Colombo is rarely on anyone’s radar when visiting Sri Lanka. Travelers arrive to Bandaranaike airport and straight away drive down south to the beautiful beaches or into the Hill Country to see mountains. The capital is left out which I understand full well: Colombo isn’t pretty and there’s not much to do. I would go as far as to say that there’s only one thing you can and should do in Colombo – eat! Among all the cities on the island, Colombo, undoubtedly, has the highest concentration of delicious and unique foods.
Now, you could surely find amazing Thai, Chinese or Indian food in Colombo, but if you only have a few days in the city, I would recommend to start with true Sri Lankan flavors in all possible shapes they might come!
Traditional Sri Lankan Rice and Curry at Upali’s
Upali’s is the place where many of my local friends have lunch on a daily basis. That’s how you know the food is good and, most importantly, authentic. If you are looking to try traditional rice and curry, the backbone of Sri Lankan cuisine, this is your place! Apart from delicious food, another important advantage is the ambience. While a lot of roadside cafes serve good food, sometimes you feel like having a proper sit-down meal in an air-conditioned space without cars honking next to you. Nothing fancy, just honestly good.
What to order: mutton varuwal (mutton curry), maalu beduma (deep fried fish slices), dallo rathata uyala (cuttlefish curry), kos ata mallum sambolaya (jackfruit seeds sambol), parippu (lentil curry), pol sambol (coconut sambol).
If you are on a budget, try their set lunch menu (rice served with 3 vegetables, coconut sambol, papadams, dry fish and red chilli and curried gravy for 340 Rs ($2.25)
Address: No. 65 C W W Kannangara Mawatha, Colombo
Contemporary Sri Lankan Cuisine at Kaema Sutra
Hands down, my favorite Sri Lankan restaurant in Colombo! I know how the name sounds, but let me explain. It’s not “kama”, it’s “kaema” which means “food” in Sinhalese language. The sound “ae” in “kaema” is pronounced like “a” in “can”.
Many people think of contemporary as sophisticated fusion food. But that’s not the case with Kaema Sutra. Although it’s nothing like what you find in Sri Lankan homes, the dishes are most definitely authentically Sri Lankan, only slightly refined. Food here is not a way to to satisfy chef’s ambition, but a product of much love and care. Chef Dharshan Munidasa mixes the best of traditional cuisine with a touch of creativity to achieve perfection which I can only admire. At the moment, it’s the only restaurant of its kind in Colombo serving elegant Sri Lankan food in a beautiful setting.
What to order: Euro hopper (this pancake with yogurt inside is to die for!), boneless chicken leg curry, ambul thiyal (fish curry), lunu miris (onion and chili relish), for dessert: What the Hopper (sweet pancake with strawberries and cream).
Address: Arcade Independence Square, #30, Independence Square, Colombo 7
Tamil Food at Mayura Hotel
It will sound strange, but Mayura Hotel is not a hotel, but a teeny-tiny restaurant. It defies logic, but a lot of roadside restaurants are, for no reason whatsoever, called hotels in Sri Lanka. Mayura is located in the heart of Colombo’s biggest and craziest market and serves Tamil food.
Tamils are an ethnic group in Sri Lanka mostly living in the north and north-east parts of the country. Tamil cooking, or Jaffna cooking (named after one of the main cities in the north of the island), has very distinct taste.
People who come to Mayura are workers and local vendors. People who don’t normally come here are white foreign girls. There are no plates, instead, rice and curry are placed on a banana leaf right in front of you. There are no napkins, only cut up paper sheets. Spoons and forks weren’t in my vicinity either, but who needs a fork to eat crab curry anyways?
What to order: crab curry, octopus curry, prawn curry, Sri Lankan omelet.
Tip: take a tuk tuk to Pettah Market and ask to drop you off at Mayura Hotel. Be prepared that’s it’s a hole in the wall kind of restaurant where you most likely won’t find any tourists.
