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Map Legend: 28%, 75 of 263 Territories

Friday, January 28, 2011

String hoppers, noodle-newtons, rottys, and other foods of Sri Lanka

As our plane was touching down in Sri Lanka, I reluctantly struggled out of my deep, cushy, first-class seat and wondered aloud what the food would be like. We didn't have a guidebook for this country, just a few printed-out pages from a Lonely Planet PDF (not including the food section), so I hadn't been able to do my usual exhaustive advance research. Ah, well--sometimes it's nice to be surprised!

(Andy then pointed out that we had had Sri Lankan food before--in Belize, of all places, we'd eaten at a random Sri Lankan restaurant in the small town of San Ignacio! I'd completely forgotten.)

We were soon reintroduced to the major staple of Lankan cuisine: Rice and curry. For around $1-2 US, you get a plate of rice, dollops of several different vegetable curries/salads/sauces, delicious dhal made with yellow split peas, and some saucy chicken or beef if you've paid extra for it.Is the food spicy? I'll just let Andy's sweaty face answer that question for you.

In the town of Kandy, we had to buy some...candy.! The pink one is coconutty and the brown one more sugar-flavored. We had similar sweets last year in Trinidad and some other tropical countries in South and Central America, and weirdly, everywhere we've had them, these sweets have tasted a little like bacon grease to me.
Bake houses, or bakeries, are incredibly popular all over Sri Lanka. We didn't find much street food, but you could always pop into a bakery for a snack. Here we have a typical spread including a curry puff (triangle, left), a jam pie (semicircle, right), and the ubiquitous chicken sausage roll (like a big pig...I mean, a blanket, center).
We always try to try the weirdest juice flavors we can find, and Sri Lanka offered up two gems: wood apple and nelli. The nelli (left) tasted vaguely pear-like and was nice. The wood apple was gloopy, brown, and I don't even know how to describe it except to say that one glass was enough for both of us forever. It is a really popular flavor in SL, though--you can also find wood apple jam, pudding, etc.
Another Sri Lankan staple food is something called a hopper, which comes in many variations. The plain hopper is a dosa-like, rice-flour pancake cooked in a special pan that makes it come out bowl-shaped--thin and crispy on the edges and thick in the center. Kind of like a bread bowl, and can be eaten with sweet or savory toppings. (Most other hoppers are like this one but with other stuff added to the batter, but as we were to learn later, the "string hopper" is a different animal!)
This is what rice and curry looks like in a slightly more upscale setting--many bowls of fun curried veggies and meat to eat with your rice.

The wade, or vadai, is a lentil-based fried disc--not a ton of flavor, but hits the spot when you're on a long bus ride and a vendor comes down the bus aisle with a basketful. As with most fried things, it's significantly better when still warm.
The best flavor of ice cream in Sri Lanka is fruit and nut. The ice cream itself is green, for some reason, and has raisins, bits of glaceed pumpkin (which are usually dyed red), and cashew in it. It may sound weird, but trust me, it is good. I put away several liters on my own over the course of the week there.
In India, roti is bread, but in Sri Lanka it is more like a pancake, wrapped around a filling of curried potatoes and vegetables, or beef, or chicken, or fish. Amusingly, it is sometimes spelled "rotty." These packets are sold cheaply at bakeries and make a great snack. Near the main gate to the ruins of Sigiriya is a little canteen used by park workers that was churning out hot, fresh veggie rotis, which made a perfect breakfast before the climb to the top of the rock.

