished with drops of lime, this tastes best with fried rice or parathas (flatbread) on the side. Yellow tuna fish is one that is best used for this dish and the amount of chilli and spice put in differs from place to place.

Kukul Nas Curry

For non-veg lovers, this is a very common household curry which like most curries has different variations all across the country. Spices and condiments like cardamom, cloves and cinnamon sticks are tempered in hot oil before combining with succulent pieces of chicken along with chilli powder, curry powder, curry leaves, tomato puree and lemon. Coconut milk is added too like in most Sri-Lankan dishes, that gives it  creamy gravy. The chicken is stewed in this delicious broth until each piece absorbs the flavor that is finally enjoyed with roti, bread or hot rice.

Lamprais

The word comes from the Dutch combination of the words ‘lump’ and ‘rice’ and is a combination of meat, rice, sambol chilli sauce, shrimp paste, and starchy vegetables like brinjals or plantain. This mixture is folded into parcels in banana leaves and then steamed. The meat used is usually cooked with sweet spices like clove and cardamom while the rice gets cooked in the flavourful meat stock. These banana leaf packets often include eggs, pork, or lamb instead of chicken. Found in most restaurants and sometimes prepared in elaborate occasions at home, this dish is something that has been inspired by the Dutch community.

Polos

Quite obvious that Sri Lanka is famous for its curries, Polos is a green jackfruit curry. Jackfruit is consumed in a variety of stages of ripeness and Polos utilizes the young green version of jackfruits. Cut into small cubes and boiled until soft, it is then cooked in a broth of flavourful spices and coconut milk. Finally simmered to reduce most of the liquid, the jackfruit pieces are left soft and tender with all the flavours of the spices infused in each bite. Polos is so good, it could almost pass for chunks of tender beef!

Hoppers

Sri Lankans have their own version to the tasty pancakes. A batter of fermented rice flour mixed with coconut water, coconut milk and a hint of sugar is made and taken into small ladles and fried in a small wok specially made for making hoppers. Swirling around the edges of the pan to give it an even consistency, it comes out like a bowl shaped crispy pancake with a soft center. Sometimes eaten with a twist, an egg is cracked open in the middle of this pancake bowl and garnished with chillies, onions, coconut sambol, salt, pepper and a squirt of lemon for a delicious breakfast. Served with Dhal curry or chutney, hoppers are a local favourite and eaten with relish.

To have the best hoppers, go to any food stall around Galle Face or visit the Grand Oriental Hotel where they have a buffet of tasty fry-ups every Friday and Saturday.

Kakuluwo Curry

A traditional spicy crab curry (also known as Jaffna crab curry), this dish is popular across the country especially near the coastal regions where seafood is everyday diet menu. Made from blue swimmer crabs (or mud crabs) which are cleaned by removing the grills and membranes, it is then broken into smaller pieces and cooked.

A gravy of onion, garlic, curry leaves, chilli and turmeric is simmered in a clay pot to which the crabs are then added along with the seed pods of the drumstick tree. Cooked till the crabs turn all meaty and tender, it is served with pol sambol and rice or even pittu or bread.

Watalappan

A coconut custard pudding, made from coconut milk or sometimes condnensed milk with jaggery, cashew nuts, neaten eggs and spices like cardamom and cloves and sometimes a thick Pandan juice or grated vanilla pods, it comes out of the oven with a creamy consistency and a crispy golden exterior. This dessert is delicacy popular amongst Muslims in Sri Lanka and no social gathering or festival is complete without slices of Watalappan.

Kiribath

Eaten most during special occasions, this is a mildly flavoured rice cake. There are different versions of Kiribath but the traditional way is to cook rice with coconut milk and a pinch of salt. It is then cooled, set into plates and cut into wedges and served like cake. This creamy cake with a hint of coconut flavor is garnished with sambol chili sauce or onions and can be sweetened with jaggery or consumed with spicy sauce or curry.

Pittu

(Image credit: Vah re Vah)

Traditionally eaten for breakfast in Sri Lanka, these rice cakes are made by mixing coconut (shredded) with rice flour to form a crumbly mixture. It is then steamed in bamboo traditionally till it came out as a solid Pittu funnel cake. Nowadays circular Pittu steamers are available that make it easier to steam these precious little cakes. Either red or white rice can be used to make this dish which is then served with warmed and sweetened coconut milk and eaten with lunu miris on the side or any spicy meat, fish or vegetable curry. Simple and delicious, Pittu is a dish that people grab and go while they are rushing to their work or school and are also served as evening snacks!

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