To Sri Lankans, food is more than something to eat. Through food Sri Lankans express their spirituality and devotion to family and friends. Special occasions are usually celebrated by people cooking and eating together. Rice has a mystic significance and is a must for any special occasion; both Hindus and Buddhists use it as an offering in the temple.

In the cities, breakfast is often light, consisting of either bread with jam (polsambol), curry, dhal (curried lentil soup) or some fresh fruit. Hoppers, thin pancakes made of rice flour, are also popular and come in many varieties such as egghoppers, and honey and yoghurt hoppers. In rural areas, breakfast is heartier and often spicier.

People usually consume rice daily, often with every meal. Rice of either the red or white variety is commonly cooked in coconut milk or water, although many Tamils enjoy cooking it in milk. Rice boiled in meat stock, called lamprais, is mixed with meat and vegetables.

Sri Lankan cuisine has been influenced by India as well as colonists and traders. Curries are favourite dishes for lunch and dinner. Grown locally, typical curry spices are tumeric, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, black pepper, cinnamon sticks, curry leaves and powder, pandanus leaves, fresh chilies and garlic. In addition to standard Indian versions such as biriyani or thali, there are countless curry variations. A curry may contain fish, chicken, grains, or fruit and vegetables; curries stuffed into rotis are sold by street vendors. Sri Lankans prefer their curries spicy and usually serve them with side dishes such as mallung, which is a shredded leaf lightly cooked with spices; sambol, a mixture of grated coconut, red peppers and onions; or parripu, a red lentil soup. Ambul thiyal is a popular sour fish curry usually made from tuna.

A very popular alcoholic drink is toddy, which comes from palm tree sap. The sap must be collected near the top of the tree by toddy tappers, who walk from treetop to treetop on precarious rope walkways. When distilled, toddy becomes the spirit arrack, which is produced in many varieties.

  Sri Lankan Flat Bread (rotis)

180 ml fine coconut
540 ml self-rising flour
240 to 300 ml cold water
ghee (Indian clarified butter) or vegetable oil


Mix the coconut and flour in a bowl. Gradually add the water, stirring until the dough is soft and comes away clean from the bowl. Turn the dough onto a floured surface. Cover and let stand for 30 minutes. Chopped onions and/or chilies may be added for flavour.

Heat a griddle to 190C. Divide the dough into 12 equal parts. On a floured surface, flatten each part with floured hands into thin rounds about five inches wide. Brush the griddle with the ghee or oil. Cook the breads on both sides until golden brown, about two minutes on each side. Serve hot. Curries are a good accompaniment.

  Did you know?
Most Sri Lankans eat with the fingers of their right hand rather than using forks and spoons.