What makes Sri Lankan food so special?

In spite of its small size, Sri Lanka boasts an amazing variety of food and styles of cooking.
The island has a rich heritage of indigenous dishes and its regional cooking is strongly individual and varied. For example, Kandyan Sinhalese cooking, with its emphasis on hill country vegetables and fruits; coastal cooking, making the best of the abundant seafood with which the land is blessed; Tamil cooking, closely linked to that of southern India, which is especially prevalent in Jaffna, in the north.In Sri Lanka, as in any other country, the most typical food is cooked in the villages – getting precise recipes is almost impossible. They don’t cook by a cookbook. A pinch of this, a handful of that, a good swirl of salty water; taste, consider, adjust seasoning. That’s the way Sinhalese women cook, and no two women cook exactly alike. Even using the same ingredients, the interpretation of a recipe is completely individual. Ask a cook how much of a certain ingredient she uses and she’ll say, ‘This much’, showing you with her hand. You watch, make notes and try to achieve the same results by trial and error. And when you arrive at the correct formula, write it down!!


In addition to regional characteristics, some of the most popular dishes reflect influences from other lands. After a hundred years or so it does not matter that this or that style of cooking was introduced by foreigners who came and stayed, either as traders or conquerors – Indian, Arabs, Malays, Moors, Portuguese, Dutch and British. The dishes they contributed have been adapted to local ingredients, but retain their original character. They are not presented as Sinhalese dishes but accepted and enjoyed as part of the richly varied cuisine.

The influence of the Muslims and Malays is responsible for the use of certain flavourings such as saffron and rose water and the spicy korma, pilau and biryani which are Sri Lankan only by adoption.

When the Portuguese ruled Sri Lanka for 150 years in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they left behind words which have worked into the language and customs which are very much a part of rural and urban life. Many recipes end with an instruction to ‘temper’ the dish. This comes from the Portuguese word, temperado, which means to fry and season. The Portuguese also contributed a number of sweetmeats which are popular to this day. These are served at celebrations (Sri Lankans are enthusiastic about celebrating every happy occasion) and people take enormous pride in old family recipes, which they guard with zealous care.

Then came the Dutch, and though their rule ended after 138 years, their descendants stayed on in this prosperous land. They too brought with them recipes laden with butter and eggs in true Dutch tradition, but in the spice-rich land of their adoption they took on new flavour with the addition of cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace. The traditional Ceylon Christmas cake is a fine example of this, a fruit cake which stands above all others for flavour and richness.

Today, many travellers, tourists, reviewers and expats regularly rave about the Sri Lankan cuisine. I have found some great links about Sri Lankan food that people have written (some famous & some not-so-famous) from across the world that I have felt worthy of a mention:

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Sri Lankan recipes

Sri Lankan Food: 40 of the Island’s Best Dishes



Filed under Sri Lankan food & recipes, Sri Lankan life

3 responses to “What makes Sri Lankan food so special?

  1. The Portuguese contributed the single most important ingredient that defines food here and in India-the chillie. The Spanish carried it over from Mexico and the Portuguese brought it to the East.

    The Dutch brought a lot of things over from the East Indies and combined them with local cuisine. Lamprais were one example. They probably contributed to Love Cake as well, no one seems to know where that came from, and , as far as I know, its unique to this country.

    I think that one of the best ways of understanding a country is throught its food.

    You may find these interesting:



    • Hi Jack (Ravi ;-)),

      Great links thanks…riceandcurry is on my blogroll already! It’s a great site. I agree with you about understanding the country through it’s food. I’m off to a dansal shortly which is particularly applicable to that statement.

  2. Pingback: A Guide to Dining in Sri Lanka | ankie renique's blog

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