Address: 46, Sri Kathiresan Street, Pettah
Lamprais at Dutch Burgher Union
Let’s get it straight right away, Burgher in this contest has nothing to do with beef patty stuffed inside a soft bun along with lettuce and tomato. Burghers are a small Eurasian ethnic group in Sri Lanka descended from Portuguese, Dutch and British people. The number of Burghers is quite small, constituting only 0.2% of the total population of Sri Lanka, according to Wikipedia. One of the signature Burgher dishes is lamprais, rice with vegetables and meats wrapped in a banana leaf and cooked.
On my latest trip to Sri Lanka I didn’t have the time to visit Dutch Burgher Union myself, but my friends (who are simply the best) brought me lamprais on the day of my departure while I was busy packing. I am not sure whether it was the lamprais or the overwhelming feeling of being loved by friends, but that meal was delicious!
What to order: lamprais, obviously
Address: 114, Reid Ave, Colombo
Kottu Roti at Hotel De Pilawoos
First, you need to understand the rules of eating kottu. More precisely: late at night, after a big party, preferably when your booze level is so high up you feel like the happiest person alive, but at the same time still able to comprehend the world around you. That greasy cheesy (optional) carb loaded shapeless something called kottu is just perfect to soak up all the alcohol from your blood and leave you deeply satisfied. That of course is an ideal situation. You can eat kottu sober and during daylight, but late at night it just hits that sweet spot.
Kottu roti is one of the best dishes Sri Lanka has to offer. Roti are local flat breads that are cut up into strips, mixed with spices, vegetables and meat of your choice, and then fried on a grill. My description doesn’t do justice to kottu so I just beg you, go out and try it while in Sri Lanka.
In Colombo, Hotel De Pilawoos (once again, it has no rooms, not a hotel at all!) is a local’s favorite for kottu. It’s open 24/7 so any time is a good time for kottu!
What to order: chicken kottu roti (ask to add cheese if you need extra calories)
Address: 417 Galle Road, Colombo 3
Sri Lankan Prawns at Isso
“Isso” in Sinhalese language actually means “prawns” so you know what to expect at this small joint in Colombo city center. You make your own dish by simply following three steps: choose the size of prawns varying from L to XXL, decide on preparation method and finally add a carb.
What to order: I was in love with their healthier option of prawns mixed with mango avocado salsa. If you are looking for something on the hotter side, try their hot butter prawns or Jaffna prawn curry. As for carbs, go for roast garlic paan which is a type of local bread (so damn good, it’s one of the things I miss the most about Sri Lanka) or sweet potato fries.
Address: #2 Sulaiman Terrace, off Jawatta Road, Colombo 5
Sri Lankan Achcharu at Achcharu Kade
Achcharu is what Sri Lankans snack on. It was not easy to wrap my mind around the fact that people snack on pickled fruits mixed with spices of all things. In my opinion, achcharu is the kind of thing that you either love endlessly or hate. Mango and pineapple slices mixed with chili pepper, pickled ambarella, green chilis and onions marinated in vinegar, ginger, and garlic… Salivation process starts in my mouth even while I am writing this!
Achcharu is sold in small carts at the waterfront and in the markets. You might walk into it by accident. But to try some of the best achcharu Colombo has to offer head to Achcharu Kade, a stall at the local farmer’s market. The Good Market Colombo happens every Saturday at the Racecourse.
Apart from making exquisite achcharu, these guys also boast superb Lankan rice and curry. Come to the market hungry, there will be plenty of local dishes for you to try!
What to order: it really depends on which fruits you love most and whether you prefer sweet, sour or spicy. Ask for advice from the owner Natalie who is often behind the counter.
