Learn about Sri Lanka’s history with one of the world’s favourite drinks.Read more...
Sri Lanka - Eating and sleeping
The staple diet is rice and curry. This is not a misnomer (for curry and rice) since rice is the centrepiece and main point of the meal, with a number of different curries served in dishes to go with it. The Westerner might prefer curries and a little rice, but for the Sri Lankan a heap of rice is essential. Not all the curries are spicy hot since the word ‘curry’ refers to the sauced accompaniment rather than to something fiendishly fiery. Devilled is the word for that, as in devilled fish, which is fish smothered in chillies and served with chopped leeks, tomatoes and flame-red chilli sauce. Curries are actually best savoured when they are not hot in temperature, which makes them ideal for buffet service, or when the dishes are allowed to remain on the dining table to cool before you are called to eat.
Another attraction of Sri Lankan cuisine is the light snacks, some of which are called short eats (little bites). These range from savoury patties to deep-fried hard-boiled eggs with a lentil mix where the yolk should be, battered rolls stuffed with vegetables or a bun with a fish stew baked in it. Add to this a kind of pancake called a hopper (or egg hopper if an egg is fried in it), string hoppers (like a nest of vermicelli) and all kinds of roti (pancake-style bread) and you have the ideal food for travelling, since it can be popped in a bag to eat on the way.
On the sweet side there is a kind of crème caramel called wattalapam and something which will make yoghurt forever seem insipid: buffalo curd. This is eaten with treacle, the natural sweet sap from a kitul palm tree. Sri Lankan fruits are delicious, as well as unusual. They can be bought from street vendors or markets.
(Photo: © Jane Rix, Shutterstock)
A popular drink is thambili, the golden-hued coconut you’ll see on sale beside the coastal road to Galle. The vendor will chop off the top so you can drink the water from within. He’ll even provide a straw. Ask him to cut open the nut when you’ve finished, so you can scoop out the flesh (it looks like the white of a poached egg) to taste young coconut at its most succulent.
There are several varieties of locally produced mineral water available from about Rs75 for a 1½-litre bottle. For easy carrying, so the bottle does not split, decant its contents into your own water bottle. Good soda water – at Rs26 (from a shop, over Rs100 in a hotel) for a 400ml bottle – is refreshing if you want to avoid sweet drinks, like Coca-Cola (about Rs30 a bottle). A great local fizzy drink is Elephant House ginger beer, at about the same price.
Sri Lanka’s answer to Scotland’s whisky or France’s cognac is called arrack. There are many brands available, ranging in price for a 750ml bottle from Rs810. The purest is coconut arrack made with distilled toddy (the sap extracted from a coconut palm). Since there is not enough toddy, most brands of arrack only have a percentage of the toddy distillate blended with neutral spirit. Connoisseurs drink arrack neat or on the rocks or perhaps with soda water. Others, to disguise its smell and taste, drown it with cola or Sprite (like lemonade). Its alcohol strength is about 36.8% by volume and Sri Lankans prefer to finish a bottle in a sitting rather than leave some for another time.
According to the Accommodation Guide issued by the Tourist Development Authority, there are 288 registered hotels open for business throughout the island. Of those, 115 are classified as star-class hotels, meaning they have facilities designed for international tourists. Fourteen of them are five-star properties, 15 four-star, 16 three-star, 36 two-star and 34 one-star. There are many more unclassified hotels. They were either awaiting classification or declined to be classified as their owners prefer to be graded by the tour operators selling their rooms overseas. Some are colonial properties whose infrastructure is hardly star-class but which have a five-star reputation as ‘hotels of character’. The ‘Boutique Hotels & Villas’ section in that guide lists 52 properties but, even so, such highly desirable bungalow accommodation such as The Lavender House are not included. In addition to the hotels, the Accommodation Guide lists over 400 approved guesthouses and paying-guest accommodation.
There are many places to stay, particularly in the beach and resort areas, which operate informally and are not on the tourist-board books. They exist for, and because of, the independent traveller who turns up and asks for a room. The price of such places would usually be around US$25 a night for a double with breakfast. Their presence makes touring around Sri Lanka without booking anywhere to stay in advance such a pleasure, giving a chance for serendipitous discoveries. On the other hand, at the top end of the price scale, private villas around Bentota and Galle, and some tea plantation bungalows, rent for US$500 a night.