Being a vegetarian in Sri Lanka

When I decided to go to Sri Lanka, I didn’t know a lot about the country. I had previously been to South India several times and had a pretty good idea of what that is like, so I thought this little island just off the tip of India would surely be a lot like that. As a vegetarian foodie, I was expecting a treat. But when I started researching a bit before the trip, I found so many blogs and reviews saying that the food in Sri Lanka is no good, mostly bland and uninspired, and that a vegetarian in Sri Lanka will struggle. With this in mind, I was a bit worried.

But this could not have been more wrong, Sri Lanka turned out to be one of my favorite food destinations, with all places we went to being able to serve up delicious vegetarian meals. Every night gave us the opportunity to try a new and exciting vegetable. Now, I’m terrible at taking pictures of food, something that seems to come naturally for so many. My excuse is that I’m always really hungry at dinnertime, so when I come up for air and think of the camera, the plates are mostly empty.

Eat at your homestay!

There’s nothing like a home cooked meal at the end of a long day of adventuring, and we took the opportunity to have dinner and breakfasts at several of our homestays. It was always delicious, and our hosts really made an effort to show us the best of Sri Lankan cuisine. Our homestay in Tangalle, that I can’t seem to stop raving about, was the best of it all, serving some of the best curries I’ve ever had. Maybe in part because the cook was a vegetarian herself. Most nights I had to take out the phone at some point to read the Wikipedia page of the vegetable I had just tried for the first time. And our hosts were always amused, one “oh, you’ve never had wood apple before?” or “you just take regular bitter gourd and fry it with chili!” after the other.

Sign for Roti hut in Tangalle

What is there to eat?

In the evening, and sometimes at lunch, most restaurants serve “curry”, which is like an Indian thali. Lots of rice, and lots of different bowls of other things that you can’t even begin to guess what they are. We never came across a restaurant that didn’t have a vegetarian version of this. Generally, most restaurants had several vegetarian options, even along the coast where most people seem to eat a lot of fish.

Another favorite was koththu, or kottu, or another spelling almost like that, depending on which sign you read. It’s a lot like fried rice, but with sliced coconut roti in the mix, making it more creamy and filling.

For breakfast, there was a lot of roti with daal, fried eggs, and my favorite: the egg hopper! It’s like a thin bowl-shaped pancake with a very soft boiled egg in the middle. Generally, there were so many eggs and so much bread that we couldn’t finish all of it.

What about vegans?

I’m not a vegan, so I’m not sure of this, but it seemed as breakfasts are largely vegan if you avoid the eggs. The coconut rotis and daals are vegan, and the hoppers are made from coconut milk and rice flour. Now, I’m sure there are lots of recipes to these, so always ask to make sure. The evening curries we had were also all vegan. Generally, dairy and eggs aren’t used that much it seems.

Are you planning a trip to Sri Lanka? See our two week itinerary for inspiration!

Vegetarian curry served on lotus leaf

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