It’s the spices you first notice in Sri Lanka. And I’m not talking about the chilli ones, although they definitely make themselves known.
The smell of cardamom, cinnamon, fenugreek and cumin reaches out from every dish whether you’re eating in markets, restaurants or houses.
It’s these spices that lured the traders hundreds of years ago. In turn these traders left their own mark on the local cuisine. Sri Lankan food takes inspiration from the Portuguese, the Moors, the Indians and even the English. But the end result is distinctly theirs.
While much of the local food is seafood based (one of the perks of being an island), Sri Lanka is also one of the most vegetarian-and vegan-friendly countries in the world. Their food is a celebration of fresh fruit and vegetables like pandan, okra, beans, aubergine, cashews, beetroot and even potato.
Here are some of our favourite Sri Lankan vegetarian and vegan dishes to order on your next trip to this foodie’s paradise.
1. Kottu roti (vegetarian)
Listen out for the rhythmic clang clang clang of metal on metal. It’s a sure sign the kottu roti isn’t far away. Hot, greasy and satisfying, it’s a vegie burger, but not as you know it. Kottu vendors cook to order, chopping roti bread into fine pieces over a stove, until it looks like fried rice. Then they’ll mix it with whichever vegetables you choose. Finally, your kottu is served with spicy curry dipping sauce for you to dunk into or just pour over the top.
Apart from the salty, satisfying dough, the best part of eating kottu is the entertainment. Many kottu chefs sing as they work, making up their own songs as they chop and fry the meal. Dinner and a show!
2. Hoppers (vegetarian or vegan options)
Hoppers (appa) are a Sri Lankan classic. Made with rice flour, coconut milk and a pinch of sugar, they look like pancakes but come with a kick. While they can be served with sweet toppings like curd and honey, the savoury ones are more popular. Egg hoppers are probably the most common version. Eggs are cracked into the hopper to cook and topped with a spicy sambol of onions, chillies and lemon juice. Another favourite is the string hopper (idiyappa). These ropey delights look like a birds nest and are usually covered with kiri hodi, a delicious coconut gravy.
3. Masoor dhal (vegan)
This red lentil curry is cousin to the Nepalese and Indian versions, but has a distinctly Sri Lankan flavour. While the main ingredient is the same, this dhal is made with coconut milk and more spices than you can poke a pandan leaf at. The end result is a looser, soupier version of dhal with layer upon layer of flavours. This staple of Sri Lankan cuisine is eaten breakfast, lunch and dinner.
4. Curry (vegan and vegetarian options)
In Sri Lanka you could eat curry every night and not have the same one twice. Curry is served as part of almost every meal, with sides like pappadums, coconut sambal, onion sambal, shallots and red peppers.
Some of our favourite curries are aubergine (wambatu), okra (bandakka) and potato (ala kiri hodi).
5. Gotu kola mallung (vegan)
Gotu kola mallung is a super green salad that packs a punch of vitamins. If you believe the press, it’s said to be good for your eyes, hair and skin. Whether you leave Sri Lanka with an added glow or not, gotu kola mallung is definitely good for your tastebuds. The salad is made by mixing the leaves of the gotu kola plant with onion, coconut, lime juice and green chillies. It’s lightly fried and served as a side with your curry. The ‘mallung’ part of the name simply means ‘mixed up’.
A word of warning: some places will add fish flakes, so be sure to ask first.
6. Watalappan (vegetarian)
It’s dessert time! One of the most popular dishes among Sri Lankan Muslims is Watalappan, a Malay-influenced egg custard, spiced with cardamom and nutmeg. The sweetness from the dish comes from kitul juggery, a thick, rich treacle made from the sap of the kitul palm. Watalappan is so popular it is the go-to dessert for any special occasion. Surely just being in Sri Lanka is a special enough reason to try it.
As you travel around, you’ll find that meals come in one of two groups – a quick, light meal grabbed from a street vendor, or a sit-down banquet with tables filled to the edge with curries, rice and sambol. Whichever you choose, you can be sure there are plenty of vegetarian and vegan options available and the memory of the flavours will stay with you long after you’ve left.
Enjoy meat-free eating at its best on an adventure through Sri Lanka. Check out our range of small group adventures now.
Feature image by BlueOrange Studio via Shutterstock.