Can Sri Lanka's Local Cuisine Take Food Tourism To New Heights?
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Sri Lanka is an island nation that has pristine beaches, lush green landscapes across the mountains, ancient temples, and rich history, culture, and food experiences to offer every traveller. In 2019, the country received 2.3 million tourists, which generated a revenue of over $4 billion and contributed 4.4% to Sri Lanka’s GDP, as stated by the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority. With the country's economic crisis and struggles, civil unrest and COVID outbreak in 2019, tourism has taken a hard hit in the past five years. While they are on their way to recovery now, the food experiences and the culinary tourism aspect of Sri Lankan tourism might be changing overall.

While rice is a staple of this nation, fish and seafood feature heavily in the daily diet of this island nation, along with the tropical vegetables and fruits cultivated locally in the country. Coconut and coconut milk, chillies, spices like cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, etc., and onions are widely used ingredients in Lankan cuisine. While seafood is prominent on the southern coast of Lanka, chicken, mutton, and red meat are prominent as you travel to the northern regions.

Sri Lankan cuisine is influenced by the multi-ethnic mix of people living on the island, which comprises Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors (Muslims), Burghers and Eurasians, Malays and Veddhas. Thus, the culinary influences of the Indian, Arab, Malay, Portuguese, Dutch, and British culinary traditions are prominent in the array of delicacies.

From cooking with jungle farmers on a wild food tour to street foods, homely meals in bed and breakfast inns, fried snacks on-the-go, and savouring Ceylon tea, Sri Lankan cuisine has so much to offer. When you travel across the island country, you will see how the Sri Lankan cuisine varies from one region to another.

Local Food Scene In Tourist-Heavy Regions Of Sri Lanka

With tourism being heavy in the southern coastal areas, central regions like Ella, Nuwara Eliya, etc. of the island nation, it can be seen that there are fewer restaurants and eateries offering the local delicacies for travellers to try. Some street food snacks like the fish bun, orange juice with sabja seeds, etc. may be available on the street, but the restaurants mostly offer global cuisine that is devoid of the fiery spice or the ingredients that Lankan cuisine is famous for.

This may be happening because of cultural erosion, where the local communities are being displaced or might have adapted to meet the expectations of the tourists. In a country that is reviving its economy, it may be easy to find a sandwich, pasta or batter-fried fish and chips on the menu of mainstream restaurants, as opposed to a sappadu, lamprais or buriyani plated with the local spicy flavours.

Tourism-infested places like Galle Fort area, Mirissa, or Unawatuna, which has some upmarket restaurants that once upon a time required reservations and implied a dress code, now allow walk-in guests irrespective of the dress they are wearing only to offer batter-fried calamari and steaks on their menu. Even if there are some local delights in the offerings, there are too few, or they are mostly catering to palates that cannot tolerate spice or people with many restrictions on food, making these offerings a bland choice for a local dining experience.

Pineapple fritters or mango cheese cakes can be eaten for dessert anywhere in the world, but when you are in Sri Lanka, it might be different and appropriate to try the local wattalappan (cardamom-spiced coconut custard), aluwa (Sri Lankan pudding) or simple curd and treacle instead to elevate your dining experience and culinary knowledge of the land.

It can be seen in the news that Sri Lanka is considering promoting sustainable tourism but they might have a long way to go. For instance, if you are travelling in Lanka, it is a known fact that you must sip on water every 20 minutes to stay hydrated or the heatwave could get the better of you. But most places, be it your hotel, restaurants, or eateries, do not let you refill your water bottle, and you will end up buying many plastic water bottles in a day, generating more waste and contributing to pollution. However, if you are a sustainable traveller who is mindful of these inconveniences, you can buy a 5-litre water can from a local shop and refill your bottle on-the-go as you lug on extra baggage.

The Local Food Scene In The Sri Lankan Cities

Having said that, in cities like Colombo, Galle, and Kandy, where the local inhabitation might be higher and the tourist footfall manageable, there are many restaurants and small eateries offering authentic Sri Lankan cuisine, like the elaborate sappadu or buffet in restaurants like Coconut Sambol at Galle, the Ministry of Crab, or the lamprais at Fort Colombo restaurant in the Dutch Hospital area of Colombo.

With the country reviving its economy, Sri Lanka might be rethinking not only the promotion of tourism with a sustainable approach but also slowly focusing on the culinary tourism aspect. It has been in the news that this island nation intends to focus on tapping into culinary tourism to generate revenue in the coming years. While efforts towards that can be seen in the cities that have teams hosting street food walks or tours and exclusive cooking classes, there may not be many along the tourist-heavy regions yet. Also, these experiences do not come cheap. They may cost you LKR 6500–7000 or INR 2000 or more for one cooking class or a street food walk. Moreover, these experiences are mostly available in cities like Colombo or Galle, apart from the 'cooking in the wild' experiences that are offered in jungle stays, etc.

Sri Lankan cuisine might not only be known for traditional rice and curries or hoppers; there is so much more to the traditional cuisine that might not have received the much-deserved recognition for many reasons like lack of promotion, social issues, tourism exploitation and cultural erosion. However, with some considerations and a few changes, Lankan cuisine can take the culinary tourism of this country to new heights in the years to come.