Most restaurants in Sri Lanka slot into one of four broad categories. Most expensive, and largely confined to Colombo and to a lesser extent Galle, are genuine international restaurants that deal in specific cuisines, be it Japanese, French or Bavarian, and cater almost entirely to a clientele of business people, tourists and affluent locals.
Middling in price, with mains typically falling into the US$5–10 bracket, is a rather generic selection of ‘proper’ tourist-oriented restaurants that tend to offer predictable menus comprising a combination of grilled meat and seafood, pasta dishes, fried noodles and rice, possibly pizzas and/or burgers, and local dishes such as rice and curry or devilled chicken or fish. Also generally associated with larger towns and more touristy areas are deli-style places serving tea, coffee, juices, sandwiches, pastries, cake and the like.
Finally, every town, no matter how small, will boast at least one and usually several dozen little local holes-in-the-wall serving rice-and-curry buffets and other Sri Lankan staples for around US$1–2 per head. The Ministry of Agriculture funds extremely inexpensive eateries island-wide through a development programme for rural women, in which they learn traditional recipes and business skills, and can access loans for starting their own restaurants. Called Hela Bojun Hala in Sinhala-majority areas and Ammachchi in Tamil-majority areas, these outdoor food courts are clean, friendly and very popular, but won’t have much spoken English.
Sri Lanka has a unique cuisine whose manifest South Indian roots are infused with various Malay, Portuguese, Dutch and Arab influences, and make far greater use of coconuts and seafood, as might be expected of a low-lying island with such a long tropical coastline. Sri Lankan dishes tend to be rather hot and spicy, but most tourist-oriented hotels and restaurants will modify their recipes to account for less fire-resistant Western palates. Chinese-style fried rice and noodles are a greasy staple on many local menus, while lighter snacks include fiery meat or vegetable samosas, and various deep-fried meat and vegetable cutlets. Fresh seafood is ubiquitous on the coast, and usually of a very high standard.
The staple diet is rice and curry, which differs from its Indian namesake-in-reverse in that a heap of rice is loaded on to a central plate, then surrounded by anything from five to 15 different curry dishes, each usually in a separate bowl. Another typical Sri Lankan dish is devilled meat, most often chicken or fish, which is smothered in chillies and served in a flame-red sweet-and- sour sauce with chopped leeks, tomatoes and other vegetables. It is usually cooked fresh, so can be as spicy or mild as you request, and served with rice.
Also known as appa, a hopper is a type of steamed or fried pancake made with a fermented rice-flour and coconut-milk batter. It is cooked in a bowl-shaped pan that causes the batter to pool at the bottom, so the sides are crispy and thin, while the base is thicker and softer. As with string hoppers, it is generally a breakfast dish, eaten with fish or chicken curry, though an intriguing variation incorporates an egg, fried sunny side up.
Locally produced mineral water costs around US$0.50 per 1.5-litre bottle. The usual selection of international fizzy drinks is equally inexpensive, as is soda water, a refreshing alternative to its sugary counterparts. Also very refreshing is thambili, the golden-hued native ‘king’ coconut you’ll see on sale at stalls around the country. The vendor will chop off the top of the coconut so you can drink the liquid from within. Freshly prepared fruit juices and smoothies are also widely available in cafés and restaurants, but you might want to ask to have it prepared with only a small amount of sugar, or none at all. Tea, as might be expected, is ubiquitous and generally of superb quality, and good coffee is served in smarter cafés, usually at a price.
Good locally brewed lager-style beer is widely available, with the main brands being Lion, Carlsberg, Anchor and Three Coins, all of which come in recreational standard (around 5% alcohol) and industrial strong (upwards of 8%) varieties. These are available in 500ml cans and recyclable 625ml bottles, and usually cost around US$1.50 in so-called wine or beer Shops (a few of which can be found clustered on the main road through most towns) but double or more in restaurants and hotels. Imported wine, often of mediocre quality, is widely available but quite pricey.
The main local tipple is arrack, a strong (30–50% alcohol) rum-like spirit made from distilled toddy (coconut palm sap) but often diluted with less pure spirits. Many brands are available, starting at around US$6 for a 750ml bottle, though purer varieties are a bit more expensive. Connoisseurs drink arrack neat or on the rocks, while others drown it with cola and other fizzy drinks.
Alcoholic drinks are generally served at mid-range and upmarket hotels and restaurants, but not at cheaper family-run guesthouses and eateries. The main reason for this is the high cost of liquor licences, a consideration that also tends to push up prices in licensed establishments. It is usually acceptable to bring your own beer or wine to an unlicensed restaurant, but you should ask first, as some smaller places – especially in Islamic areas – will be uncomfortable with the idea. Many restaurants that depend mainly on tourist custom may also have a cheaper beer and wine licence, keep beer discreetly available without including it on the menu, or will go out to buy a couple for diners who ask nicely.