07 November 2012

Sri Lanka Street Food Tour ~ Colombo

Alison nabs some impossibly cheap airfares so we take a cheeky 10 day trip to Sri Lanka. First stop is the capital, Colombo...

Many tourists skip Colombo, heading straight to the beaches or hills from the airport. But as food nerds and city lovers we have to check it out...

We thought Colombo was going to be a complete freak out, like a large Indian city. But it's quite mellow for a capital, it reminded us of a regional centre, like the smaller regional cities we've visited in Thailand. In fact Sri Lanka reminded us very much of South East Asia, particularly the dusty ramshackle town centres and super friendly locals.

We reckon Sri Lanka is possibly the friendliest country we have travelled. In many countries we encounter madly waving smiling kiddies, in Sri Lanka we also get madly smiling waving old folks, even waving middle aged ladies.

For a day out in Colombo the Lonely Planet suggested a walk through the Pettah Market area (above), over to the (allegedly) upmarket Fort Area, then down to the swanky-ish Galle Hotel for sundowners, then Galle Green for snackages. It's a cunning plan that cannot fail.

Our first eats were from the Rajan Snak Barup, one of a zillion joints in the Pettah market district near the Maning Market.

A spicy egg and onion roll and a small fried egg and veg roll . This trip was looking good already.

Unfortunately we had picked the monsoon season to travel through Sri Lanka and the morning started off wet. It wasn't a problem through the trip as it rained for a few hours here and there and was mostly dry. So when it started to come down we ducked inside the covered Fose Market for a break. You could cut through this market on your way to the Saunders Place bus station.

We've often had good luck finding great food around market areas and we stopped inside this hotel (the common name for a cafe in Sri Lanka), the Nawagiri Hotel.

We'd like you to think we are all rough and tough when it comes to knowing what to order in a new place but we had to really push through our lack of knowledge and do some serious point'n'pray ordering. We purposely do little food research  before travelling a new country, we like to see it with fresh eyes.

We thought we had ordered this dish but it didn't turn up on the table. It was a great regret we didn't try it as we didn't see it anywhere else, it looked like cooked mung beans with coconut sambal on top. We actually made our way back to this resto at the end of the trip but the dish was finished for the day, dam!

However we did try some great new tastes: thin rice noodles mixed with vegetables and a boiled egg on the top made a good snack. Served with a thin curry sauce and extra coconut sambol.

Fresh cooked chick peas with slivers of red onion and small sections of fresh green chilli for bite. Such a fresh and delicious flavour for a morning snack.

Tea, milky and sweet and a coffee. We didn't drink much coffee at all after this as the tea was so unbelievably excellent. This series of snacks cost about 260 rupees in total (a bit over $2 Aussie).

Gloriously ramshackle hotel.

Fruit'n'veg shopping Colombo style.

The obligatory developing world blokes pushing cart shot.

Insanely tasty sweeties. It was common practice to get small snacks served in a recycled office paper bag. You never knew what reading material would come with your snack, we ended up with physics exam papers, Martin Luther King Jr quotes and excerpts from the life of the Buddha.

The Cargills Department store, once a grandeur place to buy all your essentials, was sadly being used as one third meeting centre, one third supermarket and one third KFC. Perhaps some time and a lot of money might see a grand restoration one day, the original 1920's deco shop fittings were incredible .

One of Shawn's great holiday regrets is not trying this KFC delight, Popcorn Chicken'n'Rice. It taught us the great travel lesson of 'see, buy, try' or else you will miss out and forever be sad. We walked past KFC on Broadway last week and he was still sighing with regret.

In the midday heat we waddle over to the Fort area, a crumbling old town centre. A wise man asks us if we would like a beer at the B.I. Hotel & Bar.

The BI Hotel seemed like it used to swing in another lifetime. It's dark and quiet and a wonderful old place to hide from the heat. A bunch of locals chug beer and arak down the back. An ancient waiter asks us if we would like chips every five minutes. All foreigners want chips, right?

This tour of Sri Lanka brought to you by Lion Beer. We drank (a-hem) a few of these every day, they magically evaporated in the heat so you never had to worry.

Devilled dishes are very popular in Sri Lanka. We try devilled chicken, it kind of tastes like sweet and sour, there's something very 1970's Women's Weekly about it, a fun beer snack.

Recycled office paper is used for serviettes, not great for greasy fingers but good for the environment.

After our tasty beverage diversion we find a lovely lady selling takeaway lunches to office workers in the Fort area. We go for a chicken lump rice.

Chicken lump rice - 150 rupees - about $1.20 Australian. Spiced tempered rice with a piece of fried chicken, sambals, fried snackages and a bag of curry sauce. Insanely good. (We were stoked to find chicken lump rice back in Sydney at the Sri Lankan Food Bar in Homebush.)

We walked from the Fort area down along the beach front to the Galle Face Green. There's many large hotels being constructed along this area, a sure sign of economic recovery and an influx of tourists expected over the next few years. Get here now.

