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Food in Sri Lanka (The Problems!)

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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 ).  Sri Lanka bought us good food in abundance and just one or two bad dishes, but what we found tricky in Sri Lanka, surprisingly, was finding good Sri Lankan food and dishes. It was so hard in some places that we pretty much gave up.

Problems with food in Sri Lanka. Plate of short eats Sri Lankan snacks
Sri Lankan short eats, snacks or savouries, vada, and filled roti.

Food in Sri Lanka

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 in style, but the execution is different. 

Could you save this to Pinterest?

Sri Lankan food photos
Top photo, Sri Lankan string hoppers, dal, and coconut chutney for breakfast. It’s delicious! Bottom photo, milk rice, a Sri Lankan specialty, not something we liked very much.

That said, by the end of our trip we were pretty much converted to the different spicings.

Favourite Sri Lankan dishes
Some of our favourite Sri Lankan foods, fiery hot fresh shredded coconut chutney, potato curry, dal (top) with coconut roti, and bowl-shaped hoppers.

We’ve had a few food issues in Sri Lanka, some days I haven’t been able to face eating at all because options were so limited, other days, dinner has been cheese triangles and biscuits.

Sri Lanka curry dosa
Delicious curries with dosa, in Ella, Sri Lanka.

We’ve had plenty of uninspiring food and options have been very limited in some places, we just didn’t know where to go to find what we wanted, ie. good, real, Sri Lankan food. 

Sri Lankan curry and rice, national dish
Sri Lanka’s national dish, rice and curry. If you can find a good one, it’s delicious, but it can be hard to find. This one was in a small restaurant away from the beach in Hikkaduwa.

I’ll have to put our favourite Sri Lankan dishes in another post, some are in the video. I’ve got plenty to rave about in terms of Sri Lankan cuisine.

Sri Lankan Koyu Roti
Sri Lankan kottu roti is another local favourite dish. Kottu Roti is chopped roti (flat bread) mixed with vegetables, spices, chicken or other proteins. It can be very hot, or “spicy” with pepper being a major player in that spicyness. It’s good, but hard to find. We bought this in Negombo.

Today I’m going to have a winge about the one big problem we had with food in Sri Lanka. That was finding it.

Food in Sri Lanka To Try

Foods you must try in Sri Lanka include the following.

  • Rice and curry.
  • Crab curry
  • Fish curry
  • Jackfruit curry
  • String hoppers
  • Hoppers
  • Milk rice
  • Curd
  • Short Eats

We wouldn’t say there are any particular foods to avoid in Sri Lanka other than fish or shellfish that could be getting old. Fresh fish should be great. Just use common sense.

Food in Sri Lanka – Problems

Food in Sri Lanka fresh fish
Fish, fresh from the fishing boats at the fish market in Galle Sri Lanka. But is it fresh at the beach restaurants?

On the coast, Sri Lankan food is all about fish, which is understandable, the Sri Lankans are fishermen and they catch an amazing variety and abundance of sea creatures.

You’ll see fishermen selling their catch straight from the sea at roadsides and in markets, it’s so fresh and the variety is stunning.

Unfortunately, some (only some!) of the beach restaurants keep it hanging around way past its 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 way past fresh.

If you know how to pick out a fresh fish and you’re prepared to pay through the nose, go for it. Sitting downwind of some of the fish displays was enough to tell us it wasn’t fresh.

Remember, my husband knows this stuff inside out, he’s an exec chef with all the food hygiene certificates.

We got the impression that many small restaurants on the beach 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.

It’s a problem in many places around the world with a steady flow of new tourists so that restaurants aren’t looking for repeat customers. This is totally not a situation unique to Sri Lanka, you’ll see it in most countries.

On the coast, we came up against an extremely boring, Sri Lankan standard menu just about every small tourist eatery we tried. It seemed that each restaurant was basically serving the same thing, and it wasn’t Sri Lankan food.

Pretty much every menu had the following dishes.

  • chow mein
  • fried rice,
  • pasta
  • fried noodles
  • pizza

As well as these dishes you’ll see a lot of “devilled” dishes, often crab or fish. These probably stem from British influence and they’re quite tasty, but usually contain bottled sauces or ketchup.