Address: Achcharu Kade stall can be found at The Good Market Colombo, Racecourse, Colombo 7 (only on Saturdays 10 AM to 6 PM)
Panini with Sri Lankan Twist at Panino
Panini, of course, has little to do with Sri Lanka, but the way a local business combined the original idea with local ingredients is simply beautiful! Ciabatta and focaccia traditionally used for panini gave way to Sri Lankan roast paan – local bread with very crispy outside crust. And it makes all the difference! The fillings vary from chicken pomodoro to pulled BBQ chicken to tomato basil. But I would highly recommend to go with Sri Lankan filling like pol sambol (grated coconut mixed with chili) or seeni sambol (onion relish) to make it a truly local specialty.
What to order: pol sambol and fried egg melt
Address: 145, Dharmapala Mawatha, Colombo 7 (in front of Cotton Collection)
Ceylon Tea at t-Lounge by Dilmah
Sri Lanka is a tea country, hasn’t always been which I will explain later on, but for now just believe me, you are going to drink a lot of tea here. Lankans drink simple black tea without any flavors twice per day: in the morning and afternoon. Tea is commonly served with milk and lots of sugar. I wrote more about the way locals have tea in this post.
For the ultimate tea experience visit t-Lounge by Dilmah, one of the most famous Ceylon tea brands around the world. Dilmah lounges provide the most well-rounded and creative approach to tea drinking. You can try tea grown in different regions of Sri Lanka (including designer leaf tea), as well as tea-based cocktails, mocktails, milk shakes, smoothies, and even tea-inspired food!
What to order: the menu is very extensive. I would suggest to talk to the server and explain your preferences so he can recommend a tea that will match your taste. Try one of the simple brewed teas first and then move on to something more creative like t-Shake. My personal favorite is t-Kitsch – a milky frothy type of tea spiced with cinnamon.
Address: Dutch Square, Block B, 62/2, Chatham Street, Colombo 1 and Arcade Independence Square, Shop No. 4, Colombo 7
Afternoon Tea at Hilton Colombo
If you look closely Sri Lankan colonial past is very evident in details: the narrow streets and paved roads of Galle Fort, the Portuguese surnames many Sri Lankans have, the driving on the left side of the road, but my favorite has to be afternoon tea!
My Sri Lankan friend Yash and I have afternoon tea every time we meet after a long time. Two of the four times happened in Hilton Colombo. There’s no better way to spend an afternoon than chatting with your good friend while eating tiny cakes and enjoying bottomless Ceylon tea!
What to order: they have a choice of Western and Sri Lankan afternoon tea, go for either or better both if you have company!
Address: 2 Sir Chittampalam A Gardiner Mawatha, Colombo 2
Ceylon Coffee at Whight & Co
Before Ceylon was popular for its tea it was one of the largest producers of coffee in the world! Surprised? I came to Sri Lanka 7 years ago for the first time, but only learned this fact on my latest trip! My world shattered. Coffee was brought to Sri Lanka by the Dutch and by 1860 the country became the world’s largest producer. Unfortunately, in 1869 a lethal fungus destroyed the industry.
With tea dominating, nobody seems to think about coffee anymore… but one man, James Whight, who made the effort to find the remaining original coffee trees, tested the samples and used the best one to replant coffee. You can try true Ceylon coffee at his cafe Whight and Co. Seriously good!
What to order: cappuccino, cold brew
Address: Marine Drive and Aloe Avenue, Colombo 3
Have you been to Colombo? What are your favorite Sri Lankan foods and drinks in the city?
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AUTHOR: YULIA DYUKOVA
Yulia is a Russian food and travel blogger who found home first in Sri Lanka for 3 years, then in Brazil for a year and is currently based in Austin, Texas. She is the kind of person who starts a research of the new country by googling “what to eat in…” instead of “what to visit in…” Yulia is a self-proclaimed “food nerd” who will spend hours reading on the origins of pecan pie before trying it and who doesn’t consider waiting in line of 50 people to get a cronut a waste of time. She finds it hard to keep her delicious findings to herself and that is the reason why this blog exists.