Sri Lankan Food – The Biggest Surprise in the Country

Posted By Jeremy in Asia

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Welcome Drink and Dance at Cinnamon Bey
Looking at the buffet line-up at our host hotel, Cinnamon Lakeside in Colombo, Sri Lanka, I saw an array of options.  There was a gorgeous spread of western items as well as a dessert table so large that it would put any pastry shop to shame.  Unfortunately I had to pass on all of these items because I was on a mission to find something else: authentic Sri Lankan food.  Heading to the second half of the buffet I found what I was looking for.  Served in beautiful copper pots and wafting an aroma that reminded me of my previous travels, the food beckoned me. I had my first taste and never looked back.

Why didn’t anyone tell me Sri Lankan food was so delicious?

What Is Sri Lankan Food?

The main ingredients in Sri Lankan Food

Prior to visiting I knew there were going to be some culinary similarities to neighboring India, but apart from that my knowledge of Sri Lankan cuisine was rather limited.  Was it going to be like the rich curries of northern India, the coconut curries in the south, or maybe contain more unique items like thali sets and dosas?  I really didn’t have a clue.

More importantly, beyond all of these questions I had a lingering fear in my mind: was the food we were going to get served at the resorts going to make us sick?  From my experience, resort food in developing countries often contains some of the worst items when it comes to food-borne illnesses, and I was really worried our tour around Sri Lanka was going to be full of 40 perpetually sick bloggers as a result.

Beautiful presentations at Cinnamon Chaaya Village Habarana

I’ll just cut to the chase on that one as I’m happy to report that it didn’t happen.  In fact, I do not recall a single instance of any blogger on our trip getting sick.

Although no blogger got sick during our tour, something else happened: we all gained a lot of weight.

Coconut Curries Everywhere!

I almost bought a set of these brass pots

The first thing I noticed at the buffets provided from our hosts at Cinnamon Hotels was that there is an assortment of coconut curry dishes in Sri Lanka.  At just about every meal we had our choices of two to four coconut curries, many of which were cycled out with different items throughout the week such that only a select few were repeated.  This made it no surprise when we were told that the common phrase used for meals in the country is “rice and curry.”  It is pretty much all I ate.

Many of the curry dishes we tried had the same staple ingredients: mustard seeds, Ceylon cinnamon, dried peppers, onions, curry leaves, papadam leaves, and heaping ladles of coconut milk.  Depending on the dish, other ingredients like tomatoes, garlic, fenugreek, tumeric, and cloves were also included.

The standard curry found at these buffets was Dhal Curry.  This bright yellow dish was found at every meal and had a bold flavor profile compared to other dhal dishes in neighboring countries due to the frequent inclusion of jalapeno peppers as well as all of the spices mentioned above.

Out of all of the other curries sampled, my favorite was Beetroot Curry.  The spices and peppers made the dish pop, while the beets and coconut milk provided a rich and sweet creaminess. It is sort of perplexing how it all works out.  Who would have thought peppers, beets, and coconut milk could work together in a dish?  They did, and Sri Lankans have mastered the dish beautifully.

Within a week of returning home I had already made Dhal Curry and Beetroot Curry to share with Angie and my parents and am planning on making them a recurring item on our dinner menu.  They are that good.

The Random Items I’ll Never Forget

Food spread at Cinnamon Chaaya Village Habarana

I could spend all day talking about the main Sri Lankan meals that I over-consumed during my trip around the country, but that would make for a very long post.  Instead, I want to highlight some of the more unusual items I tried during my stay that may require a bit more work to find.

Let’s start with the most unusual one: wood-apple fruit.  Have you ever heard of it?  Until our Sri Lanka tourism trip, I hadn’t either even though it can be found as far away as Pakistan and Indonesia.

This fruit grows on the tree Limonia Acidissima and almost looks like a small melon on the outside.  After breaking open the rind the pulp can be consumed directly, although is far too tart for most palates.  I was lucky enough to have several creations using this fruit, ranging from wood-apple juice and wood-apple jam at breakfast to wood-apple cheesecake with dinner.

The best way to describe the taste of this fruit is is that is almost like a blend of tamarind and granny smith apple.  Think very tart flavors that have to be balanced with a copious amount of sugar- and it certainly isn’t for everyone.  Our group seemed to fall into two teams, the side of “I love it and cannot get enough,” which I fell into, and the “That tastes foul” community which others fell into.  No matter what you end up thinking about it, this is one local ingredient that you have to try.  I absolutely adored it and I’m kicking myself for not buying a jar of the tasty jam to bring home with me.

Cinnamon Hotel Buffet Plate with Hopper

A second unique dish I discovered in Sri Lanka is called appam (or more affectionately, hoppers).  The batter for this item is made from a fermented rice mixture as well as coconut milk, and it is made like a crepe in a bowl-shaped pan.  The cooked hopper takes the shape of the pan and is often served containing an egg, palm treacle (local molasses), or sambal.  The first time I had this particular dish I naively just grabbed a plain hopper and had to sit back with jealousy while all of my colleagues were enjoying it the way it was supposed to be eaten- with an egg and smothered in spicy sambal.  I didn’t make that mistake twice.

Overall, Sri Lankan food was the biggest surprise I found during my brief stay in the country.  No matter what I had, the flavor profiles were robust and overwhelmed my taste buds such I could never say no to second servings (or thirds in the case of wood-apple juice).  This cuisine is one I’m looking forward to tackling more at home, and I am anxious to find a local Sri Lankan restaurant to appease my craving.

I have a feeling that this one will be easier said than done.

I’d like to thank Cinnamon Hotels for hosting TBC Asia and inviting me to attend (check out our Cinnamon Bey review here!).  The conference was put on in association with the Professional Travel Bloggers AssociationAs always, all opinions are our own.  

Looking for more places to visit in Sri Lanka? Click the previous link to check out our post!

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