If you can find a Sri Lankan beach restaurant serving good Sri Lankan curries, you’ve found a great place to eat. We found it quite hard to find those places.

We very rarely ordered a meat curry in Sri Lanka, I think we did once, and the meat was so tough it was inedible. I don’t know why, that’s just the way it was. This was in Kandy.

Food in Sri Lanka – Breakfasts

Food in Sri Lanka typical sri lankan breakfast
This is a very typical Sri Lankan breakfast served to us in one lovely (affordable) villa on the coast. Everything was perfect.

A traditional Sri Lankan breakfast is one of the most delicious meals in the world. Dal, maybe a fish, egg, or potato curry, fresh coconut chutney, string hoppers or hoppers are a fantastic way to start the day. You may also encounter fresh tropical fruits like papaya, pineapple, and bananas, local curd, milk rice, or, in hotels, western offerings.

Sri Lankan breakfast is generally great and where we could, we ordered it in our guest house or other accommodation, the night before. Where breakfast wasn’t available in our hotel, or where we arrived too late to order, finding breakfast was sometimes difficult. In places with street food vendors (such as Ella), we ordered delicious hoppers from street stalls, or roti, filled with veg (or even chocolate!)

In hotels expect huge buffet spreads similar to those found in any country, but hopefully, with the addition of these Sri Lankan foods.

Sri Lankan Food – Real Sri Lankan Rice and Curry

Curry with rice the national food of sri lanka
Sri Lankan curry with rice is indeed very nice! The national dish of Sri Lanka rice and curry. It’s just hard to find sometimes!

Rice and curry is the classic meal of Sri Lanka, the rice being the major component, not the curries.  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 usually order the day before. When you’re travelling around, that can be tricky.

food in sri lanka curry
$28 (that’s a lot!) and a 3 hour wait for very uninspiring Rice and Curry.

Price is the other problem. We paid 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, dried out dahl and too many carbs. At that price you expect something better.

If you think $7 is cheap remember that in most parts of Asia a meal costs us $1-2.

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 routinely eat out much, so there isn’t the abundance of everyday restaurants that you see elsewhere.

Sri Lankan Short Eats

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.

food in sri lanka short eats
Short eats van, Tangalle

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 undercooked 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 ( Oh how we LOVE Sri Lankan 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) served beer with food.

I’ll have to write another post about that.

One particular meal to avoid in Kandi, surprisingly, was any kind of meat curry. We normally prefer vegetarian, but my husband eats meat sometimes and any kind of meat curry he ordered was tough and stringy. So watch out for that.

Drinks in Sri Lanka

Coffee was universally bad for us in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankans don’t really drink coffee as we know it, so my morning coffee habit went out of the window really fast. This isn’t unusual, Malaysia and India are two other countries where it’s sometimes a struggle to find coffee – if you take it black without sugar.

Tea, on the other hand, has always been excellent in Sri Lanka, we drank pots and pots of it, always served in fine china.

You’ll find up-market places serving good, fancy coffee with a hefty price tag more and more these days, but it has to be a rare treat, not a daily necessity, at those prices.

lion drink sri lanka

I tried one glass of wine, in Hikkaduwa. It was nasty so I gave up but you can get wine in Sri Lanka, there are off-licenses and wine shops and good hotels should have decent wine.

Sri Lankan Lion beer, on the other hand, is good and cheap, we happily stuck with that.

Food in Sri Lanka for Budget Travellers vs Package Tourists

food in sri lanka. Sri Lankan Breakfast
Sri Lankan breakfast. Loved it, when we could get it. Fresh pol (coconut) sambol is amazing!

This was our 3rd visit to Sri Lanka, my first as a backpacker or budget traveller, (we’ve since been back 2 more times). 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 big thumbs up, but it’s been tricky to find food that we’ve enjoyed without breaking the bank.

The hotels and up-market restaurants are there and the food is sensational, but it’s not within a backpacker or traveller budget. At one private villa stay (with the most excellent chef) we had superb food. I think this is the trick to finding good Sri Lankan food, it has to be home-cooked, with love. Jackfruit curry and crab curry are two stand-out Sri Lankan dishes.

