Sri Lankan Cuisine

Sri Lanka is a tiny island in the Indian Ocean off of India. Officially called “Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka” which was known as “Ceylon” until 1972.  A diverse and multicultural country, the main staple food is rice that is consumed by all ethnic groups. The main ethnic groups of Sri Lanka are Singhalese, Tamils, and Muslims. Even though the food is same among all ethnic groups, there are minor variations between them in the preparation methods and the spices used to prepare the dishes.

This website mainly focuses on Jaffna Tamil recipes and to some extent other recipes. Jaffna (Yaalpanam) is a town located in the northern part of Sri Lanka which consists mainly of the ethnic group “Tamils”.  The name “Yaalpanam” is derived from  “Yaal” (means Harp) and “Panam” (means town) which means land of the Harp Player.  Jaffna, which is dotted with beautiful Palmyrah trees, coconut trees farm lands, and surrounded by pristine beaches is the home of traditional Tamil cuisine.

Tamil cuisine mainly consists of steamed rice accompanied by spicy curries.  Rice and curries are consumed for lunch, dinner and at special occasions.  Break-fast and dinner mainly consists of food prepared from rice flour or wheat flour.  For example Pittu and Idiyappam (called string hoppers in English) are the most common food eaten for break-fast and dinner.  These dishes are also accompanied by spicy curries.  Dosa, idly, chapathis and uppuma are also eaten for break-fast and dinner occasionally.

Normally Pittu is accompanied by coconut sambol, seeni sambol, and different kind of gravies (tomato gravy, eggplant gravy, fenugreek gravy etc), vegetable, mutton, chicken, and fish curries.  Idiyappam is also accompanied by the above side dishes.  But one important side dish used with Idiyappam is called Sothi made from boiling different vegetables in coconut milk.  Dosa and idly are normally served with coconut chutney and sambar.

Even though Tamil cuisine is similar to south Indian cuisine, it has it’s own distinctive taste and spicier than most south Indian food.  Coconut milk used in most Sri Lankan Tamil dishes gives them a unique flavor.

Tamil cuisine has some influence from the Portuguese, Dutch and the British cuisine.  For example “lamprais” which is prepared by adding steamed rice, mutton curry, chicken curry, vegetable curries, and coconut milk on a banana leaf and baked on a moderate oven for about 20 minutes got the influence from the Dutch dish “Lomprijst”.  Dutch and Portuguese sweets also continue to be quite popular.

Apart from all the above, Tamils and other Sri Lankans also have adapted to many western food.  Cakes, pastries Cookies, and buiscuits are very common and used mainly at tea parties.

37 thoughts on “Sri Lankan Cuisine

  1. Hi Chelvi,

    Thank you so much for putting up this site. I lost my mother before I could have learned cooking from her, and I always crave her cooking. Even though there are books, nothing is like having someone guide you through in details and pictures like you have done.

    If possible, could you share the following recipes (with pictures) on this site, I would like to learn the following:

    1. Katirikai Kulambu
    2. Any Paal (Milk) Curry (Egglplant, Okra etc)
    3. Venthaya Kulambu
    4. Potato Dishes
    5. Appam

    Thank you so much, I’ve been looking for someone like you to have a site like this for a long time.

    1. Sorry that you lost your mother early. But I am really glad that my blog is helping you. I will definitely post these recipes. You can subscribe to my email subscription if you like. So when I post the recipes, you will get an Email.

  2. Thank you, I have already subscribed as well.

    I have a quick question for you. For what dishes do you use the Jaffna Curry Powder for. I see that mostly in your Kulambi and dishes you use the single spice powders like chilli, tumeric etc.

    Thank you.

