Sri Lankans don’t say “Have you eaten yet?” but rather, “Have you eaten your rice?” which really means rice and curry. Everywhere on the island, rice and curry is THE main meal, usually eaten at mid-day. One of my favorite ways to experience local foods is in the kitchen with a good home cook. During our recent travels across Sri Lanka, time with a village housewife near Sigiriya delivered a picture-book lesson in rice and curry.

At Aliya Resort & Spa, Executive Chef Sanjaya Marasinghe asked a housewife from nearby Avudangawa village to prepare our meal in the resort’s kitchen bungalow. Two hours and one hot fire later, we sat down to a rice-and-curry extravaganza.

Red, white or black?

We learned that Sri Lankans call just about anything served with rice, a curry: red (colored with chilies, and spicy), white (with coconut milk, usually mild), or black (using dark-roasted spices, these have a rich flavor).  This oversimplification describes an extraordinary range of dishes, some wet, some dry, all memorable.

Rice is the centerpiece

Paddy fields near Trincomalee, Sri Lanka. Perhaps it goes without saying that rice is the main ingredient, the great unifier, in rice and curry!
Commodities brokers in Pettah, Colombo sell more kinds of rice than I knew existed. They’re all good, but red rice is especially tasty, full bodied and with a nutty flavor.

Rice and curry on a banana leaf

This meal was meant to be eaten with our hands, and we were not provided with cutlery. That decision made for us, we washed up and headed for the table. Sri Lankans stir foods on their plates together with their fingers, to mingle the flavors of the various dishes into a complex and harmonious mouthful. It works!

It’s perfectly acceptable to load one’s plate banana leaf with all the curry components at once (leaving sweets or fruit until later).

Our meal, clockwise from upper left:

  • Dhal curry, with pandon leaves as well as curry leaves and curry powder, chili powder, turmeric.
  • Red rice–Less than half a normal Sri Lankan portion, and it was plenty!
  • Long beans curry, in a sauce made with both thin and thick coconut milk, and with extra zip from tomatoes and Maldive fish.
  • Pol (coconut) sambol, ground on a miris gala (a flat granite slab and rolling-pin like cylindrical stone), and mixed with chili powder, green chilies, lime juice, chopped tomatoes, red onions and Maldive fish.
  • A fiery onion pickle that brought tears to my eyes!
  • Mukunuwanna mallum–a lightly cooked ‘salad’ of leaves, freshly grated coconut, green chili, onions, curry power and lime juice. Mallum can be raw or cooked, and made from any number of leaves and roots, such as white radish and radish leaves (something tells me I’m more likely to find these in Switzerland than Mukunuwanna leaves).
  • Lake fish curry, in a coconut milk gravy flavored with cardamom, curry leaves and lime juice.
  • Bite-sized lake fish pieces, lightly seasoned with salt and pepper, and fried.
  • Baby jack curry–young jackfruit, stewed in a clay pot over a slow fire. The sauce for this dish took on a sour note from gamboge fruit, a bit of tang from fresh ginger, and richness and a deep brown color from roasted curry powder.
Dessert was Halapa, steamed kanda leaves filled with a not-overly-sweet paste make from kurakkan and rice flours, freshly grated coconut, sugar, and kithul palm treacle.
I was impressed that Ashoka could put such a fabulous meal on the table while we watched, no muss or fuss, and with me asking questions all the while.

*  *  *

Our thanks to Sri Lanka Tourism for supporting our travels, and to Aliya Resort & Spa for hosting our stay, and for providing such a marvelous culinary experience. Most of all, thanks to Ashoka for a great meal. The enjoyment was all ours!

To see all our travel stories from Sri Lanka, click here


  1. You have no idea how much my mouth is watering! I really want to go to Sri Lanka not least because I have a Sri Lankan friend who makes the most wonderful food! I think I could go just for the food alone! You have kindled my every taste bud with this post!

    • Hi Agness, thanks for your comment. Yes, there can be lots of spice, but generally not for every dish. I’m glad you found some curry options to enjoy!

    • It’s surprising how much variety there can be in a cuisine that offers some sort of curry with every meal. If you are a fan of spices (and not necessarily hot spices), Sri Lanka will bless your taste buds!


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