Today, like much of the world, Sri Lanka has adopted numerous
international foods and preparation techniques. Pre-packaged foods are more common
and numerous "ethnic" restaurants or fast food restaurants are present
in many of the island's large cities. However, these changes haven't really
changed the local foods, they have only added new foods to the diet and these foreign
foods are rarely consumed by the locals so for many these outside influences have
changed very little.
Curry: any "wet dish" cooked in oil, can contain any
combination of spices
Pulse/legumes: any bean, chickpea, or lentil dish, each
of which act as a staple in various parts of India; dal and masoor
are both forms of pulses
Rice: served as a base in many dishes and is prepared in numerous
Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes
Hoppers: rice flour and coconut milk with various other
Koola'ya: mixture of curries served with rice; a leftover
Lamprais: curry cooked with meatballs and rice in a banana
Before eating with locals in Sri Lanka, know what religion
your company is. The Hindis and Muslims have differing dining rules and habits so
knowing what religion your host is will alter a couple etiquette rules. Fortunately,
most of these rules pertain to foods that can or cannot be consumed and if eating
in the home of a local they simply will not have foods that are forbidden by their
religion. If dining out though, be sure to avoid ordering foods your local hosts
won't eat. Hindis don't eat beef and many are vegetarian so never order
beef if it's available. The Muslims don't eat pork or drink alcohol so again
avoid these foods. To be safe, order chicken or fish and to be extremely cautious,
order a vegetarian meal.
No matter the person's religion, you should dress conservatively, meaning your
arms and legs should be covered and for women in the presence of Muslims the head
should be covered as well. You should also arrive on time (although food might not
be served for a couple hours) and take your shoes off at the door if others do so.
You will likely be asked to wash your hands prior to eating, but sometimes a wash
basin is passed around the table so follow the lead of others. Let your host show
you a seat, which may be on the floor. When seated, be sure to avoid pointing the
bottom of your feet at anyone so keep your feet flat on the floor or pointed behind
You should try all the foods your host recommends and in some settings this may
be a huge number of foods, but take much more rice than anything else as this is
meant to be the base. You should also accept more food when offered so try your
best to take limited quantities of food at first (a challenge on many occasions).
If you take your own food, be sure to avoid touching your plate with the serving
spoons as this is considered unclean. Once you have food you may notice there are
no utensils (cutlery); this is because you are expected to eat with your right hand
and right hand only as the left is considered unclean. You may use naan
or rice to scoop the food or to soak up the sauce.
As you finish eating, leave some food on your plate to signify your host has provided
more than enough food. You should again wash your hands after a meal and expect
to be shown the door shortly after you are finished eating as socialization is generally
limited to the time before a meal.
If dining in a restaurant check to see if there is a service charge already added
to the bill, as it usually is in high end restaurants. If no service change is included,
tip about 10%.
Celebrations & Events
Sri Lanka has few celebrations that essentially require
particular foods to be served. At most festivals and celebrations the people tend
to dine on national dishes or personal favorites. The one underlying commonality
among these foods and celebrations is that most include numerous sweets and other
Much of the tea the Indian subcontinent is famed for is grown in
Sri Lanka and the island also boasts some of the world's best teas;
it is definitely worth a try even if you aren't a tea drinker. Juice is another
local favorite as numerous fruits are grown locally; passion fruit, mango, pineapple,
and others are all available, as is coconut milk. Other internationally popular
drinks including coffee and soft drinks are also easily available.
If you want an alcoholic beverage, try the local toddy, which is fermented
from palm tree sap or arrack, which is a distilled spirit made from coconut
or other local fruits, but be careful as this can be quite strong. Well-known international
beers and liquors are also available in most hotels and resorts. A decent wine selection
is somewhat limited to high end hotels, but still available.
The tap water in Sri Lanka is generally not safe so should
not be consumed. Be sure to also avoid anything with ice as it may have been made
from the tap water and some juices may have water added so be sure to ask prior
to drinking the local juices. Salads and fruits could have also been washed in the
tap water so be careful with those foods as well.