Foodies are flocking to sample this spice island’s unique tastes.

I ’m strolling down the buffet line, trying to understand the food choices by their unfamiliar names, sometimes guessing by color and smell. I consult a fellow tourist. Not sure. With high hopes, I shove food on my plate and move on to the next option. Finally returning to my table, I dig into this mystery meal, hoping that it isn’t too spicy or different tasting for this picky eater.

In Sri Lanka, a spice island if there ever was one, the flavors are different. So are the colors. There a zillion spices in the country and they are used on just about everything you can eat. You may order grilled grouper and find it covered with a thick red spice. It’s much the same with plain old chicken. But hey, these people know their spices and they know what they’re doing. Is it good? Ask the locals. Ask the tourists. You may be surprised to hear similar answers.

“The spice does not bother me,” Mathuga resident Dinesha Kumari said. “It adds a tasty change to foods like rice.”

Whether in the capital of Colombo or in a more rural area, the pickiest of eaters can find food tailored towards American tourists while in Sri Lanka. Spice is in everything so whether checking out the buffet at your hotel or after looking at top ranked restaurants online, ask your server what to expect when trying new foods.

Even the least adventurous eaters may discover that after a while, the hot, spicy taste grows on you.

“I grew up in a home where we always had spice,” American-born Colombo resident Ian Lockwood said.

“Sri Lankan food is pretty spicy but the hardest part is traveling to somewhere where it isn’t so hot. What do you do when you go somewhere and the food is bland? When traveling in the U.S. this summer, we carried around small chili packs,” he said.

Tourists looking to dig deep into Sri Lankan food can find family-owned restaurants on almost every street. Small grocery stores are also easily accessible for snacks. Genetically modified foods were banned in Sri Lanka in 2001 so when compared to snacks found in America, there are healthier options here.

If you are looking for more food options, be ready to spend money. Googling “fine dining in Sri Lanka” will take you to many restaurants and grills located in some of the country’s most upscale hotels. Visitors can choose between rooftop lounges or elaborate buffets on the beach. No matter your preference, you can expect to spend $20 or more on these meals.

Stuck between the ocean and the busy city streets of Colombo is Galle Face Green, a stretch of lawn occupied by both locals and visitors looking to purchase food from vendors in tents or take a stroll by the water at sunset. The regal Galle Face Hotel nearby, built in 1864 when the British occupied the country, is known for its lavish guest rooms as well as its restaurant and bar and the buffet on the seaside terrace.   

We serve food options including American during our lunch hours then more Sri Lankan options for dinner.

Suresh Liyange

“We serve food options including American during our lunch hours then more Sri Lankan options for dinner,” said Galle Face Hotel buffet chef Suresh Liyange.

Mount Lavinia Hotel is another elegant antique in the heart of the capital. In the white and shiny foyer, visitors are greeted by doormen decked out in white uniforms including above the knee shorts and tall socks. Once the mansion of an English governor, Thomas Maitland, the hotel is named after Maitland’s secret lover, a local dancer named Lovina. Now it serves tourists from all over the world. Australian chef and media personality Peter Kuruvita was so intrigued by the food options here, it inspired his first cookbook.

“They have one of the best Sri Lankan buffets I’ve ever had,” Kuruvita said.

When driving around town, Americans addicted to fast food can easily spot familiar restaurants including Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut. Some food options are similar to what we are used to but there are also other things, including more dishes of chicken rather than beef.

“KFC and Pizza Hut are delicious and have good service,” says Kumari.

These dishes are not only for tourists. On a regular Wednesday night, locals pack the joints. It isn’t unusual to see Sri Lankans eating in obvious tourist haunts.

“The locals come here too,” said Pavithra Ranasingha, bartender and cook at Mosvold Villa in Ahangama. “They usually order Sri Lankan food but at lunch they sometimes order American food.”

On this island in the Indian Ocean, fresh seafood is a staple. Travel blogger Mark Wiens of Migrationology recently created a list of  top dishes to try while in Sri Lanka. Not surprisingly, seafood dominated the list.

As the island’s reputation for exotic food has spread, travel bloggers have made the pilgrimage to cities such as Colombo to sample fresh seafood like crab, fish, prawns and lobster, often spiced in the Sri Lankan way. Kanrin Beach Hut is one of the city’s seafood restaurants where menus aren’t provided. Instead, a server brings out a platter full of options so customers can easily pick from the selection.

It’s only natural that an island would serve a lot of seafood, especially along its coasts. After all, Sri Lanka’s seafood sector has given the island’s economy a boost. In the aftermath of a three decade civil war, there has been a continual rise in tuna fishing. Sri Lanka is expanding its exports of tuna with the likes of yellow fin and big eye species.

The Sri Lanka Export Development Board reports that the seafood sector has grown five percent within the last five years with buyers flocking here from across the world, including the U.S. Other meats, including shrimp, are all exported from Sri Lanka in large numbers.

Oh yeah, about that buffet line. Don’t knock it ‘till you try it.

Sometimes the weirdest looking options are best. At first I was put off by that yellow stuff covering the mystery meat but darn, it was good. The moral: Try it. You might like it.

Author Mackenzie Ross

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