Sri Lanka is any traveler’s dream: quiet, wind and surf-swept beaches? They’ve got them. Mysterious and magnificent ancient ruins? From Sigiriya’s Lion Rock fortress to the gracefully beautiful Buddhas of Gal Vihara, you will have plenty of cultural treasures to marvel at. Nature? Sure--hundreds of herds of elephants, slinking leopards, and creeping crocodiles inhabit parks like Yala Reserve. And of course, a vibrant mix of people inhabits the small teardrop-shaped nation--and with a diverse population, comes diverse (and often delicious) foods!
Here’s our quick recap of our favorite foods from each area we visited!
Flavors of the Ancient Cities
During a masochist day of scaling the path through the lion’s paws to the top of Sigiriya’s fortress, and cycling through Polonnawura’s Buddhist ruins, we refueled with a banana leaf lunch--a format we’re familiar with from Penang’s many South Indian daun pisang shops. On a dusty, traffic clogged road, Banana Leaf was a completely unexpected blast of new flavors. A delicious dry black pork curry, heaps of fresh tasting vegetables, and bright sambols--this food features flavors that are brought to life by spices like the island’s fresh black pepper, tamarind, and exquisite cinnamon.
I Want (More Than) Kandy
...and yet, it seemed that, aside from a few cake shops, local food was a bit more elusive in the sacred city, home to the Temple of the Tooth. After a while, you might start to tire of kottu (chopped roti tossed with curry), bake shop samosas, and the other bready options. Coming from what many call the street food capital of Asia, getting lost in Lanka does highlight the fact that Malaysia’s late-night street food and early-rising kopitiam culture are not universal. In fact, even in Kandy, most shops were shuttered by 8pm, with the exception of some of the Muslim-owned hotels [*in Sri Lanka and other parts of South Asia, formerly ruled by the English, “hotel” often refers to a small, informal cafe]. But what we did discover was a Muslim-owned, hip “western” joint serving string hopper biryani wrapped in a banana leaf. Steamed thin rice noodles (sometimes called “putu mayam” in Malaysia), chopped, coated in biryani spice with a fried chicken leg tucked in. The whole bundle of goodness is wrapped in a banana leaf, similar to “lamprais”, a favorite dish of Dutch Burghers, but with the addition of the rich spices of biryani. Now this is the kind of fusion that I was dreaming about!
High Time for Tea--and Kurd & Kittul
Ahh, Sri Lanka’s unforgettable train to tea country; winding up into the rolling green hills with views of old British tea plantations, with the cool mountain breeze in your hair, as your train chugs across dramatic, arched bridges over mountain passes--sounds magnificent, doesn’t it? Well...Apparently, the entire population of western Europe seems to think so too, as we were barely able to squeeze our way onto the train, dodging the stiff arms and aggressively placed elbows of other tourists hellbent on getting and hoarding the best views. The blocks of reservable seats sell out 45 days in advance, causing a frantic scramble for the chance to get that Instagram-worthy shot of oneself hanging out of a train car--and likely crowding out some of the local workers who use the trains to commute to work! After several hours of flaring tempers and brief glimpses of idyllic scenery, we happily hopped off the helltrain in Ella, nestled among tea plantations and vivid green valleys. We sampled the famous kurd & kittul: yogurt made from water buffalo’s milk, and treacle, called “honey” here, though it’s closer to Malaysian gula melaka (palm sugar) than anything out of an apiary. This rich, creamy, and slightly smoky-sweet bit of heaven--along with a cup of fragrant Ceylonese tea--is just what you need after a day of hiking up Little Adam’s Peak or to the Nine Arches Bridge in nearby Demodara. Lovers of Malay kueh might recognize this coconut-filled crepe as a turmeric-tinted version of ketayap--known here simply as “pancake”--but our attempts to find who borrowed what from whom didn’t get very far, but hey--it was delicious!
Southern Safaris & Surf Havens
Southern Sri Lanka is full of adventure. The region is home to some of Asia’s greatest wildlife reserves like Yala Park, where you’ll find hundreds of elephants, peacocks, langurs, mischievous macaques, deer, crocodiles, and elusive leopards. The coast offers a variety of seaside sanctuaries--budget bungalows for the surf-seekers, rustic cabins next to serene lagoons, or understated resorts tucked between mangroves and the roaring sea. It was here, in beautiful Tangalle, that we learned an important, culturally distinct phenomenon: breakfast. We’d wondered why, when asking for breakfast at 8am, we were met with puzzled expressions, and usually not fed until 9:30 or 10. Well, our guest house owner/chef explained, people simply don’t eat at this time of day. When breakfast does finally come, be ready--you won’t be needing lunch. Every day, we were met with mountains of string hoppers, plain hoppers (called “appom” in Malaysia and parts of Southern India), coconut roti, sambol pol (coconut relish), chili onion relish, richly spiced daal (lentil curry), and fresh fruit. Eventually, we didn’t really care when breakfast showed up, when it tasted so good.
You’ll want to sample the seafood--but remember: bold local flavors are left behind in the race to appease mild palates… Get off the beach and get lost in towns, where tangy fish curries and fiery sambols await the adventurous traveler--for example, we loved the painstakingly home-cooked food of Tangalle Rice and Curry!
Crab Curry in Colombo
Our last stop was the colorful capital city, Colombo. Many travelers seem to want to avoid this city--but that’d be a mistake. Wandering around the mix of Dutch & English Colonial neighborhoods, with a few eye-catching Tamil temples, and the iconic red and white striped Jami Ul Alfar Mosque--makes for an interesting day, and a stroll along the lively Galle Face Green at sunset, followed by a memorable meal, makes for an even better night. And did I mention the giant fruit bats? I can’t get enough of these creepy, giant flying chihuahuas that hang out screeching in the trees near the old Dutch Hospital--but maybe that’s just me. Colombo is a great place to try some of the country’s regional specialties--and the top of your list should be Jaffna crab, a spicy, tamarind-laced concoction from the namesake northern state. At the famous Palmyrah restaurant, ours came with string hoppers made from local red rice, and a few other delicious Jaffna dishes--but the crab was the standout, and did not disappoint.
Now, we need to be honest about something… While we loved the food in Sri Lanka, and Colombo’s famous crabs, the best Sri Lankan crab curry we’ve had was not actually in Sri Lanka. That claim goes--without apology--to Kuala Lumpur’s A Li Yaa restaurant. Listen, folks, we can only vouch for our taste buds here, but their Jaffna-inspired “amber crab” and “Colombo crab” (both concocted by a Jaffna native), are some of the best crab curries--or seafood curries--that we’ve ever had, anywhere. So, if your adventure only brings you as far as KL for the time being, you can still get a glimpse of what flavors and adventures await you across the sea in Sri Lanka.