On our way to Horton National Park, our taxi driver stopped in a small village to grab a quick breakfast bite, and we decided to join him. We ended up with two...pastries(?) made of cooked noodles molded around a coconut-and-molasses filling. Like a giant noodle-newton. It may qualify as the weirdest breakfast we have had yet in our travels (and that's saying a lot), but it wasn't terrible.
For some reason, all yogurts in Sri Lanka have gelatin in them. Even the drinkable ones, which (if the one I tried below is representative), are the consistency of milk with no noticeable gelatin-aided thickening at all. So, is Sri Lanka sitting on a big excess pile of gelatin or something? Big points to anyone who can solve this mystery for me.
EGB is a beverage widely advertised in Sri Lanka. Andy had to try one, and found out that it stands for Elephant Ginger Beer. He was disappointed to find out that there's no elephant in the drink--Elephant is just the name of the food company (they also makes ice cream). It was a pretty good drink, not overly carbonated. And bonus points for the returnable, reusable glass bottle!
It wasn't until we got to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka and our last stop in the country, that we discovered that a string hopper is not at all like all the other hoppers. Instead, it is a floppy disk made of steamed rice noodles. Very tasty when served with Sri Lankan yellow dhal!
A tasty mango juice in Colombo. Big chunks of fresh mango blended up with ice and water and some sugar. I was mildly afraid that the local ice and water would kill me, but they didn't!
Breakfast in Colombo: string hoppers with dhal and chicken curry sauce, two vegetable roti triangles, and a bottled mango juice.
We went to a slightly expensive (for us) restaurant in Colombo, which means dinner cost around $15 US. It specialized in Jaffna-style curries (Jaffna is the northernmost city in Sri Lanka), and we both decided to be adventurous and order a bunch of stuff we'd never heard of before. We were amply rewarded with one of the most delicious memorable meals in some time.

Clockwise from top left: string hopper pilaf, made from chopped up string hoppers, curry leaves, and spices like cinnamon and cloves; saffron rice; a sweet beef dish; garlic curry, complete with about 100 cloves of garlic; and "ash plantain" sambal, which was basically banana chips and raw onions in an amazing sweet-and-spicy sauce. If that sounds good to you (and it is, I promise!), I suggest you pay a visit to Palmyrah restaurant in the Hotel Renuka the time you're in Colombo.
Last day in Sri Lanka = finally time to try a faluda! I was wary of this drink (also found in India) because it is rosewater-flavored, and I'm not a big rose-flavor fan, but it turned out to be a subtle and delicious combination of ice cream, milk, rose syrup (that's the red stuff on the bottom), and little jelly-like seeds. As I learned from the locals behind me, you mix it up before drinking it/eating it with a spoon.
Our friends Rashad and Emma--who introduced us to many fine culinary experiences in Cairo--had been to Sri Lanka recently and suggested that we might like to check out the high tea at the fancy Galle Face Regency hotel in Colombo. Expecting a lot of caffeine and a three-tiered plate piled high with cucumber sandwiches, Andy was not too excited about this idea, but he did a complete 180 as soon as he found out that this tea was an all-you-can-eat, sweet-and-savory buffet! It was basically like a wedding reception cocktail hour (well, minus the cocktails) that lasted four hours and cost $10 per person.

Not sure where to begin, you can see that Andy's first (of many) plates is loaded with chicken sausages and little cakes, scones and whipping cream. The little shot glass is a supersweet passionfruit jelly (Andy had five), and there was endless orange juice, iced tea, and iced coffee as well as pots of tea. I ate a lot, too, thanks to the waffle and pancake stations and sandwich station where a carver would cut the crusts off your sandwich without your even asking.

High tea was an excellent way to end our eatings in Sri Lanka. Overall, the cuisine was tasty and not too expensive. Not pictured in this post is all the Chinese food, which is also really popular in Sri Lanka and is sometimes the only restaurant food you can find if you don't want rice and curry. Colombo probably had the best eats, but we enjoyed food all over the country--guesthouses often cook up very good meals, better than many restaurants. Hope you enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed eating.


  1. The jam pie was scary looking. It looked like a foot, complete with its five toes.

  2. Hey guys.. I would like to say you probably missed the best dinner meals in Srilankan like Kottu or Kottu roti ( and there are many wired looking and tasty spicy foods around the tiny island. The thing is you should had to get a guiding person.