Treating your senses to the Sri Lankan culinary experience

by | Jun 5, 2024

Sri Lanka is a foodie paradise! From its streets to fine-dining restaurants, there is so much to savour your senses with. Spicy, fiery, herby and fragrant, the complexity of Sri Lankan cuisine is art. Rice and curry, the hallmark of the cuisine, encompasses a mélange of dishes you didn’t even know existed. Stemmed from tradition, colonialism and multi-ethnicity, the island’s food is as vibrant as its culture. You may not travel to Sri Lanka for the food, but we’ll give you plenty of reasons why you should.

Traditional cuisine

Sri Lankan traditional cuisine has changed little over thousands of years. These cuisine traditions arise from therapeutic health benefits and in-depth knowledge about plants and species. Ayurvedic knowledge is crucial in sourcing, preparing and consuming food on the island. For example, some foods are known to ‘cool’ the body while others ‘heat’ it. Some foods aid in healing and others can exacerbate symptoms of ailments. Food isn’t merely for satiating hunger or enjoyment but also medicinal.

Traditional Sri Lankan cuisine predominantly consists of native ingredients. Although game meat, goat, chicken, seafood and fish feature in mouthwatering dishes, most dishes are vegetarian. Clay pots and utensils made from parts of the coconut tree play a dominant role in cooking.

So, which traditional dishes should you be asking for? Here are 15 dishes to try on your next Sri Lankan holiday.

Kiri Kos (Jackfruit curry)

The Jackfruit tree provides self-sufficiency. Over centuries, it has been integral in staving off hunger on the island. The Jackfruit, at every stage, is consumed in various ways, from boiled to smoked. Its seeds are just as delicious as its flesh. When Jackfruit is just about perfect, not too tender or ripe, its yellow, sumptuous flesh cooked in coconut milk with a medley of spices is called kiri kos. It is creamy, delicate and flavoursome. Accompaniment to rice, you will often see mallum with it.

Mallum (leafy greens)

Leafy greens are a Sri Lankan culinary tradition that has continued for millennia. There are hundreds of leafy green varieties here. Chopped and mixed with grated coconut, onion and chillies, these get heated lightly or served raw. These can also be sauteed and cooked in thick coconut milk. Mallum is always present in your everyday rice and curry combo.

Ambul Thiyal (sour fish)

Originating from southern Sri Lanka, where fish is abundant, it is perhaps the most popular way to eat fish on the island. Large fish varieties like tuna are cut into cubes and simmered with a small amount of water and a large volume of spices. Spices include black pepper, cinnamon, turmeric, garlic, pandan and curry leaves. Goraka, sometimes called Malabar tamarind, is the predominant ingredient used. It gives ambul thiyal its distinct sour taste.

Karawila (bitter gourd)

As the name suggests, it is bitter. However, magic happens when eaten with a selection of dishes with rice. Traditional medicine of Sri Lanka and India uses bitter gourd for various health benefits. Among these, lowering blood sugar levels is one of the primary uses. Cooked in spice-infused coconut milk with tamarind to offset the bitterness, deep-fried and tossed with onions, lime juice & salt or thinly sliced into slivers and mixed with grated coconut, lime and chilli are popular ways to prepare karawila. It is an acquired taste, but don’t forget to sample some with traditional rice and curry.


It is an OG superfood like Jackfruit. The commercial variety was introduced to Sri Lanka by the Dutch, who brought it from the South Pacific islands. Boiled, curried or sundried, it is sumptuous. Boiled cubes of breadfruit get eaten with grated coconut, and pieces cooked in coconut milk accompany a warm bed of rice. Coconut plays a crucial role as traditional medicine believes breadfruit is ‘heaty’ for the body. The coconut offsets the heat with cooling properties.

Watakolu (Luffa)

Sounds familiar? Yes! Natural loofahs come from this vegetable. Grown on vines, it belongs to the gourd family. Cooked in mildly spiced coconut milk, its fresh, delicate taste is soothing for the stomach. Cooked skin on and off, you may not find it on the typical hotel menu. Seek it out and you will know what your loofah tastes like before being hollowed and dried for your bathroom.

