Want to learn about Sri Lankan cuisine? Take a virtual trip to this South Asian country with Eroshan Meewella, co-founder of Kolamba in London’s Soho. Try Kolamba's parippu recipe here, then read our review of Kolamba.

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Sri Lankan cuisine

Spice-based, coconut-driven, sometimes searingly hot and, at other times, extremely mild. Sri Lankan cuisine is heavily influenced by regions and availability. There is a whole palate of flavours that make Sri Lankan food what it is, starting with the spices. The use of coconut cream and lime juice is another twist that makes the island’s curries unique and different to its Indian neighbour.

Familiar dishes and condiments include hoppers, goat and pork curry, coconut sambal, tamarind chutney, egg curry and just about any fruit and vegetable curry you can think of, including beetroot curry, mango curry and even pineapple curry.

Street-food tea shops are just as popular for a quick bite. Known as ‘short eats’, customers choose from plates of lentil vadai, egg rolls, mutton rolls and tuna cutlets, all drunk with a hot cup of tea.

The country is very multicultural, so all the influences over the generations have combined into one national cuisine. As a former colony of Portugal, the Netherlands and Britain, and a close cousin of southern India, Sri Lanka has taken on the best flavours of each culture and absorbed them into its cuisine. In other words, Sri Lankan food is unique, diverse and delicious.

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What to eat in Sri Lanka: Erosham Meewella's guide

Hoppers

The famous crispy pancake. These savoury bowl-shaped pancakes are usually eaten for breakfast. They come plain, with an egg cracked into the centre (we love ours runny rather than hard) or even sweet with coconut milk and treacle. They are messy – rip and dip – enjoyed with traditional curries (such as chicken), and are also immensely tricky to make. Don’t be fooled by the ready-made mixes, there is an age-old process to making these small crispy delights, starting with sifting and pounding the rice to make it into rice flour.

Sri lankan egg hopper freshly cooked

Iced coffee

It’s 30C and constantly humid in the tropics, and this drink is a decadence in a glass – sweet condensed milk flavoured with coffee and a splash of rum (we are a tropical island after all!) makes the best afternoon pick-me-up. Look out for those that use local coffee brand Tusker.


Vegetable curries

These range from gotu kola (aka centella, a round-leaved leafy green common in Sri Lanka), bitter gourd and snake gourd to mango curry. The Sri Lankan diet is heavily vegetarian (and often naturally vegan) as that’s just how we eat, given we are a predominantly Buddhist island nation and most people either can’t afford meat or don’t eat it. We often eat them with accharru, a pickled mix of fruit and vegetables with chilli.


Thambili

King coconuts, a variety native to Sri Lanka with a yellow-orange exterior that are freshly harvested, cut open at the top, and served with a straw. Trips to local beach clubs are not complete without one of these, and they are sold from roadside stalls.

King coconuts, a variety native to Sri Lanka with a yellow orange exterior

String hoppers

Not be confused with hoppers, a lot of people don’t know about these but they are an absolute favourite of ours. A delicate rice-flour noodle piped into lacy discs and steamed. They offer a lighter alternative to rice and the other carbs we eat, and are perfect to pair with any curry.


Jambu

These wax apples are a childhood favourite and grow on trees everywhere. Like apples they have a shiny skin and come in a range of colours, from white to varying shades of red. But they are nothing like apples and have a high water content which makes them very refreshing – perfect eaten with salt and chilli.


Cutlets

I don’t think any aunty’s house is quite right without an offering of cutlets. These are arancini-style balls of spiced potato and fish (usually), breadcrumbed and deep-fried until golden. They appear at afternoon teas, on birthday party tables or are eaten as a ‘just come home from school’ treat.

Arancini-style balls of spiced potato and fish, breadcrumbed and deep-fried until golden, on a white plate

Milk toffee

This is like a kind of fudge, again made with condensed milk and often flavoured with cashew nuts. Loved by kids and adults alike, and gifted particularly during Sinhala and Tamil new year.


Parippu (dahl)

We make ours with red split lentils cooked in coconut milk with a range of spices and curry leaves – a good dahl is a life-changing experience. So easy to make but so difficult to get right. Try Kolamba's parippu recipe here.


Pol sambol

This is our soul sprinkled on everything! It is sunshine on a plate and Lankans eat it for all three meals if given a chance. It is a muddle of freshly ground coconut, ground red chilli, salt and a squeeze of fresh lime juice.

Pol sambol, a muddle of freshly ground coconut, ground red chilli, salt and a squeeze of fresh lime juice, in a red bowl

What to eat in Sri Lanka

Prakash Sivanathan and Niranjala Ellawala share some dishes to look out for in Sri Lanka. Find out more in their book, Sri Lanka: The Cookbook, published by Frances Lincoln. Photography by Kim Lightbody.

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

Where to stay in Sri Lanka

The Wallawwa, Colombo

Soak up the soothing vibes at this beautiful airport hotel (it’s 15 minutes’ drive from Sri Lanka’s main international airport, Bandaranaike), dipping in the jungle swimming pool and enjoying a bowl of delicate cardamom ice cream.

Stay at the Wallawwa and you can pepper day trips to the country’s capital (Colombo is 40 minutes’ drive) with time spent wallowing in the hotel’s elegant guest rooms, gardens, spa and restaurant. In contrast to the traffic- and fume-filled frenzy of Colombo, the hotel oozes calm, tropical langour. All is serene and still with a large verandah framed by graceful stone columns and guest rooms leading off from courtyards set around shallow pools. Wander through beautifully kept gardens, dip in the velvety shade of a jungle swimming pool, pick up a croquet mallet on the lawn, borrow a book – or a board game – from the library and let the hours drift by.

The hotel is knitted together with an Instagram-worthy colour palette that sets off creamy white walls with powder blue window frames and scarlet parasols. Whether you choose a standard double or twin, one of two larger family suites, a garden suite (these have their own private gardens) or, grandest of all, the Mountbatten Suite (Lord Mountbatten was based at the property, along with his troops, during WWII), all come with high, wooden ceilings, terrazzo floors and retro black telephones.

Being close to the airport means that the Wallawwa’s restaurant, The Verandah, hosts a real diversity of guests and it caters, commendably, for all. If you hunger after European holiday stalwarts such as pasta, burgers or salads you’ll find pretty decent versions of them on offer here. It’s the local dishes that really shine, however, especially at dinner when the more casual lunchtime menu gives way to more sophisticated cooking. Highlights included a prawn salad, black pork and a side of loofah, a marrow-like vegetable served in a mildly spiced, creamy, coconut sauce that tastes so moreish you’ll be licking the bowl. For breakfast, choose from continental classics or Sri Lankan dishes such as hoppers and coconutty milk rice.

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Doubles from £260, check availability at booking.com or mrandmrssmith.com

A tranquil swimming pool surrounded by greenery with loungers by the side

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