The ‘pearl of the Indian Ocean’ is having a foodie moment on these shores right now, make no mistake. Yep, Sri Lankan food has surged in popularity in recent years, with the average Jo now conversant in the merits of various hopper, the correct way to slap roti, and which sambol packs the most potent punch.
But rather than simply heading to Central London to try the finest Sri Lankan food, why not instead go all out, and travel directly to the source for your next foodie fix? The country’s ecosystem is varied and diverse, and combined with a rich amalgamation of regional and past-colonial influences (Indians, Arabs, Malays, Portuguese, Dutch and English tastes all play a part), this makes for a heady, intoxicating cuisine best enjoyed where it was born.
A close proximity to India means that the food shares similar traits and parallels, but don’t write this off as simple curry-mile fare. No, Sri Lankan cuisine really is like no other, and so much more than that. With this in mind, here are 5 must visits in your IDEAL foodie tour of Sri Lanka.
MINISTRY OF CRAB, COLOMBO
Colombo is Sri Lanka’s largest city and centre of commerce. As such, it’s likely you’ll be touching down here (at Colombo International Airport, sometimes called Bandaranaike International Airport, roughly 30km north of Colombo). For keen seafood lovers, make the Ministry of Crab in the heart of Old Colombo your first stop for a feed.
Housed in the Old Dutch Hospital within gorgeous colonial architecture, this superb restaurant is widely regarded as one of the country’s finest (it was recently voted #30 on the prestigious Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2020 List), and not surprisingly, the focus here is crab.
You can even order a 2KG ‘Crabzilla’, cooked in a variety of ways, including with garlic and chilli, a signature. The one consistent is the flavour of the wok; fires from a row of them lick the ceiling of the open kitchen. Amazing theatre with food to match.
A KANDY COOKING CLASS
Because you want to take home more than just souvenirs, right? How about returning with a few new dishes in your repertoire, learnt from those who understand Sri Lankan food implicitly? Sounds like just the ticket to us and the recipe for a dream foodie trip.
Perhaps the best place to take a Sri Lankan cookery class is in Kandy. Surrounded by mountains and tea plantations, the city’s unique surrounding biodiversity and cultural clout lends itself to a thriving, full throttle food scene. With the gorgeous tropical modernist design of much of the accomodation in Kandy, a stay in this famous city getting to grips with the country’s cuisine is a must.
NUWARA ELIYA TEA PLANTATION
Sri Lanka is well-known around the world for its tea, and if you’re a tea-lover, visiting Nuwara Eliya is essential. It’s the heart of Sri Lanka’s tea industry and is often referred to as the ‘Little England’ of Sri Lanka. Here, you can sample teas, visit tea estates, see waterfalls and enjoy nature. Two and a half hours south of Kandy, the journey itself is as worthwhile as the destination, taking in the spectacular beauty of the Sri Lankan countryside from your train seat.
Ceylon Tea is perhaps the island’s most famous export and has accessible plantations in Nuwara Eliya, as well as Kandy and Uda Pussellawa. The views from these plantations, the former in particular, are usually located on elevated points of the island and are always fantastic.
MAIN FISH MARKET, NEGOMBO
Open-air food markets in Sri Lanka are an amazing opportunity to try to diverse, delicious food of the country. It’s a cuisine which just feels right in this setting; free from the frippery of restaurant attempts to modernise what is a complex, refined cuisine anyway.
The laid back town of Negombo, on Sri Lanka’s west coast and just 15 minutes from Colombo International Airport, boasts a bustling fish market (Lellama to the locals), with the catch of the day being bartered over from the moment the sun comes up. It’s actually the second largest in Sri Lanka, and the surrounding shacks and street food stalls are a great place to pitch up and eat. That, or you can buy fish fresh from the market and take it to a local restaurant who will happily turn it into something delicious for you.
THE BEACHES OF THE SOUTH WEST
Visitors to Sri Lanka keen on sand, surf and seafood tend to head to the country’s South Westerly beaches. Holidaymakers usually make for Bentota, a town replete with stunning vistas and perfect white sand. Here, there’s some seriously good seafood to be found. Keep a particular eye out for candied shrimp curry (as good as it sounds) and ambul thiyal, a traditional fish curry made sour with tamarind.
Don’t stop there; make sure you seek out the famous pol sambol, a sort of condiment designed to give the meal that extra special kick. While there are lots of different sambols, pol sambol is perhaps the country’s best. Made from grated coconut mixed with red chillies, onions, salt and maldive fish, it’s so addictively good that it’ll bring you to tears knowing you can’t eat it every day back home. Or is that the chili making your eyes water?