When you think of the culinary capitals of the world you probably think of Thailand, India, Italy, China even. A teeny-weeny country off the South East coast of India is probably not one that springs to mind. Once a British colony, Ceylon or Sri Lanka (as it is now known) hosts some incredible food that quite simply is too good to not be celebrated.
Before paying the country a visit, I too didn’t have much of a clue about the food that would be on offer. I would have put my bets on curry and probably a lot of rice considering its proximity to India but that’s as far as my guess would have gone. And this should come as no real surprise. We may live amongst a web of streets that are lined with a swarm of eateries, and on every trendy street corner we find ourselves stumbling into a food market with stalls stretching the distance of Peru to Korea, but it had never occurred to me until now that Sri Lanka always seems to be forgotten in the line-up. For those of you living in London, you might be aware of Hoppers opening late last year, one of the few Sri Lankan eateries seen in the capital and the first and only to dent the streets of Soho. But as can be expected in such a location, a sprinkling of pretentiousness and a price tag to match doesn’t do Sri Lankan food quite the justice it deserves.
If you’re lucky enough to have visited the country like I just have you’ll probably empathise and reiterate that every mealtime in Sri Lanka is one to look forward to. The locals prefer to start the day with string hoppers and a “mild” curry (not actually mild if you’re British), so you get the idea of the unapologetically flavoured food from the word go. Cereal of any sort is completely unknown and even a ‘Western egg breakfast’ is served with a (un)healthy helping of spicy sauce. When curry is too much to stomach before you’ve even opened both eyes, then buffalo curd is the go to. With a consistency sitting somewhere in-between yogurt and blancmange, with lashings of honey and a baby banana, curd actually tastes far more delicious than it sounds.
Roti is unavoidable and it would be a miracle to leave the country without having had one. A doughy pancake-come-flatbread filled with anything you desire and folded into a tasty parcel naturally becomes a diet staple for the duration of the trip. And if you’re looking to up the calorie content even more, you can choose a Kotthu Roti instead – exactly the same thing, just chopped and fried. Rice and curry is served almost everywhere and does what it says on the tin. A dome of rice in the centre of the plate, outlined with an assortment of 5 or 6 curried meats or vegetables and served with a poppadum or two. ‘Devilled’ anything is a term to familiarise yourself with and offers exactly what you’d expect, a nearly neon dish that’s not for the faint-hearted but also impossible not to love.
And finally, there’s tea. Sri Lanka is probably one of the only countries Brits can acceptably go to and continue to drink 6 cups a day without being told ‘you’re not embracing the culture’. Tea is just as much a part of Sri Lankan culture as it is British and it’s all down to the fact that the hill country is lined with tea plantation after tea plantation of delicious soon-to-be brews. Disclaimer: you will likely come back from Sri Lanka a bit of a tea snob, turning your nose up to tea bags and getting next day delivery on a tea-strainer from Amazon.
So if you’re a self-proclaimed foodie (like me), with only 25 days holiday a year (like me), but with a desire to see beyond Costa del Sol (like me), then I can’t recommend Sri Lanka enough. The place is stunning, the people are incredible and the food is so bloody good you’ll find yourself coming home with a saucepan strapped to your rucksack (like me). Bon voyage.