Sri Lanka or the emerald island is known for its relaxed ambience, lovely beaches, and flavourful food. Being an island, its traditional cuisine is dominated by fish and coconut, the two ingredients that one can find in a coastal area. However, a lot of Sinhalese in Sri Lanka are vegetarian. There is a considerable Buddhist following in the country as well. So the awareness about vegetarianism is fairly prevalent. Vegetarian and even vegan food is not very difficult to find in most places in the island country. A lot of the Sri Lankan food may look similar to South Indian food. But there are also some genuinely unique vegetarian dishes that will be completely new to someone visiting the country. The following is a guide to vegetarian food in Sri Lanka and some helpful tips that will make sure you enjoy the vegetarian food of Sri Lanka.
1) Learn to say I’m vegetarian in Sinhala
To say “I am a vegetarian” in Sinhala, you have to say “mama mas mālu kanne nǣ” or write down in Sinhala characters – මම මස් මාළු කන්නෙ නෑ.
This basically translates to “I do not eat meat or fish”. You shouldn’t have a big language issue in Sri Lanka as the food servers will probably understand English words like vegetarian, meat, fish, milk, and so on. But it never hurts to have a print out of the local language with you just in case things get tricky.
2) Print the following image and show it to your server while ordering
* if you have trouble printing the image below directly, then you can copy paste the image onto a word document and then print*
Following are phrases that can be used to explain dietary restrictions, and what you can and cannot eat. Tick whatever is applicable. They are written in English and Sinhala characters. You can show this to your server while you order or ask the restaurant staff before you get seated.
To explain your dietary restrictions, you basically have to say “mama _ _ _ _ kanne nǣ” (which means “I do not eat _ _ _ _” ) and then fill the blanks with whatever it is that you do not eat (for. eg. pork, chicken, beef, fish, egg, etc.). The Sinhala characters would be – මම _ _ _ _ කන්නෙ නෑ and you can fill the blanks with the the appropriate ingredient that you do not eat.
3) Try these Sri Lankan vegetarian dishes
Kathurumurunga: This is a green leafy vegetable dish with a kick of onion, garlic, and chilies. The leaves used in Kathurumurunga are often grown at the homes of locals in Sri Lanka. You might be able to find this dish at a guest house or a local restaurant. It is completely vegetarian as well and great for nutrition.
Gotu Kola salad: Think middle-eastern tabouleh but with a totally different flavour and you get Gotu Kola salad. It is another green leafy dish made a parsley-like plant leaf called mukunuwanna. The leaves are mixed with a fragrant mix of curry leaves, onions, green chilies, and coconut. This dish is like eating salad Sri Lankan style. It is also known as Gotu Kola Mallung (mallung means mixed-up).
Kottu Roti: Made with roti bread, this dish is as much a spectacle as it is food. The chef making Kottu Roti basically chops roti into small pieces that resemble pieces of flat noodles or rice. Then, some vegetables are added and everything is cooked together with flavourful sauces on a large metal pan. The chef makes a rhythmic sound with the clanging of metal knives used to cut the roti and the vegetables. In fact, you can often hear that famous sound from outside a restaurant and it may draw you in. Sometimes, the chef even sings when making Kottu. That is why eating Kottu is as much an entertainment session as it is a famous Sri Lankan dish. A side of spicy curry dip or sauce is accompanied with the freshly made Kottu Roti.
Rice pancakes: These are similar to crispy dosas. They are made with a fermented batter of rice flour and coconut milk. It is cooked in a small wok and looks like a small bowl in shape. Normally, there is egg inside the pancake or hopper. But, you can ask them to make one without the egg or if possible, request a vegetarian potato-based filling. Rice hoppers or pancakes are generally served for breakfast.
String Hoppers or Iddiyappam: Similar to rice pancakes described above, string hoppers are like pancakes made with rice noodle strung together and steamed. It looks like a concave noodle bowl. This dish is very similar to Iddiyappam found in India. It is normally served for breakfast and is eaten with coconut chutney. At times, you might spot these hoppers at the dinner table as well along with dal. There is a sweet version of this dish too, served with palm treacle. Just be careful that the hoppers do not contain any eggs, which sometimes they do (biththara appa).
Pittu: Pittu is a roll of roasted rice flour that is mixed with shredded coconut and then steamed. It is served with kiri hodi curry, which is a coconut milk curry flavoured with onions, chillies, curry leaves, and a bunch of spices. Vegetarians need to know that many-a-times, pittu is served with egg and meat curries. So, always ask for a vegetarian curry to go with your pittu rolls. There are two types of rolls, pol pittu which uses coconut and mani pittu which uses wheat flour.
Sambol: Sambol is like a dip or a relish that is served along with bread, rice, and hopper dishes. It is made using coconut, chillies, and other condiments/spices. There are plenty of different sambols that you can try. There are sambols made from tomato, jackfruit, banana, onion (seeni sambol), coconut (pol sambol), and chilly (katta sambol).
Green Jackfruit Curry (Polos): Polos curry is a brown curry made with green jackfruit. The jackfruit is cut into bite-sized pieces and cooked with spices, chillies, mustard seeds, and curry leaves to prepare a curry which can be eaten with rice and roti bread.
