The most street eating action in Sri Lanka happens in little hole-in-the wall restaurants, usually called hotels and bakeries.
These joints are generally hot and grungy but very friendly. The food is great and oh so cheap. A square meal of curry and rice is often not much over $1 Aussie, add a couple of bucks for a bit of a spread with soft drinks and dessert.
From what we saw Sri Lanka's national dish must be rice and curry. Generally when we asked for rice and curry we got a big plate of rice with four or so vegie dishes, and we would be asked to choose a meat dish, usually fish or chicken, sometimes lamb. Pork and beef are harder to find as there are lots of Muslim and Hindu folks in Sri Lanka.
Sometimes our rice and curry would be served banquet style, it's fun and only costs a dollar or so more.
We thought we'd get bored of curry very quickly but dishes and recipes vary from joint to joint. Also there's a few styles of rice. We found the veggie curries were by far the tastiest, more subtle and complex than the meat dishes which had hotter, heavier sauces.
Ask for "short snacks" and you will receive a plate full of deliciously calorific fried goodies. You only pay for what you eat. Bread is also served in the same fashion, we often saw locals mopping up their curry with half a loaf of white bread.
Hoppers are also very popular. A batter of rice flour and coconut milk is cooked in a small wok into a bowl shape. The base is thicker and is like a crumpet, while the thin 'walls' are crispy. Hoppers are often served with a sambal and what wikipedia tells us is lunu miris. These are insanely good.
Lunu miris was Mr Shawn's favourite stuff in Sri Lanka, ground dried chili flakes and sea salt with a little dried fish for oomph. This was sometimes served with rice and curry as well as hoppers.
An egg hopper is a regular hopper with a googie cooked into the bottom.
String hoppers (indiappa) are made by pressing a rice batter flour into little bundles of noodles then steamed. These are great for breakfast dunked in some curry.
String hoppers are also served with a sweet'n'salty dry coconut sambal. They can be made from white or red rice.
We think this noodle dish is also from string hoppers, tossed in a wok with some veggies, served with an optional egg and some curry sauce on the side.
Kottu roti is roti (flat bread) finely (and loudly) chopped and wok fried with veggies and or meat. A lardy stodge filler that is that is pretty tasty on it's own but superb when soaking up some curried sauce.
The universally popular spicy rice dish that is Byrani is served a lot in Sri Lanka. The couple we tried were nice but stodgey, not the light, delicately spiced wonder we were expecting. We think you might need to track down a specialist byrani joint, most likely a Muslim-run restaurant, to find the good stuff, such as the one Peter Kuravita found in Kandy in episode 3 of his My Sri Lanka tv series.
Devilled dishes were everywhere, a kind of spicy, tangy, tomato flavour with onions. This devilled pork tasted like sweet and sour, not great but a fun beer snack. Devilled cashews are the bomb.
Roti was found in most places. We had a couple of different styles and there's probably more around. The top one is like the Malaysian roti we are used to (here often called paratha), the bottom one is less lardy and more like a damper.
Cakes and white bread are very popular, though we didn't have a lot of luck with either, what looked good was often a bit cheap and stale, like our jokes.
In the fridge of many hotel/bakery joints is wattapalan: coconut milk, palm sugar, ground cashews and eggs cooked into a sort of a custardy/cakey, insanely delicious dessert. Sometimes we found them homemade but most often they were premade in small tubs. Mr Shawn would knock old ladies out of the way to get to this stuff. He wouldn't really. Would he?
In the home of Ceylon tea you would expect Sri Lankans could brew a decent cup, and they can. In the hotels the tea is oversweetened for our tastebuds but still very nice. Tea served in guesthouses for western folks is out of this world, especially up in the hills where the tea plantations are. By the coast teabags were more prevalent, around the tea plantations you get the proper stuff.
Probably the most common street vendors are these guys selling fried lentil snacks, often served with dry roasted chilis and sometimes a dried prawn on top. If these taste a bit dry and plain on first bite, keep munching. There's a surprising world of flavour in these babies.
Spicy scrambled egg rolls were another favourite. So too was the fried egg and veggie roll that was like a spicy Sri Lankan answer to the Chiko Roll.
'Packets' or lump rice (lampraise or one of the many variations in spelling) are meals on the go, we found these most often in busy areas around lunchtime. Packets were usually around 150 rupies (about $1.20 Aussie) and a substantial feed.
Our packet of tempered rice, chicken, egg and sambal, chicken and a bag of curry sauce.
Tropical fruit is in abundance. Street vendors sell it sliced with a (usually optional) salty spicy sambal. We had probably the best papaya in the whole world nearly every time it was served.
Fresh coconut juice is another popular refreshment, especially popular when prepared by tops old ladies.
We really only experienced the food of the southern area of Sri Lanka. We can't wait to head north and east and get our fill of Jaffna styles and east coast wonders.
There's loads of road construction to the popular southern beaches which could change the more laid back feel down there and rumours of a Macau-esque casino boom in Colombo, so get in soon as you can.
We love Sri Lanka.