I will say that nobody has been sick this time. We’ve stayed away from the fish on the beach, I think that was the key. My travelling companion went down with amoebic dysentery followed by a severe reaction to toxins in prawns a few years ago. He was very ill and on a drip after having to call a doctor to the hotel.

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.

Maybe a food tour or cookery class would be a good idea to uncover the real gems of Sri Lankan cuisine.

Sri Lanka problems sri lankan food

The good news is, that 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.

fish of sri lanka
Fresh fish Mirissa beach.

Food in Sri Lanka – Verdict

We’ll be back in Sri Lanka soon, we hope to be able to give you the other side of the story, show you how amazing Sri Lankan food can be away from the chow mein and sweet and sour emporiums. So now you could go back to our Sri Lanka Family Travel Home Page or you could take a look at a place in Sri Lanka where we enjoyed superb food. A Sri Lankan chef with a passion for his art and skills he enjoyed sharing, take a look at the Max Wadiya villa, just to prove food in Sri Lanka can be amazing. We still talk about those crab curries. The Templegerg Villa and Balapitya Beach Villa also gave us good home cooking. Most hotels we’ve used in Sri Lanka, at higher price points, have also offered good Sri Lankan food. This post reflects our first-hand, honest, real-life experiences of travelling and eating in Sri Lanka, over several months and years with a dash of executive chef expertise. Or maybe just find out what on Earth a hopper is here.

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Thursday 11th of April 2019

We’re in Sri Lanka at the moment and have had some wonderful food, but I think we’ve been lucky because we’ve stayed in homestays and small guesthouses where amazing home-cooked meals have been prepared for us and we’ve also looked at online reviews before seeking out other places to eat. The worst meal we’ve eaten was at a beachside restaurant in Mirissa, which I knew would be average (as all those beachside restaurants seem to be), but we wanted to eat on the beach, so average food was unfortunately the trade-off! However, besides some excellent homestay meals, we’ve also had incredible meals at both The Kitchen Garden and Matey Hut in Ella, at Dimali Inn in Mirissa and at Mangos in Jaffna (excellent south Indian food) – I’d highly recommend checking these places out when you’re next in Sri Lanka! :)

Alyson Long

Thursday 11th of April 2019

Great recommendations, thanks Sionhan. If we make it back I'll come ckeck out those restaurants. It is such a shame that most places where you could sit and enjoy the view just don't get it.

RushDi Lewke Bandara

Saturday 23rd of March 2019

You have looked in wrong places perhaps. We have really good food. Many complain those are spicy. For $ 16, you have got a really good meal with potato curry, ladies fingers & others. Just think what will you get if you go to KFC or McDonalds? For $ 16, you will not get few dishes in a good restaurant in your country, Anyway, if they took 3 hours that's real bad. It surprising. Try Kiribath or MIlkrice next time for breakfast. Our coffee is traditional; Its not roasted like Nescafe & the taste is much different than coffees used in Europe. Once you get used to our traditional coffee, you will learn to love it. IN the same way, we do not like the strong taste of famous coffee brands. Sometimes they display what they have just as show case. But they won;t offer you the same. They cook fresh food inside. Some issues you have mentioned we have experienced too. Someone posted here saying that we do not eat from outside much. Mostly we love home made food; when we go for work, we carry our own food, But we enjoy restaurant food at friend get together & outings. You need to try ;Koththu' & 'Pittu' with coconut milk. Try our 'ruhunu pickle'& 'polos curry (tender jack fruit), kiri kos (jack fruit curry) , mango curry, ambaralla curry , brinjal moju as well. Thanks for liking our food & country.

