Hi there, I’m Russell – Jo’s husband and the bald headed buffoon you’ve seen in some of the pictures on here, and this blog entry will hopefully explain a little bit of what to expect when eating in Sri Lanka.
(This post contains affiliate links)
I should start by pointing out that I have a bias: I LOVE spicy food. I’ve been eating it since I was a tiny little kid, and have memories of my dad laughing whilst my little brother and I had figurative steam coming out of our ears as we forced down mouthful after mouthful of red hot chili-con-carne, determined not to let the old tyrant win!
The food in Sri Lanka has always been my favourite thing about the island – as great as the weather/surroundings/people are, most of the memories that really lingered with me are of food; such as a fish ball I had at a random hotel we’d stopped for directions in (sadly it was closed when we went there this trip, I was reallly looking forward to another fish ball!) or a dish I never found out the name of, but was basically curried, spicy green beans (but, y’know, dialled to eleven) and every morning a breakfast of either leftover curry from last night, or pol sambal – a staple of sri lankans that is simply chilli flakes and grated coconut, scooped up and devoured with bread!
So I’ll try and break down the different ways to eat in Sri Lanka, starting with:
Short eats – quick bites, usually found in glass cabinets out front of shops, or sometimes on the back of a vendors bike. They are almost EVERYWHERE you go, most usually dealing in savoury fare, and fantastic. There are fish buns, (soft rolls with curried fish piped into the middle) egg rolls, (eggs wrapped in crunchy, spicy pastry) the aforementioned fish balls, (fish, potato flakes, spices made into a ball and baked) spring rolls (similar to chinese spring rolls but of course, spicy, and usually chicken or fish with vegetables) and many others – may I recommend that you just go for it! Try something different each time, its unlikely youll be disappointed.
If you don’t want anything spicy from the short eat vendors, you can usually find an “omelette bun”, which is a simple soft roll with salad and an omelette inside, or simple sandwiches and cakes. Cakes/pastries etc always look fantastic, but aren’t as sweet as some people may be used to so can also be a viable quick bite option.
All of these “short eats” are very reasonable in price, usually 20-30 rupees per item (10 -15 pence), and very filling!
Lunch packets – Usually found at roadside stands, they usually consist of a piece of curried fish, two, sometimes three side dishes (lentil dahl, bombay potatoes, curried beans for example) rice and either a papadom or a large, baked chilli. (and sometimes – joy of joys – BOTH!) We were very lucky to find a stall selling jackfruit lunch packets, vegan options are everywhere you just have to ask.
These packets are rustic, authentic, and bloody fantastic! Every time I would marvel as I unwrapped one, like a kid at christmas, salivating at the thought of what might be inside. They are also very cheap, usually costing between 100-120 rupees (approx. 50-60 pence) at time of writing. Beware though, they can be super spicy!
If you don’t want the spicy lunch packet, or don’t want any meat/fish, you can usually find a shop selling fried rice packets. These were a staple for the rest of my family – as for all of them ANY spice is too spicy, and these packets of finely chopped veggies and delicious fried rice were just right for them. You can also get shredded fish/chicken versions and all in all come highly recommended. It is a little more difficult to find them than the regular lunch packets, but most tuk-tuk drivers will know where to find you some good “fried-rice”. They are also considerably more expensive – I didn’t find one for less than 230 rupees (approx. £1.20). However, Jo and the two kids could share one between them and they are a great easy vegan option.
Restaurant dining – I should point out at this point I am not a food critic! If I were, I’d be the worst one ever because with the exception of tripe, and normal pretzels, I have loved all the food presented to me, ever. Therefore any opinions I have should be taken very, very lightly. I’m also easily pleased when it comes to service, décor, ambience and to a certain extent, cleanliness.
We ate in a fair few restaurants during our holiday. Most if not all were very affordable, ALL were very accommodating, and the food ranged from good to very good. We didn’t go to any “posh” restaurants (due to budget constraints and not knowing whether the kids were gonna be angels or demons that night). Most places were happy to make Sri Lankan dishes with very little spice if you asked so Jo had some great vegetable curries.
One thing I noticed in most of the restaurants was the lack of alcohol pricing on the menus – it was not uncommon to place an order for a bottle of beer, and then see our waiter tearing off on a pushbike to purchase it! Then when the bill arrived the beers were generally very expensive when compared to the cost of the four meals. I don’t want to get into a whole thing about how the locals see all westerners as bottomless pits of easily mined cash, and will maybe write another blog covering that at a later date – but yeah, they will try to skim a little bit from you whenever they can, and the beer scam seemed to be a common one, so beware. It would probably be ok for you to take your own, it is unlikely that your custom would be turned down on the basis they wanted to charge you a bit extra to drink their beer, and I would be very curious to find out whether you had success with what I like to call “the corkage gambit”…
I should also point out that ordering the food the way you like it can be somewhat of a minefield. I LOVE spicy food, and have been eating red-hot curries and chili-con-carnes since I was a small boy. (thanks, sadistic father!) However, I found that sometimes in order to be sure the customer would enjoy the food, the locals would make things a bit milder for me. (Still hot, but not as spicy as I’d like) This led to me asking for “mega-spicy” food, which in turn led to INCREDIBLY spicy food being served to me. Not a problem for me for the most part, (although I did have one meal I had to “beat”, rather than finish) but I can imagine people who merely think they can handle hot food being left red-faced, both figuratively and literally.
That said, I enjoyed watching the locals marvelling at the westerner happily tucking in to what they lovingly and proudly call a “Sri Lanka hot” curry.
Which leads me to something I’d almost forgotten to write about – how to eat a curry in Sri Lanka!
Traditionally, curries are eaten with your fingers in Sri Lanka. Imagine you’re pretending your hand is a spider, then bring all of its “feet” together. That’s how you eat it. Take small bits of all the various components of the meal, mix it all together, lift it toward and into your mouth between thumb and four-fingers, then use your thumb to push the food from the back of your fingers into your mouth. Its weird at first, but once you get adept at it its actually quite satisfying, and again, the locals love to see you trying to do what they do. They certainly don’t expect it though, so don’t feel bad for sticking to a good old knife and fork!
Finally, a quick bit about coconuts. They use coconuts for a LOT of things in Sri Lanka – mainly cooking of course, but the shells are used in construction, the threads from the husk make very, very strong rope, the shells make a really good fuel for fires, and many other uses too numerous and not pertaining enough to this blog!
Best of all though in my most humble of opinions, is drinking them. Thambili, or king coconut, are the bright orange coconuts you’ll see being sold at the roadside, usually around 50 rupees. The person selling them will chop a hole into it, give you a straw and send you on your merry way, They are DELICIOUS! Pure electrolyte goodness, I felt like I’d pounded a red bull, two cigarettes and a double espresso only without any of the jitters. I loved them, and would just neck the whole thing right there by the vendor. (no straw, that would just slow me down)
There is a green coconut that can be drunk in the same way, I never saw them being sold like the thambili but a few houses I stayed at had them growing, and I drank them in the same way as the king coconut. I found them almost as delicious, but the flesh you can scoop out of them with part of the husk was AMAZING. It looked a bit unusual, and I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise for you by describing it so ill let you find out for yourself!
Ok, that’s about it. No doubt I’m forgetting a lot of things I wanted to say, but looking back over the blog entry I’m confident you will be at least partially prepared to get your curry on. I’m actually kind of jealous of you – I had a peanut butter and jam sandwich for lunch instead of a rice packet and thambili, and vegan bangers and mash for dinner, instead of a FEROCIOUS jackfruit curry!
Russell is a food-loving, beer-chugging first time blogger. You could tell? Darn.