Kokis: A few centuries ago, the Dutch were in Sri Lanka and they influenced Sri Lankan cuisine. The product of that influence is kokis, which is a deep-fried snack made with rice flour and coconut milk batter. It isn’t exactly potato chips, but its a crispy savoury food that you can eat on the go or with your rice and curry.
Lamprais: Another dutch influenced dish, lamprais is rice flavoured with curry, onion sambol, and a veggie burger-like ball. Everything is wrapped up in banana leaves and baked in an oven. Lamprais is mostly meat-based but you can request for a vegetarian version. It sounds quite delicious and tastes delicious too if you can find a vegetarian version.
4) Try these Sri Lankan desserts
Curd with treacle: If you like desserts, then you must try the traditional thick buffalo curd topped with treacle made from Palmyra tree. The curd is set in a mud pot similar to Mishti Doi in India. The treacle is in a syrup form but sometimes it can also have a hard consistency. This curd dessert is eaten only on special occasions as it is considered rich and expensive by local standards. Apparently, only the wealthy folks eat this sweet dish on regular days.
Kiribath: Kiribath is also known as milk rice. It is like a rice pudding cooked on special occasions. A thick coconut cream and rice are cooked together and then cut into square shapes. The milk rice piece is then topped with palm treacle. The shapes may vary and at times, you might find kiribath in a pudding form as well. A nice vegetarian sweet dish to try.
Helapa: Rice flour, coconut, and treacle are mixed together to form a sticky dough like substance which is wrapped in a palm leaf and steamed. The slightly hardened firm dough is called Helapa.
Faluda: Almost the same as Falooda in India, this milk and ice-cream based dessert is also enjoyed across Sri Lanka. It has a flavoured milk (often rose syrup is used), ice cream, and vermicelli. You drink it and eat the vermicelli and ice cream. It is served in a glass with a spoon. It is quite filling indeed.
Watalappan: If you consume eggs, then try this dessert. It is a Malay-influenced custard sweetened using the traditional kitul jaggery (jaggery extracted from a specific palm leaf). It is then flavoured with cardamom and nutmeg. It is a common dessert for most occasions in Sri Lanka.
5) Eat at a “Pure Veg” restaurant
A lot of Tamil restaurants, especially in the northern and eastern parts of the island are often labelled as pure vegetarian or pure veg. If you see this written on the signboard, then it means that the establishment does not use any meat, seafood, or eggs in its cooking. They, however, may use milk and honey. Still, vegetarians and vegans can get a good number of choices of local cuisine. Pure Veg restaurants also have a better understanding of vegetarian food culture. The food in these places is normally served on a banana leaf.
6 ) Try these types of restaurants
Indian Restaurants – Indian cuisine has lots of vegetarian options. You can never go wrong with this option, and the food can be delicious too. You will definitely find Indian restaurants in the cities.
Coffee Shops/Cafes – Cafes can be western or local. In local cafes, you may or may not find a menu. Often times, the dishes are all painted on a wall. Still, you can find some of the vegetarian foods mentioned in section 3 above. In western cafes, you can eat a sandwich, a cake, or muffins. Bakeries will also have those sweet items, but they may be using eggs in those cakes. So, if you do not eat eggs, then inquire before you eat. You might even be tempted to try out local tea and coffee flavours. Sri Lanka is famous for its tea.
Italian Restaurants/Pizza Places – A simple pasta, a spaghetti, or a cheese/veggie pizza is a safe bet anywhere in the world, and Sri Lanka is no different. Just make sure the pasta sauce has no meat and the white sauce has no eggs (if you do not eat eggs).
Other international cuisines – Major hotels and famous restaurants in a city will serve international cuisine. Whether it is a falafel, Chinese, or anything else, you will probably find one or two vegetarian options in such restaurants.
7) Eat fresh local fruits
Sri Lanka is a tropical country and it grows some amazing fruits. You can get bananas, mangoes, pineapple, watermelon, guava, papaya, and more. There are close to 80 varieties of fruits and vegetables grown in Sri Lanka. You can easily find fruit vendors at roadside stalls and in fruit/vegetable markets of every town, city, or village. As a vegetarian, you cannot go wrong here. You can also carry some fruit with you as emergency food when you do not find anything else to eat or simply want to snack while sightseeing.
8) Plan for a few options beforehand
While you cannot always expect to know exactly where and when you will eat, try to keep a list of few vegetarian restaurants in the area that you are going to visit. To create a list, use the following websites:
- http://www.happycow.net/ – This is perhaps the best resource online
- A list of Pure Vegetarian restaurants across Sri Lanka
- Another list of vegetarian restaurants across Sri Lanka
- Here are some websites listing vegetarian restaurants in Colombo:
- Here are some websites listing vegetarian friendly restaurants in the Galle district:
- A list of vegetarian friendly restaurants in Galle
- A list of vegetarian friendly restaurants in Unawatuna
- Here are some websites listing vegetarian friendly restaurants in the Kandy district:
- A list of vegetarian friendly restaurants in the Kandy district area
- Here are some websites listing vegetarian friendly restaurants in Trincomalee:
- A list of vegetarian friendly restaurants in Trincomalee