Pathola (snake gourd)

Like Luffa, it is also grown on a vine and belongs to the gourd family. The thin, elongated and long veggie gets its name from its shape. Slit in half, seeds removed and thinly sliced, it is then curried in coconut milk. Sometimes, it is slivered raw and made into a salad. These green half-moons have been a part of the traditional Sri Lankan diet for centuries.

Puhul (ash gourd or wax gourd)

This white melon variety isn’t sweet enough as a fruit. When cooked, it is delicious. Puhul is known for its ‘cooling’ properties. The curry is an accompaniment to rice. Due to its limited availability, menus may not feature it. However, you can always request it at accommodations with personalised chef services. Candied puhul (puhul dosi) is made by boiling chunks with sugar and is available in stores to buy.

Alu Kesel (ash plantain)

It is a plantain or cooking banana type. Smaller than the average banana, these are green and have an ash-coloured, dusty coating. These are curried, fried and made into chips. One of the favourite ways to eat ash plantains is with lamprais, which almost always accompanies fried ash plantains.

Thalana batu

You may be familiar with these if you have Thai Green Curry. These tiny eggplants are cooked uniquely on the island. Lightly squashed with a heavy utensil to remove seeds, these get cooked in coconut milk with spices. When eating, most people squeeze out the soft flesh from the skin. This creamy curry is nothing like Thai Green Curry. The health benefits of thalana batu are celebrated, especially for phlegm agitation and sinus diseases.

Innala (country potato)

These tiny potato lookalikes are not at all a potato type. Cooked or fried, they have a distinctive taste and aroma. They are delicious to be eaten with rice, and curry and we recommend you try them whenever you come across them.

Haalmasso (dried sprats)

Dried sprats cooked in coconut milk or fried with onion and chilli are loved by even those who have lost their appetite. Salty, spicy and aromatic, it can beat the taste of meat any day. Dried sprat dishes accompany rice, bread or rotis. Drying fish is a popular way to preserve forage fish and other varieties. Dried fish curries or fries are a delicacy you must try when in Sri Lanka.

Manioc (cassava)

This starchy tuber makes tapioca pearls for the puddings you know. However, the most popular way to eat it on the island is by boiling or cooking it in coconut milk. Its delicate flavour is ideal to pair with a fiery chilli sambal or other curries when eating rice. Cassava chips are a more modern invention, and you can buy these crisp packets in supermarkets and shops. Native medicinal wisdom prohibits consuming ginger after eating cassava due to the combination producing toxicity.

Amberella (June Plum)

When ripened, it is a delicious fruit. However, the unripened fruit makes a tasty curry when cooked. Some sugar gets added to offset the sourness. With the heat from spices mixed in, it has a neatly balanced sweet, sour and spicy flavour. Often made into chutneys and pickles, it is a delicacy to seek out in Sri Lanka.

Seafood Fiesta

You are on a beautiful tropical island! Why not enjoy its bounty from the sea? There are myriad ways to indulge in fresh seafood, from the famous Jaffna crab curry to isso wade (prawn fritters) of the Galle Face promenade.

Ministry of Crab at the Dutch Hospital Colombo, The Lagoon at Cinnamon Grand, Sea Food Cove at Mount Lavinia Hotel and the Ocean Seafood Restaurant at Kingsbury are some of the top seafood restaurants in Colombo to satisfy your cravings.

Along the island’s coast, from Negombo on the west coast to the exquisite stretch of southwest and south coast to the east and north coasts, you will find places that serve up the catch-of-the-day from rustic haunts to grand resorts.

Take the Sri Lankan flavour trail with Blue Lanka Tours!

We know where the delicious flavours are – the best-kept secrets and speciality spots to feast your senses. A seafood hut by the beach or the gourmet delights under the stars, Blue Lanka Tours ensures your travels also offer the best culinary treats. Savour your way through Sri Lanka’s culinary tradition, exploring the unusual, the famous and the celebrated. Let us curate your tailormade itinerary, featuring a taste sensation.