Food & Drink

What Is Sri Lankan Food? Here Are the 7 Dishes You Need to Know.

It’s about time Sri Lankan ("Shree-Lun-kan") cuisine developed a reputation independent of its more assimilated neighbor India's. As spicy as Thai food, but light like Mediterranean, Sri Lankan food is delicious, if not a bit unfamiliar to the average American. As one of my friends explained, “Sri Lanka is only about the size of West Virginia. We’re kind of a tiny, random-ass island, and an emerging market. We don’t really reach critical mass anywhere in America.” 

To guide you through this vegan-friendly, seafood-heavy food genre, we compiled this list of Sri Lankan classics. Enjoy, and spread the word.

Dhal curry (lentil curry)

The most basic and common of Sri Lankan curries, this staple dish consists primarily of lentils, tomato paste, cumin, and other spices. Like most recipes hailing from the island, it uses coconut milk in lieu of dairy milk -- something that most starkly differentiates this cuisine from Indian. While emulsifying ingredients into a creamy whole, the coconut base eschews the excessive richness that cow’s milk might add to a dish, and gives you an excuse for thirds. 

Sour fish curry

Sri Lanka is an island southeast of India, and as such, its cuisine consists of many variations on seafood. Sour fish curry is its most popular one, and is beloved as both a lowbrow and high-class dish. Made with coconut, chili powder, goraka (a tropical fruit that lends this dish its tangy flavor), and the firmest white-fleshed catch of the day, this spicy concoction is a quintessential Sri Lankan curry you won’t find on any other menu. As with other curries, it’s traditionally enjoyed with rice, a side dish or two, and perhaps a modest helping of yogurt salad to soothe the spicy burn. If you’re thrown off by the name, remember how random “fish taco” sounds as a culinary pairing, then think back to the five you scarfed down in a single sitting last night.

Eggplant moju (eggplant pickle)

Everything tastes better fried, and eggplant moju is no exception. Consisting of onions, chilies, sugar, mustard seeds, and vinegar, this classic eggplant dish is made by deep-frying eggplant strips and mixing them with all the aforementioned ingredients. The result is a tongue-enveloping sweet umami flavor that will encourage you to turn this side dish into a main.

Kale mallung (kale and coconut salad)

Sri Lankans ate kale before you did. If you want proof, you’ll find it in this light salad that combines shredded kale, scraped coconut (pulpy coconut bits), onion, chilies, turmeric powder, and salt. This mallung (Sinhalese for “mix-up”) is a dry salad, but with the peppers and coconut protein packed into the leafy meal, you’ll have zero want for dressing. 

Kothu

Stir-fried with chopped roti, meat, egg, vegetables, and spices, Kothu is Sri Lanka’s favorite street food, and your gateway Sri Lankan dish. You could also call it a comfort food, but it’s got half of the junky DNA that puts pizza on your doctor’s blacklist. And that’s really the thing about kothu, and most Sri Lankan dishes: they’re filling and bursting with savory flavor, but they never leave you with that sluggish, guilty feeling of having done a bad thing to your body. Excessive consumption will leave you bloated, sure, but more in the emotionally manageable way that too much sashimi might.

Hoppers

Made of (what else?) coconut milk and rice flour, these thin and crispy sourdough “pancakes” can be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. You’ll usually eat them with an egg cracked in the middle -- like a Sri Lankan version of an egg-in-a-hole -- or with your favorite curry. Just like a crepe, you can have it as simply as possible, or as spice- and condiment-loaded as your tongue might demand. There’s no butter involved, so again, you can indulge without worrying about gaining a new back roll. 

Lamprais ("lump rice")

If you didn’t know Sri Lanka was a tropical country (and astunningone at that), then this rice-in-a-banana-leaf delicacy will make it clear. It’s an all-in-one meal, prepared with all your Sri Lankan basics, such as curried vegetables, spices like cinnamon, lemongrass, and cardamom, and rice. And though meat is no protagonist in Sri Lankan cuisine, chicken is a consistent ingredient in lamprais. All components are packed into a single banana leaf, where they continue to cook and mix together in a fragrant wonder that unveils its mouth-watering delights upon opening. Like Christmas all year long.

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Michelle No is a production assistant at Thrillist, and Sri Lanka is her next food-stination. Follow her on Twitter at @Michelle_No and Instagram at @MichelleNope.