From creamy curries to fiery sambols and cooling desserts, Sri Lanka’s capital is a culinary wonderland of delicious treasures. A liberal use of coconut, indigenous cooking methods, and a treasure chest of spices help this cuisine pack a delightful punch in every bite.
By NIVEDITA JAYARAM PAWAR
Colombo is usually associated with swanky hotels, stunning beaches, beautiful colonial-era buildings, and a rollicking night life. But there’s another gem in its vast repertoire of attractions—a tantalising cuisine! A typical meal in this oceanside haven can take you from mildly sweet to lip-puckeringly sour and unapologetically spicy. In some ways it’s similar to Indian food, with the two nations sharing many similar dishes. Let’s decode seven of the city’s best gourmet offerings.
This searingly spicy—sometimes sweet, at times sour—condiment is an inevitable accompaniment to any Sri Lankan meal. Made in a traditional wooden grinding device called a mirisgala, it’s generally eaten uncooked. The most popular versions are the pol (coconut) sambol, the fiery lunu miris (literally ‘salt and red chilli’), and the mildly sweet and caramelised onion-based seeni sambol. Because some
like it hot!
Try it at: Just about any restaurant, café, or street-side stall across
An immensely popular breakfast item, these delicious bowl-shaped pancakes are made from fermented rice and coconut milk and come in various forms. A plain hopper can have an egg at its base, be showered with cheese, or topped with vegetables. Then there are string hoppers or idiyappam that look like bird nests made of rice noodles. Usually eaten with curries, creamy dhal (dal), or a piquant sambol, hoppers can also be part of a sweet dish, when served with yoghurt and palm syrup.
Try it at: Upali’s by Nawaloka, where they are always made fresh.
What’s not to love about decadent fritters, deep-fried in all their shiny glory? Making it even more appetising is a topping of juicy prawns! Isso vadai (isso means prawns in Sinhala and vadai translates to fritters) is everyone’s favourite street snack in Colombo. Best eaten with a spicy chutney and freshly sliced onions.
Try it at: The street carts of Colombo’s Galle Face Green.
This beloved Sri Lankan meal represents the history of the Dutch empire on a plate—or more accurately, a banana-leaf. Popularised by the Burgher community (descendants of the Dutch and Portuguese colonisers), this delicacy comprises a lump of rice (cooked in meat stock) with several side dishes, all wrapped together in a banana leaf. These components include mixed meat curry, frikkadels (meatballs), blachan (spicy shrimp paste), brinjal pahi (fried eggplant), and ash plantain curry. Over the years, locals have added seeni sambol and boiled eggs to it, too.
Try it at: The home kitchen of Mrs Warusawithana (+94 112 573908) on Pedris Road is considered the best by the locals.
If there’s one thing that all Sri Lankans love, it’s their array of flavourful curries! Among the many to try, the robust crab curry, with its creamy coconut milk and blend of spices is the most popular. Kukul maas (chicken curry) and fish curry are other notable favourites. While the dhal (dal) curry is a staple, polos (jackfruit) curry is reserved for special occasions. All are best eaten with sides like halmasso baduma (fried dried fish), wambatu moju (brinjal pickle), and sambol.
Try it at: Thuna Paha, a restaurant set by a tranquil, man-made lake.
This simple dish with a rich presence is prepared by cooking kekulu (local variety) rice in coconut milk. This is then left to set and cut into various shapes. Symbolising prosperity, kiribath is prepared for festivals, birthday celebrations, and to mark new beginnings. It’s also traditionally given to children as their first solid food, and can be topped with spicy lunu miris or jaggery and bananas.
Try it at: Governor’s Restaurant at the Mount Lavinia Hotel.
This is Sri Lanka’s most-loved comfort food! A delicious melange of leftover rotis, chopped up into small strips and mixed with an assortment of spices, vegetables, egg or chicken, and topped with a heavy helping of chillies and onions, it’s the perfect evening snack or post-party indulgence. The process of making kottu is half cooking, half spectacle, as each chef has their own melodic beat that they
chop away to!
Try it at: Hotel de Pilawoos on Galle Road is a popular kottu roti spot among late night revellers. Go for the egg or cheese kottu.