    1. According to Jaffna cooking, there are 3 types of powders – chili powder, curry powder and plain chili powder (thani milagai thuul). When we say chili powder in Jaffna, that means it’s not just chili powder. It contains dried red chili, coriander, cummin, little bit of tumeric, little bit of fennel (Perunjeerakam) etc. So all these are roasted and then ground. My mother usually roast all these at home on fire in a “Irumbu chatti”. Then she gives it to the mill “alai” where they grind and give us back. So color of the chili powder depends on how much tumeric is used and also depends on the color and type of the dried red chili. Also the spiciness also varies on how much ratio you use between chili powder and others – coriander, cumin etc. Since I am in USA, I usually buy this Jaffna chili powder in Canada now.

      So in Jaffna, if some one says “chili powder”, normally that means it’s the one with all the ingredients I mentioned above. Just the chili powder is sold as “Thani milagai thuul”

      When it comes to curry powder, it varies from house to house. Normally at my home they call it “Perunjeeraka thuul”. This will contain certain amount of coriander, cummin and fennel. The one my mother makes have more fennel than others. But the one I bought in canada have a lot of ingredients like coriander, cumin, fennel, cardamom, cloves etc. They call it “Curry vasanai kudu”. This smells and tastes quite different from what my mother makes.

      When I don’t have the normal Jaffna chili powder, I use the plain chili powder and add a bit of cumin, coriander etc.

      I will get the recipe for Jaffna chili powder and will post it soon

      Hope this helps

  3. Hi Chelvi,

    I have been enjoying your recipes and your website.

    I was wondering if you have recipes for:

    1) Pythanga
    2) Sagoo Payasam

    Thank you,

      1. Thank you soooo much for the recipe! I’ll be sure to try out. Here in California the pythanga are dark green just like the one in your recipe.

        Yes, I think Sago is the chinese/english name for Javvarisi. (round tapioca balls). Do you add semiya also into your Javvarisi payasam?

      2. I never added semiya. But I remember my grand-mother used to add this. I will post the payasam recipe soon. I think she used to roast the semiya a little bit in ghee just for a minute or so before adding, but not sure.

      3. Yes! Sago is the English (probably not actually English) word used for saavarisi payasam. And, btw, having lived in both Wellawatte and Tamil Nadu, the Lankan saavarisi payasam is different from TN. For example, in Colombo the payasam at Greenlands was made with tengai pal/coconut milk either alone or with cow’s milk, cant remember, and also had more fragrant spices like cinnamon and even clove, in addition to the yellikai/cardamon used in tamil nadu. Also, of course in Lanka, cadju/mindri parapoo was there. I also even had it with ghee in it. Great blog!

  4. OMG i am so happy that i have found your blog…im a student just starting to cook, and ur blog has been amazing, as i couldn’t find other srilankan tamil blogs, please never stop posting recipes 🙂

  5. Hiya! Quick question that’s entirely off topic. Do you know how to make your site mobile friendly? My web site looks weird when viewing from my iphone. I’m trying to find a theme or plugin that might be able to resolve this problem. If you have any suggestions, please share. Thank you!

    1. I could not find an answer for you. Sorry but I will keep this in mind and definitely let you know. I did not do any thing different to make in in iphone. If yours is a blog, this might be due to a theme you have chosen.

  6. Dear Chelvi,
    I have been following your website and thank you so much for giving us special treats with recipes. I am a Malaysian and I appreciate if you could give the recipe for KOOLU porridge with step by step instruction on it’s preparation.

    1. I will definitely post the recipe for “Seeni Ariyatharam” soon. I have never made that. But my mother makes them for New Year etc. So I will get it and post as soon as possible. Regarding “Pal Roti”, I have never heard about that snack. Sorry about that. But I will try to find that recipe as well.

      1. Hi Chelvi,

        Excellent receipes, we have a wedding coming up, so I would love to view the receipe for Seeni Ariyatharam.


      2. Hi Trishna,
        I have never made seeni ariyaratharam and it is one of the most difficult thing to make. Especially you have to make the sugar syrup into the right consistency. So I asked my M-in_law for the recipe. I have not made it yet since here it is still cold and I dont like frying since the house will really smell. But I am just giving you the recipe here and I will definitely post it soon – probably next week (hopefully it will be warm).