There's a line of food snack vendors along the promenade at Galle Face Green, it's a bit crusty in the heat of the day, the real action happens at night.

In the thirty+ degree heat we chickened out on trying these prawn on lentil snacks.

And these dry snacks looked all cotton-mouth in the heat.

However a fresh fruit vendor is hard to pass up as we blistered in the sun.

Fresh slightly green mango coated in chilli. Sweet and spicy and super refreshing.

The afternoon had sunk in and the temperature turned up. We escaped the Green for the shelter of the Galle Face Hotel, a big old colonial hotel. There was a wedding on so we sat and recuperated and watched beautiful saris float in and out.

View from the bar/restaurant at the back of the Galle Face Hotel. Beers were only $3 for a longneck, not bad for a posh joint!

Folks setting up a market stall on Galle Face Green.

This is a lovely place to come and mingle amongst the locals. Hordes of folks come down for sunset.

It starts to rain so these folks set us up chairs for us inside the market stall, and we eat while all the cooking goes on around us, we're in food nerd heaven!

Our chefs are super friendly, the only time they stopped smiling was in front of the camera!

Prepared dishes ready to go. We were expecting a to see lot of seafood but there wasn't much here or anywhere we went in Sri Lanka. We suspect the fancy seafood gets exported.

Master Chef at work.

Frying up our dinner.


Stir fried (devilled?) fish - light tomato, onion and spice flavours.

The fish is fantastic rolled up in some roti. The roti is thick and more like damper than the Malaysian style roti we eat in Sydney.

Vegetable fried rice. Light and fluffy, perfectly cooked, and lightly spiced. Insane.

Mr Shawn notices folks buying something wrapped in leaves and newspaper, so he gives it a go. It turns out to be chewing tobacco. As an ex-smoker Shawn secretly loves the popping peppery sensation in his mouth.

Galle Face Green gets very pleasant as the sun goes down.

We're here on a dreary, rainy, Tuesday evening. It's still busy and fun but man, we'd love to be here on a good night.

The next day we have to get up early to get the train to Kandy. Our hotel is in a quiet, leafy area of Colombo near the Lake. Everybody says 'Good Morning!' as we waddle off to get a tuk tuk out of here. We so wish we had time to hang around and explore, there must be some lovely little pockets of life in this city.

Walking up to the main road near our hotel we find a rare bird - a metered tuk tuk! It ended up being half the price of all the other rides we took around the city.

Beira Lake, Colombo. We expect to see a lot more highrises on our next visit.

We skip the free breakfast at our hotel to save room for a proper Colombo Street Food breakfast. This street next to the Fort train station is lined with great options.

Many joints are full but Sadushan Cool Spot has a spare seat.

Tops decor and punters.

String hoppers are thin light clean tasting bundles of noodles.

Dunk them in curry for a classic Sri Lankan breakfast. We wondered how we would cope with curry for breakfast, but by the end of the holiday a breakfast without chili seemed amiss.

Breakfast time at Sadushan Cool Spot.

Tops railway station.

Trains are the best way to get around in Sri Lanka. The train staff are helpful and speak English, it's all pretty easy. The only catch is the first class trains book out in advance. Fortunately from Colombo (and only Colombo) you can reserve a seat in second class. From other stations there's no reservations for second class, you have to fight for a seat. Sometimes there are fancy air conditioned first class carriages run by private companies which are a good option.

If you like travelling the old fashioned way then Sri Lanka is fantastic. As Alison put it, Sri Lanka is a great place to do 'slow travel' fast. Local transport is super cheap and it's easy to avoid those long overnight hell trips that are a necessity in some countries we have travelled. Most of our bus and train trips were $2-$3 at the most. One fancy first class train trip that took several hours through the beautiful high country cost us a whopping $10. Our one big tip would be to pack super light. We travelled with little 28 litre daypacks that made it a breeze. On some of the more crowded buses and trains a big backpack is a huge hassle. One local complained to us that travellers will take up a whole seat with their backpacks.

Apart from organised tours, the other popular way to get around is to hire a driver. This gets you off the beaten track but you also may find yourself going to every freaking crappy tourist attraction, gem shop and crappy hotel that gives the driver a commission. Hence, we took the bus.

The Observation Saloons are sought after, these have a large window at the end for the best scenery viewing. Tickets for these are a bitch to get.

Train station snackery. People bitch about Coke and McDonalds in a developing country but it's bloody Nestle that we've grown to hate over the years, they're insidious and they're everywhere.

We pass through Colombo again on the way home, and are treated to a massive storm as we catch a bus to Negombo. The storm was so close and so scary we made sure we weren't touching any metal on the bus. At one point we thought we might get washed away...

Onward to Kandy. We love Sri Lanka.


  1. What a fantastic travel post! I love your pictures and your writing..your posts always make me happy! I never thought much about traveling to Sri Lanka but this makes me want to go there asap. So interesting and colorful. Can't wait to read about the rest of the journey!

    1. Thanks so much, Sri Lanka has been off the tourist radar for a while but it's all there waiting. Worth the effort and we will be going back.

