A Sri Lankan man sat outside a cafe, a blue plate of cooked chicken, two Sri Lankan women walking along a tropical railway track

Cook like a local: Sri Lanka

Coconuts, curry leaves, aubergines and fish fresh from the Indian Ocean can be found in kitchens across this tropical South Asian island. Start the day with hoppers before moving onto fish patties and fragrant chicken curries

Want to learn about Sri Lankan food? Looking for Sri Lankan recipes? Read Prakash Sivanathan and Niranjala Ellawala’s guide.

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Husband and wife team Prakash Sivanathan and Niranjala Ellawala were born in Sri Lanka to Tamil (Prakash) and Sinhalese (Niranjala) families. For many years the couple ran a Sri Lankan restaurant in North London. They now work as cookery teachers and are the authors of Sri Lanka: The Cookbook (£20, Frances Lincoln).


Sri Lankan cuisine

A verdant South Asian paradise, Sri Lanka is dominated by two distinct groups: the majority Sinhalese concentrated in the south, central and west of the island, and the Tamils, based mostly in the north and east.

These two cultures have separate languages, traditions and religions, a mosaic of diversity that has also led to distinct Sinhalese and Tamil styles of cooking. Many Sinhalese follow the principles of Ayurveda – “food is medicine, medicine is food” – while Tamils say there are six tastes – sweet, sour, bitter, spicy, salty and astringent – and that every meal should be a harmonious balance of all.

Yet there is plenty of common ground: the humble coconut is used universally, as is rice, the staple carbohydrate, and lentils. Curry leaves are a vital part of many Sinhalese and Tamil dishes, too. Vegetables grow so well in the warm, rainy climate that no day passes without a meal that includes juicy tomatoes, fragrant pineapples, jackfruit, aubergines, beans or gourds. And the warm waters of the Indian Ocean provide the island with copious fish and shellfish.

Sri Lankans tend to tuck into hearty breakfasts of string hoppers with curry and sambol relish, generous lunches and smaller, uncomplicated dinners in the evening. ‘Short eats’ are small takeaway snacks taken at any time of the day, and sold by shouting vendors in railway carriages and on lively beachfronts; they include fish patties, crunchy lentil vadai and mince rolls.

The classic Sri Lankan meal is rice and curry, a simple-sounding name that belies the thought and detail that goes into its preparation. It consists of a balance of several spiced, colourful curries, perhaps a dahl, and an essential accompaniment of sambol relish or pickle. It’s a generous spread, ideal for a dinner party or special occasion; for everyday cooking you’ll find that most Sri Lankan dishes make a memorable meal on their own.

Sri Lankan recipe: spicy baked chicken

Sri Lankan spicy Baked Chicken (c) Kim Lightbody

What to eat in Sri Lanka

Maalu Moju

A pickle is an essential element of most Sri Lankan meals, not just an afterthought to be dolloped on the side of a plate. This lightly pickled fish is used as an accompaniment in the southern part of the island.

Sri Lankan Maalu Moju pickled fish (c) Kim Lightbody

Meen kulambu

This tamarind fish curry is a classic Tamil dish that really shows off the trio of tamarind, coconut and curry leaves found in so many Sri Lankan recipes.

Meen Kulambu tamarind fish curry (c) Kim Lightbody

Kukul mas mirista

Everyone loves chicken curry, and this version will convert even those who have never tried Sri Lankan food before. It’s spicy, warming, fragrant, hot and soothing all at once – the perfect meal.

Sri lankan Kukul Mas Mirisata-spicy chicken curry (c) Kim Lightbody

Kathirikai pirattal

In this versatile curry aubergine takes centre stage and is paired with tart tamarind, a regular element of Tamil cooking. Without fail this is served at Hindu weddings, along with dahl.

Sri lankan Katahrikai Pirattal-Tamil aubergine curry (c) Kim Lightbody

Rasam

In Ayurveda, rasam is prescribed to aid digestion – but it’s far too good to be considered just medicine. A kind of spicy tomato and tamarind soup, on its own it makes a flavoursome drink to round off a meal, or it’s sometimes served with rice.

Sri Lankan Rasam Drinks (c) Kim Lightbody

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Find recipes for the above dishes in Prakash Sivanathan and Niranjala Ellawala’s Sri Lanka: The Cookbook, published by Frances Lincoln. Photography by Kim Lightbody.