Sri Lankan Cuisine Invites You To Sail On A Culinary Odyssey
Image Credit: Pond5

MOST visitors to Sri Lanka maintain that the cuisine is an extension of Indian food, especially those south of the Vindhya. Their presumption is based on the island country’s demography — more than 20 percent Tamilians live alongside the majority Sinhalese community.

Appam, idiyappam (string hoppers), rasam, mulligatawny soup, pittu, idli and dosai (thosai in Sri Lanka) are few dishes that the two nations share. They also have similar culinary principles — cooking in clay pots over open firewood, using pressure cookers to tenderise meat, and using coconut milk extensively in most preparations.

Sri Lankan food and South Indian food are undeniably related, with one undoubtedly influencing the other, given their close-knit trade connections over the centuries. In fact, the island nation’s trading history predates the 4th BCE when the Roman Empire and Chinese civilisation were at their peak. After it was colonised in the 16th century AD, it was virtually impossible to separate the impact of intercontinental trade from Sri Lanka’s culinary history. Merchants brought in exotic ingredients from all over the world and transported the country’s spices, especially black pepper, cardamom and cinnamon, to far corners of the world.

“As a port nation, we were always cosmopolitan, so our cuisine was influenced by different countries. Nothing encompasses this principle more than the banana leaf rice pack lamprais, which the Dutch called lomprijst,” Tasha Marikkar notes.

A product of this divergent cultural landscape, she has traversed between Sri Lanka and the UK throughout her life. With a heritage blending Ceylon Moor, Colombo Chetty, and Sinhalese roots, Tasha embodies the essence of the island — a flavourful medley, akin to its beloved achcharu, a tangy, sweet and spicy pickle.

Enamoured with cooking since she was six and permitted into the kitchen, Tasha dedicated the years 2020-2023 to delve deep into Sri Lankan cuisine, uncovering its hidden gems and time-honoured recipes. Her journey unveiled the enchanting array of indigenous flavours, each telling a unique story of the region's rich culinary heritage, which she has attempted to capture in her book, Jayaflava.

A Dash Of Everything

Offering a blend of history, tradition, and the art of spice, Tasha’s book unveils the secrets of the archipelago’s cuisine, from its unique ingredients to the intricate techniques of preparation. The country’s food is an evolution of its many ethnic communities comprising Sinhalese, Tamils, Chetties, Moors, Burghers, Veddas and Malays, along with their dishes, ingredients, heritage, and unique additions to the island’s cuisine. In fact, this is one of the world's best-kept secrets as it has remained largely undiscovered and the few who know it are because only a small number of its most famed dishes appear on menus worldwide, like appam, parippu or kiri bhaat.

According to Tasha, what is unique about the country’s cuisine is how each community has infused it with their regional special dishes, depending on the seafood, vegetables and meats available in their respective domicile. The Ceylon Moors, Malays and Bohras have a fascinating set of menus, from seasonal dishes to festival dishes with unusual combinations. From a beef dumpling curry to a fish, mango and eggplant curry; the region has much to explore and discover.

There are also a lot of offal-based curries that one can eat in street food eateries or ‘kades’ in Sri Lanka that demonstrate these varied culinary approaches. “Our love of raw preparations is what makes our food unique from that of our Indian counterparts — our focus on eating flavourful, nutritious greens, and sambols with onion and coconut bases also sets our food apart. More so, our extraordinary seafood makes for some delicious dishes,” Tasha adds.  

Spicing Things Up

While black pepper is native to Sri Lanka and one of the most traded spices from the island nation, the arrival of spicy peppers by the Portuguese over the past two centuries left an indelible mark on the country’s cuisine. According to Tasha, it is used across many meal preparations, but nowhere near the amount that chilli is used, which is not native to Sri Lanka.

“Chilli has an addictive quality to it and most Sri Lankans, including myself, can rarely eat a meal without a good level of spice, chilli and heat. All our famous dishes require chilli,” she remarks.

After all, Sri Lanka’s cuisine is an amalgamation of many different communities and ethnicities that fructified over several decades. The simple example of chilli alone shows the impact that they have made on the evolution of the food.

A case in point is Ambul Thiyal, a black pepper and garcinia cambogia-based tuna curry that is cooked to preserve the fish. Tasha opines that removing chilli from the Sri Lankan palate would radically alter the cuisine, underlining how well the country has embraced foreign influences and made it a mainstay of its culinary offerings.

On The Street

The essence of a country’s culture is often best captured through its street food scene. A standout dish at street food ‘kades’ is Kotthu Rotti. While many theories abound about its origin, Tasha believes that it was created by innovative Batticaloan Muslims who used the leftovers of curry and godamba roti to create this Lankan speciality. Godamba is a large, thin and extremely soft wheat roti similar to roti canai.

One can also find roast chicken: the fowl is boiled, fried and then cooked with a masala sauce or a special BBQ sauce to give it a flavourful kick. Other popular snacks widely available at kades and coffee shops alike are Ulundu Vada (lentil patty), fish cutlets or mutton roll.

Worldwide, every community has a few culinary practices that differentiate itself from others, which is also reflected in the region the dish originates from. In a region with a profusion of cultures, the jury is still out on whether Tamil cuisine is the most prominent.

There are two distinct communities of Tamils in Sri Lanka (the Ceylon Tamils and the Indian or Hill Country Tamils), and their cooking practices can be very different. On the other hand, the indigenous Veddas lean towards foraging and preservation.

The Sinhalese eat many raw and cooked vegetarian dishes and have ‘colour’ preparations of meat curries, like yellow, black and red, whereas the Muslims eat very locally, and tend to be more reliant on meat and seafood-based dishes, with a basis of eating head or nose to tail, wherein they use all parts of the animal. At the end of the day, the vibrant array of Sri Lanka food offerings not only reflects its rich cultural diversity but also serves as a delicious window into its storied history, depending on the town, city or village one is in.

RECIPE | Lamb Curd Curry

Serves 4


620g lamb shoulder, cut into equal-sized pieces

3 tbsp unroasted curry powder

2 tbsp roasted chilli powder

1 tbsp cumin powder

1 tbsp turmeric powder

1 tsp of mustard powder

1 tsp nutmeg powder

5 curry leaves

1 red onion, diced

3 garlic cloves, minced

30g of ginger, minced

2 fresh green chillies, minced

10 cardamom pods, pounded

150g tomatoes, diced

245g of Greek yoghurt

240ml water

1 tsp tomato paste

2 tbsp of ghee

10 stalks of coriander, stalks and leaves chopped


In a large bowl, mix the lamb pieces, unroasted curry powder, roasted chilli powder, cumin powder, turmeric powder, nutmeg powder, mustard powder and yoghurt. Allow the lamb to marinate for at least 1 hour.

In a large stock pot, melt the ghee over medium heat. Once the ghee is hot, add in the onion, curry leaves and pounded cardamoms. Fry for a few minutes until the onion starts to turn golden.

Immediately add in the garlic, ginger and green chilli. Cook for another 3 minutes.

Add in the tomato pieces and the tomato paste, mix well into the temper and cook for another 3-4 minutes.

Finally add the marinated yoghurt-covered lamb into the temper and mix well. Cook for 5 minutes and add in the water. Cook covered with a lid for an hour on medium to low heat.

After 1 hour, check the curry, if it looks a little dry add 100ml of water.

Put in the chopped coriander leaves and mix well. Transfer the lamb into a preheated oven (180 degrees centigrade) for 40 minutes or cook until the meat is tender. Once the meat curry is tender and thick, remove it from the oven and garnish with some coriander leaves. Serve with rice or hot roti!