    2. Loved this post! I am going to Sri Lanka for work, and have been on holiday before too, but always stay around the Galle Face area so googled for places to eat in Colombo and landed on your post and it made me laugh out loud. Thanks! I blog at www.mylifeinsin.com and would be happy to offer advice in return for places I know! Thanks again, totally loved this post and my other half is checking out places you wrote about for our trip back next week :)

  2. You guys are so intrepid! We should come on a holiday with you one day. The food looks GREAT, I love hoppers. I hope we get some cat/dog piccies in your upcoming posts.

    1. You'd have to bring a tiny backpack! Lots of critter shots coming don't you worry.

  3. Good to hear you enjoyed your visit and the food in Sri Lanka. I've lived in Sri Lanka for nine years - it's well worth a visit, as you discovered, and the food is incredible! I'm lucky enough to have married a Sri Lankan whose mother taught me her recipes. There are a few wonderful dishes you may have missed out on, but perhaps it'll give you incentive to go for another visit? :)

    1. In ten days we got a solid feel for street food/hotel options but we get the feeling much more magic happens in kitchens at home - we envy you!

    2. " we get the feeling much more magic happens in kitchens at home" I'm pretty sure this is true for every culture. :) And yes, it's certainly true in Sri Lanka.

      I've been in Sri Lanka long enough to have many many meals made by Sri Lankans, including my mother in law - everything from every day meals to wedding feasts to grooms feasts to festivals. I'll admit to not liking some things (mainly things like brain or stomach that goes against my western ingrained sensibilities), but the vast majority is among the best food in the world. You've barely scratched the surface. :)

      Still, I'm happy for you that you got to experience real Sri Lankan food. Not enough people get that opportunity. :)

  4. Loving this post!!!! Looking forward to the other ones! =)
    I have the string hoppers with orange sugar and coconut! We call it putu mayam back in Singapore...only a few more sleeps to going home to such yummy breakfast food again!!

    1. Hoppers as a sweetie for breakfast - yum! We will get around to the Singapore food soon, don't you worry.

  5. i trust u guys have seen peter kuruvita's show "my sri lanka" on sbs

    1. We have watched a couple of episodes since we got back and loved seeing some of the places we went to, although his food is quite different to what we found on the street.

  6. Great post! Looks like you had a great time. Took the family to Colombo and Kandy about 10 years ago, and had a great time but transport was difficult with three young children. Remember the "hotels" fondly. Had some insanely cheap G&Ts in one place in Kandy - about $1 a pop. And of course lots of beer to keep cool. Thanks for your postings.

    1. Thanks Stan, we head up to Kandy on the next instalment, there was a few cool ones had at 'The Pub'. Admire your courage to do it with kiddies, we met a few families on the road and they seemed to be going OK. A great experience for them.

  7. Great writing, awesome pictures! I will be in Colombo tonight, can't wait to try all that food.

  8. Really its fact that Sri Lanka tour, it's places, food are really tasty & heart touching. I also want to take the snap over some visiting places so please guide me as tour operator. If you want to take the scenario on Budget tours in Sri Lanka then just move on that.

  9. I think your discovered Colombo City better then me being a Sri Lankan Citizen, GOOD JOB :)

  10. Reminds me of my recent trip to sri Lanka. Best family holiday I've had so far: the food is just sublime. The food in the pictures reminds me.of the food we had during the Kandy perahera.

  11. Came across this while randomly browsing the internet for local food guide in Colombo. I have to say, I am thrilled with your information, and cannot wait to visit Sri Lanka for the very first time in 20 days! Thanks for a detailed, casual and honest post of Colombo street treats. Cheers!

    1. Thanks Shernaza. We would dearly love to get back, happy travels and enjoy!

  12. "... it's bloody Nestle that we've grown to hate over the years, they're insidious and they're everywhere" So so so TRUE. and SOOO annoying. worst is that now they have got into TEA. can you beat it, Nes-tea in Sri Lanka?? and more and more its hard to find a authentic 'looong' ie poured out from a jug to mug, 'real' tea. Hate tea bags too. Sigh.

  13. "...it looked like cooked mung beans with coconut sambal on top."
    Yes, its mung beans. Its called mung ata ( beans/ seeds) so you could have asked for it by name!
    its just soaked and then boiled so it pops a bit. what is on top is a bit of red rice, and grated coconut. not sambal. no spices. they would have given you a bit of chille and onions on the side. its a early breakfast dish. so it is not available later in the day.
    LOVE your food blog and the 'normal' shots of Sri Lanka :)

    1. Thanks GN for the explanation, we loved that dish to bits. Classic regret for not getting it when we saw it. Thanks for the blog love too, we try and show the places we go in all their lovely realness, not how the brochures look sometimes!


Thanks for your comment joy - please keep your musings happy - if you want to complain about a restaurant please do it on a restaurant review site (or your own blog) - we're all about celebrating cultural diversity and the great eats that come along with it :-)

Our ethics: We pay for all our own meals and travel (though sometimes Mum shouts us).