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10 essential dishes to try in Sri Lanka

From string hoppers to watalappam, get to know the delicacies this island nation offers that are found nowhere else By Gavin Yeung The teardrop-shaped island of Sri Lanka off the southern tip of India is a tropical paradise with picture-perfect beaches, ancient Buddhist temples, and exotic wildlife. But for food lovers, Sri Lanka’s vibrant mix of cultural influences makes it a culinary wonderland. Over centuries of trade and colonial rule, Arab, Malay, and South Indian influences have blended with indigenous cooking styles to create unique dishes found nowhere else, while a troubled history has made much of the country’s cuisine reliant on homegrown produce. “One thing about Sri Lankan cuisine is that we are still tied to our land. We do everything with what’s available here,” Ministry of Crab co-founder Dharshan Munidasa tells Tatler Dining. “We are in a crossroads of all these waters mixing and hence the freshwater prawns are huge, the crabs are huge, the tuna is great.” Now a traveller’s paradise, Sri Lanka offers a bounty of delicious, and in some cases novel, flavours for the intrepid foodie. Here are 10 essential dishes to sample on your next trip to Sri Lanka, for first-time visitors and seasoned travellers like.

1. Rice and curry

AboveA selection of curries typical to a Sri Lankan meal (Photo: Gavin Yeung/Tatler Dining)
No meal in Sri Lanka is complete without a hearty plate of rice and curry. Red, yellow, and green curries, usually made with meat or seafood, coconut milk and spices like chilli, cinnamon, and curry leaves, are presented in a spread—much like Korean banchan—along with an array of vegetable sides like okra, jackfruit, and eggplant. The curries are then ladled over mounds of fluffy rice, with the diner able to mix and match to their heart’s desire.

2. Egg hoppers

AbovePhoto: Gavin Yeung/Tatler Dining
These bowl-shaped pancakes (also known as appam) made from rice flour and coconut milk are a staple of Sri Lankan breakfasts and dinners. Cooked in a special pan with a rounded bottom, hoppers can be plain but are best when cooked with an egg in the middle—and are always eaten with curry. The lace-like edges soak up sauce, while the eggy centres remain fluffy.

3. Kottu roti

AbovePhoto: Gavin Yeung/Tatler Dining
This popular street food consists of chopped roti flatbread stir-fried on a griddle with spices, meat, eggs and vegetables. The ingredients are vigorously chopped and tossed together, creating a riot of textures, flavours and aromas. Kottu roti is usually eaten as a late-night snack, but it is too delicious to miss at any hour.

4. Pol sambol

Sri Lankan cooking pol sambol
AbovePhoto: Getty Images
This Sri Lankan version of shredded coconut salad is spicy, tangy, and deeply nutty. Grated coconut is mixed with chilli, lime, and often tomato, onion and Maldivian fish. Pol sambol is usually served as a condiment, but it’s also delicious on its own with rice.

5. Crab curry

AboveCrab curry from Ministry of Crab in Colombo, Sri Lanka (Photo: Gavin Yeung/Tatler Dining)
Sri Lanka is an island, so seafood like the famous lagoon crab is abundant and a highlight of the cuisine. Crab curry, where chunks of crab meat are simmered in a spicy coconut-based curry sauce, is a signature dish. The sweet crab meat, which falls off the shell, pairs perfectly with the rich and fiery curry.

6. Ambul thiyal

Ambul thiyal, also known as sour fish curry, is a popular Sri Lankan dish made with tuna, spices, and dried goraka fruit. The dish is typically prepared by marinating chunks of tuna in a mixture of spices and then cooking it in a tangy sauce made with dried goraka fruit, which gives it its distinctive sour flavour. A staple in Sri Lankan cuisine, ambul thiyal and is often served with rice and other traditional sides.

7. String hoppers

AbovePhoto: Gavin Yeung/Tatler Dining
A popular dish across Sri Lanka and South India, string hoppers (also known as idiyappam) are made from a steamed mixture of rice flour pressed into thin noodles or “strings”. The noodles are typically served with a variety of curries, chutneys, and sambols, and are a staple in Sri Lankan cuisine. Whether eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, string hoppers are loved for their soft, delicate texture and versatility, as it can be paired with a wide range of flavourful curries and condiments.

8. Ceylon tea

Above A man picks tea leaves in the hills of Ella, Sri Lanka (Photo: Gavin Yeung/Tatler Dining)
While not exactly a dish, Ceylon tea is absolutely essential to try while in Sri Lanka. A type of black tea that is grown and produced in Sri Lanka, Ceylon tea is known for its distinct flavor and aroma, which is influenced by the island’s unique climate and soil conditions. The tea is typically brewed strong and served with milk and sugar, although it can also be enjoyed plain or with a slice of lemon. Ceylon tea is a staple in Sri Lankan culture and is often served to guests as a symbol of hospitality. It is also exported around the world and is a popular choice among tea lovers for its bold and robust flavour.

9. Milk rice

AbovePhoto: Gavin Yeung/Tatler Dining
For a sweet ending to a Sri Lankan meal, milk rice is ideal. Essentially a milky rice pudding infused with coconut milk, sugar and spices like cardamom, nutmeg and saffron, it’s often garnished with more coconut milk, fruit like mangoes or bananas and pistachios for a comforting dessert that packs a punch.

10. Watalappan

AbovePhoto: Gavin Yeung/Tatler Dining
A sweet and creamy pudding made with coconut milk, jaggery (a type of unrefined cane sugar), cashews, and spices, watalappan is typically steamed in small bowls or cups and has a smooth and silky texture. It’s often flavoured with a combination of cardamom, cinnamon, and nutmeg, which gives it a warm and aromatic taste. The dessert is often served during special occasions and festivals, such as weddings and New Year celebrations, and is a beloved ending to any Sri Lankan meal. Source: Tatler Asia
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