If you’ve been following our Facebook page over the last month, you’ll have seen me alternately complaining and raving about food in Sri Lanka. Food is a big part of our travel experience, we like to try as many new foods as we can and, hopefully, enjoy them. (For non-regular readers, my husband is an Executive Chef and I’m a food nut).
We were really looking forward to eating our way around this beautiful island. They say Sri Lankan food is similar to South Indian food, one of our favourite world cuisines . It’s similar is style, but the execution is very different and doesn’t appeal to us quite as much. We’ve had a few food issues in Sri Lanka, some days I haven’t been able to face eating at all , other days, dinner has been cheese triangles and biscuits. We’ve had plenty of not-so-great food and options have been very limited in some places.
The good news is, there are many uniquely Sri Lankan foods that you should try if you’re here. We’ve enjoyed trying string hoppers, egg hoppers, various roti, glorious fresh coconut sambol, pol roti, fresh buffalo curd and palm “trickle”. Sri Lankan breakfasts are superb.
I’ll have to put all that in another post, I’ve got plenty to rave about. Today I’m going to have a winge.
The Problems We’ve Had with Sri Lankan Food
On the coast it’s all about the fish, which is understandable, the Sri Lankans are fishermen and they catch an amazing variety and abundance of sea creatures. Unfortunately, some of the beach restaurants keep it hanging around way past it’s sell-by date and often at room temperature. We saw the same fish being brought out for dinner service day after day in Mirissa (we LOVED Mirissa otherwise!), some was absolutely putrid. If you know how to pick out a fresh fish and you’re prepared to pay through the nose, go for it, we didn’t. Sitting downwind of some of the fish displays was enough to tell us it wasn’t fresh.
We got the impression that most restaurants on the coast are set up to make a quick buck out of the tourists, which is understandable. The owners and chefs really aren’t interested in food quality at all. If you want good food you need to look elsewhere.
On the coast we came up against an extremely boring, standard menu just about everywhere we tried. It seemed that each restaurant was basically serving the same thing, and it wasn’t Sri Lankan food. Every menu had chow mein, fried rice, pasta and fried noodles, not the sort of thing that we want to eat at all.
Rice and curry is the classic meal of Sri Lanka, the rice being the major component, not the curries. I’m not a big fan of rice, so it really doesn’t work for me, but that’s my problem. The big issue is, if you want rice and curry, or even a Sri Lankan breakfast of hoppers and curry, in one of the coastal tourist restaurants, you need to order hours in advance. For breakfast you order the day before. When you’re travelling around, that can be tricky.
Price is the other problem. We payed 800Rs ($7) each for rice and curry on the beach in Tangalle. When it came, 3 hours later, it was very disappointing. Cold popadoms, fish with scales, bones and skin, over salted dahl and too many carbs. At that price you expect something spectacular.
We managed to find a few “local” restaurants away from the tourist places that served good rice and curry (200 Rs or so, $2) and had it ready for walk in customers, but it wasn’t easy. Unlike Thailand, or most countries in South East Asia, I get the impression that Sri Lankans don’t eat out much, so there isn’t the abundance of eateries that you see elsewhere.
What you will find are short eats, various pastries, filled breads and fried snacks. Some are absolutely delicious, we had great vada (wade) several times, vendors on buses and trains bring them to you in your seat. We also tried some really weird bread concoctions, filled with curry, or in one case, a surprise sausage, they weren’t so good.
You’ll see short eats for sale behind glass in shops and sometimes in mobile short eats vans. Look out for the whistling short eats van in Mirissa, it’s cool! This little short eats tuk tuk was in Tangalle.
Filled vegetable roti are a regular feature, they’re not bad, the filling is a spiced potato mix, similar to that in a massala dosa. They cost almost nothing and are very filling but roti tends towards being under cooked and doughy in Sri Lanka. We’ve eaten roti in every country we’ve been to so far, it tastes much better if it’s crispy ( Laos gets our vote for best crispy roti).
Away from the coast, in Kandy, we had a different set of problems. Amazing, huge, delicious cheap breakfasts, loads of bakeries, but we couldn’t find a meal we liked at lunchtime or in the evening and nowhere( except pubs, a new phenomenon for us in Sri Lanka) serves beer with food. I’ll have to write another post about that.
Coffee was universally bad. Sri Lankans don’t really drink coffee, so my morning coffee habit went out of the window really fast. Tea, on the other hand is excellent in Sri Lanka, we drank pots and pots of it, always served in fine china.
You’ll find a few up-market places serving good, fancy coffee with a hefty price tag, but it has to be a rare treat, not a daily necessity, at those prices.
I tried one glass of wine, in Hikkaduwa. It was nasty so I gave up. Lion beer, on the other hand, is good and cheap.
Food in Sri Lanka is very Different for Budget Travellers and Package Tourists
This is my 3rd visit to Sri Lanka, my first as a backpacker or budget traveller. On my previous visits I was spoiled with buffet breakfasts and hotel food. It’s a very different experience. I never tried, or even saw, a hopper back then. I went home raving about Sri Lankan food, twice, this time, I’ll give it a thumbs up, but it’s been very hard to find food that we’ve enjoyed without breaking the bank.
I will say that nobody has been sick this time. We’ve stayed away from the fish, I think that was the key. My travelling companion went down with amoebic dysentry followed by a severe reaction to toxins in prawns a few years ago. But them’s the breaks, we’ve loved our time in Sri Lanka, it’s one of my favourite countries in the world, I just wish we’d had a bit of local food knowledge before we wasted a lot of time and appetite on trial and error eating.