        So for the recipe:
        1 pound white rice flour (raw meaning not roasted)
        3/4 pound sugar (may reduced to 1/4 pound)
        oil for frying.

        Add water to sugar and cook until it reaches 1 string consistency (I prefer adding a drop of the sugar syrup into cold water and it should immediately become into a small bead). Now slowly add the sugar syrup into the flour and mix like a idiyappam dough. Add a bit oil to your palm and take a small quantity (size of a ping pong ball) and flatten inbetween your palm. Fry in hot oil.

        Hints form M-I-Law: when you drop the ariyatharam into hot oil, it will sink to bottom and immediately puff and come to the top. It will quickly brown. So make sure you are next to the stove and once the sides become light brown, take it quickly.
        Also in Sri Lanka, they use some kind of raw white rice. The way they do is, wash the rice and just dry until it is damp. Then pound it in the “ural”, sift into a flour (now a days they grind in the grinder (sumeet brand or some thing like that).
        Hope this will give you some idea. Good Luck and Enjoy the celebration!

      1. Yes, Not sure whether there was a confusion in another thread where some one asked for “Pal rotti” I think it should be “Paal rotti” which is made in India. But I never heard of it in Sri Lanka.

  7. I am not sure where you are getting your info, but great topic.
    I needs to spend some time learning more or understanding more.

    Thanks for fantastic information I was looking for this info for my mission.

  8. Hi.
    In the late 70’s I was invited by a colleague of mine to visit Jaffna for the weekend while we were on a bank audit in Anuradhapura. We were served red string hoppers kiri hodi and the green sambol. The kiri hodi was superb and quite unlike the southern version which is milky in taste, the Jaffna equivalent was spicy perhaps through the addition of coriander leaves. I enjoy string hoppers and would love to know how the Jaffna style kiri hodi is made. I hope you can help me.
    Many thanks

    1. In Sinhalese it is called “Kiri jodi”. THe Jaffna version (which is in Tamil) is called “sothi”. The reason for spiciness regarding the Jaffna version is we add fresh green chilies. So depending on the spiciness of chili and the number of chilies you add, sothi will be hot.

      Also as far as I know, I don’t remember adding coriander leaves. We add curry leaves. Coriander leaves are not spicy as well.

      I have a post in my blog for Sothi (kiri jodi). You can search for “sohti” in my blog. Here is the URL specifically for that:

      I also have a post string hoppers:

      Hope this helps

      1. Hi….I tried the cheeni ariyatharam recipe…it didn’t work out
        1. The flour becomes hard after adding the sugar
        2. I was told that the flour can be even kept for 2days before frying but now after 10 min…it becomes stone hard
        3. After frying it…it becomes hard and very flour taste
        I don’t have any grandmother to advice as they are no longer alive…please advice what I did wrong

      2. Yes, it becomes hard for me as well. I think it depends on where you are – like I live in USA and during winter it is worse. Even in summer it hardens a bit. To avoid this, the best thing you can do is keep the dough covered all the time and also I keep all the windows and doors closed until I finish frying (to retain the moisture inside the house).
        The reason it becomes hard after frying is because the dough is already hard.

    1. I am not exactly sure about sarakku thanni. I have to ask some one (like those people in our fathers and mothers age). Does it mean Rasam? or its different?

  9. Malaysian ceylonese. Really enjoyed early years with grandparents who cooked traditional tamil yaalpanam food. Husband is punjabi and he is a convert. Can you give me simple pittu and iddiappm recipes.

    1. This website is dedicated for vegetarian dishes (there are some vegan dishes as well – click the category “vegan” from the left navigation bar). The recipes are in the blog section categorized into different sections. Please check the blog: and you can choose the kind of dish you are looking for from the left side category bar.

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