“Is it like Indian food?” That’s the first question most people ask about Sri Lankan cuisine—if they know where the tiny island nation is, which is rare. (It’s just southeast of the southern tip of India).
My stock answer? “Sort of.”
There are some common elements, to be sure. But the “rice and curry” spreads that make up most Sri Lankan meals are pretty different from the northern saag paneer or Goan vindaloo at your local lunch buffet. Sri Lankan food offers a vivid array of flavor combinations: sweet caramelized onion relishes, bitter melon, spicy scraped coconut, and the burn of curry tamed by mild rice, and palm sugar sweetened desserts. Samosas and dhal (lentil curry) look familiar, but upon closer inspection, these, too, have a definitively Sri Lankan spin: these thinner curries tend to be more heavily spiced than many Indian versions, and the cuisine is more inclusive of non-native ingredients, brought by international trade moving through the island. Foods that seemed to be known territory find exciting new applications in Sri Lanka, where noodles come in pancake form and pancakes serve as both bowl and base of the feast.