Alyson Long

Saturday 23rd of March 2019

We've had all of the above, they're great, ( don't like milk rice) but we had to have our own chef to get them We used a couple of villas, cheap and expensive, that offered this - more like home cooking - fantastic. We actually have a jackfruit tree in our garden here in Australia, I can knock up a mean Sri Lankan style jackfruit curry. You just can't find simple daily food, that's actually Sri Lankan it in the restaurants usually. Instead you'll see Chow Mein and so on. I don't know why they do this, probably for speed, convenience, low cost and there being no skill in cooking it. By restaurant I mean - a place where you eat 3 times a day every day - as travellers we eat all of our meals in restaurants, for months and years at a time. That sort of food, where you don't want anything fancy, is just hard to track down. I think you're getting confused about that. We don't go to a restaurant for a treat, we go to feed ourselves. I would argue with you that $16 is still very, very expensive where you can eat like a king all over Asia - most of South East Asia - India - for just a couple of dollars. Likewise most parts of Europe, I could get something better for that money. Coffee is bad in a lot of countries and we don't expect to find good coffee everywhere, I just mention it in passing because readers will want to know what the coffee situation is. A lot of people hate Nescafe - why would you mention that stuff? But if it's available I'll take it over no cofee or - the worst thing on the planet - instant coffee with added sugar and milk powder - ugg. I'm also well used to Sri Lankan coffee, it's OK, just the tea is better, I like tea. You mention Mc Dolalds, a Big Mac and fries is well under $16, so I don't know what you mean sorry. Also the above was not a good restaurant, it was a beach shack. Why are you trying to compare every day food to fine dining or fast food? I just don't know where you're coming from with that, my apologies for not understanding. In Australia we pay a fortune for fruit and vegetables, the same can't be said for Sri Lanka so you just can't compare like that. The meal above looks good but it was terrible, badly executed, poor quality. I love Sri Lankan food, absolutely adore it, it's just diffincult to track down sometimes. So difficult that after an hour of wandering we did, more than once, end up with cheese triangles and crackers. I appreciate that it's not Thailand or Vietnam where the food culture revolves around good, street food aimed at locals, it's Sri Lanka, not Thailand. But travellers like us will find our experiences useful, hopefully learn by our mistakes and put some reasearch into where to eat. Wouldn't it be lovely if you could just sit down at any beach restaurant and order a good bowl of dal or egg curry, pay a dollar or three, enjoy a Lion beer at sunset and be happy, rather than being faced with chow mein. Maybe things have improved in the last few years, I do hope so.

Bossy Flossie

Tuesday 23rd of October 2018

I also struggled with finding good, authentic food in Sri Lanka. The reality is, Sri Lankans eat at home, they don't eat out. So the restaurants are all catered to the tourists. The best way is to try a cooking lesson! I wrote about the exact same issue when I visited Sri Lanka earlier this year:

Cate Cahillane

Wednesday 29th of August 2018

I have recently returned from Sri Lanka and was very impressed with the food. I think we had an advantage as we stayed with locals rather than the tourists spots, so the food was either personally prepared for us in homes or we were taken to places that our local hosts knew had the best quality food.

I had a superb breakfast at Hotel Mankada, Kurunegala Road, Giriulla. Egg hoppers, coconut roti, pol sambol from a self service buffet. The fish we ate was personally prepared for us - so no issues there. In Colombo we stopped for a quick bite the "The Sponge" - pastries freshly made and delicious. The CIC Agribusiness farm is another good place to visit for good quality produce, dried fruits, nuts and dairy - we bought kithul syrup here which we enjoyed later with fresh buffalo curd that our hosts sourced for us. Our final night indulging in the huge buffet at the Kingsbury in Colombo was amazing and not that expensive - highly recommend this for anyone visiting Colombo.

Agree about the coffee though - although the tea is great, was looking forward to that coffee when we got home :)


Monday 16th of April 2018

Thank you for this, I agree ... we have just returned from a 15 day trip and cannot agree more about the food. The place.... cannot fault beautiful people, beaches, landscape. The food itself is just hard work... and overpriced. We ate some delicious local meals Curries, Roti ect but they were few and far between We were always wanting and willing to try the "traditional food" it became a real struggle towards the end and we found ourselves paying ridiculous amounts for "halfway decent food" in more upmarket stuffy places which we wouldn't ever visited Our favs were the Roti street stall at the end of the beach and the amazing colorful fresh fruit (simple pleasures)

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