Breakfast in Sri Lanka: Island’s Favorite Dishes
I remember in the initial days of our relationship, we decided to have a breakfast date. Not brunch. Not late breakfast. Just a real morning breakfast. We went to one of the few places in Colombo having early breakfasts and that was a hearty meal. The tropical sun decided to rise late that day so we could walk back to our place, sharing childhood memories. That was beautiful! It also made us realize the importance of breakfast. Having a morning meal helps you plan and execute your day better. Skip your meals and knowingly or not, you’ll feel bland and lazy. So today, we decided to write about what’s for breakfast in Sri Lanka. Our local dining table features many breakfast dishes, some sophisticated, others simple.
Here’s a brief look at breakfast dishes from the island.
1. Kiribath (milk rice)
Pictured here is Kiribath cooked with white kekulu rice and red kekulu rice at Upali’s by Nawaloka in Colombo
We absolutely love milk rice–or, kiribath. It’s a favorite, and also a ceremonial dish cooked during all auspicious times. Think of the first reading of a child, first day of your job, first of January and so on. For the classic dish, we use kekulu rice–white kekulu or red kekulu. We cook the rice with creamy coconut milk until the rice turns soggy, like a pulp. This creamy pudding-like rice is then laid flat on banana leaves and cut into diagonal pieces.
Depending on your choice, you can go savoury or sweet. A popular option is to fare lunu miris with milk rice. Lunu miris is a spicy relish made with chopped onions, Maldive fish, dried red chili and a hint of lime and salt. Katta sambol is my favourite. It’s purely red chili made into a paste using a pestle and a mortar with a hint of lime and salt.
But that’s not all! A beautifully red spicy chicken curry goes well with milk rice. At the luxe hotel Walawwa, we once had our milk rice with a creamy yellow cashew nut curry. It was phenomenal. Home delivery outlets in Colombo do milk rice with a delicious pork curry, oozing with fat.
For those with a sweet tooth, try kitul palm jaggery with milk rice. Kitul is a type of palm and grows abundantly in the low wetlands of Sri Lanka. During Sinhala and Tamil New Year in Sri Lanka, we enjoy it with kevum or a sweet banana. Kavum is caramelized rice flour batter fried in oil, into a perfectly round shape. Another popular side dish is seeni sambol–caramelized onion made into a beautiful condiment with Maldive fish flakes. Some of us mix a little bit of chili flakes into it to add subtle hints of spice.
2. Mung kiribath
Mung kiribath is the same as normal kiribath, but with mung beans. There’s a perfect balance of mung beans and kekulu rice in it. For me, I prefer mung kiribath more. Because of the taste mung beans bring, it’s best devoured with spicy lunu miris or katta sambol.
3. Imbul kiribath
Ahhhh! The love of everyone who prefers their kirbath sweet. Imbul kiribath is a folded kirbath patty stuffed with caramelized scraped coconut. You don’t need a side dish for this sweet bliss, but we love a banana or two.
Also read: Street food in Sri Lanka
4. Aappa or Appam (hoppers)
Aappa (in Sinhalse) or Appam (in Tamil) is a bowl-like snack made with pancake batter. It’s mushy, soft and meatier in the center while the edges are thin and crispy. Appam in Northern Sri Lanka, however, is more like hoppers you find in Kerala in South India. The edges are less crispy.
There are four types of hoppers in Sri Lanka. Plain hoppers are best enjoyed with lunu miris. Add an egg in the middle and you get the egg hopper. The sweet options include jaggery hoppers (made with melted kitul palm jaggery) and milk hoppers. The latter are beautifully creamy and keep you coming back for more.
Some people also prepare honey hoppers with caramelized sugar. With the rise of the chick cafe culture and the laidback tropical life in many parts of the island, the humble hopper has gone through quite a journey now. In many beach shacks and chic cafes along the coastline in Sri Lanka, you will come across hoppers topped with stripes of juicy bacon. Others have sliced bananas with oozing nutella. Try Dewmini Roti Shop in Mirissa or SkinnyTom’s Deli in Unawatuna for the modern hopper fix.
5. Idi aappa (string hoppers)
Thin and beautifully-delicate, string hoppers are steamed rice flour nets in a flat disk-like shape. They are a popular Sri Lankan breakfast item in our household. We press the rice flour using a special noodle or idiyappam press. Long and thin noodles are squeezed in a circular pattern onto a mat. Traditionally, these mats were made from eco-friendly veval plants. After the noodle mats are ready, we steam them for about 10 minutes.
Once done, string hoppers are best enjoyed with kiri hodi (a mildly spiced coconut milk curry) or a punchy red chicken curry. I love mine with a yellow potato curry or lentils curry cooked in creamy coconut milk. Pol sambol is added for some extra spice.
6. Pol roti (coconut roti)
Another much-loved breakfast dish in Sri Lanka, pol roti is made with flour and grated coconut flakes. The flat roti is best enjoyed when they are just off the pan, hot and crispy. Nathan and I both love ours spicy, with a beautiful chicken curry oozing with oil and lunu miris. My father, however, prefers his roti sweet and enjoys them with sugar or seeni sambol.
7. Kade paan or roast paan
Yes! In Sri Lanka, we have paan (or bread) for breakfast, like many other countries. But we don’t often toast it. We take slices of bread, usually bought from small bakeries, namely kade paan or roast paan and eat them with a curry or pol sambol. As always, chicken curry is favorite. But it’s common to spot paan with a thick lentils curry or a potato curry. I enjoy mine with a tempered potato fry too.
For levariya, you need to prepare the string hopper dough and press the dough into a banana leaf using a string hopper press. We then place a tablespoon full of caramelized coconut mix (made with scraped coconut, melted jaggery, some cardamom powder and little salt) in the center and fold the banana leaf. Edges are sealed properly and steamed for about 20 minutes for a fresh levariya. This tastes sublime with a freshly brewed Sri Lankan plain tea. For my mother, who works as a teacher in the school in Sri Lanka, levariya is often what she has for breakfast.
9. Sri Lankan pancakes
Sri Lankan pancakes are basically folded crepes stuffed with sweet coconut filling. They are also a very popular snack for morning tea (around 10AM) but we also have it for breakfast in Sri Lanka.
Dosa is a popular breakfast food in Sri Lanka prepared by the Tamil community. I remember when I was young, my father bought them from the nearby shop for breakfast. Dosa is made with fermented batter, which is made with rice flour and black gram flour. Sri Lankan dosa, usually Jaffna style dosa, is different to the South Indian dosa. In Sri Lanka, they are thicker and less crisper. Dosas are best enjoyed with sambar, a lentil and mix vegetable broth. Usually, okra or ladies finger, golden pumpkins, eggplant and tomatoes are the most commonly used veggies in sambar. (Pictured here is dosa from South India)
11. Ulundu vadai
Usually when we order dosa in a restaurant or sitting in a hole-in-the-wall bustling with sounds and smells, we don’t forget to order a vadai or two either. Ulundu vadai resembles doughnuts, but are completely different in texture, smell and taste. For ulundu vadai, we use urad dhal. They are soaked and grinded to make the dough. Then we add tiny pieces of red or green chili, curry leaves, coriander leaves and/or sliced onions. Once deep-fried, ulundu vadai are best eaten when they remain hot. They are crispy outside, soft inside and golden brown in colour. Have them with a spicy sambal and a warm cup of ginger plain tea! Bliss. Also simple pleasures in life. More about Sri Lankan tea below.
12. Sri Lankan tea
I’m a huge fan of desi chai (creamy milk boiled with tea leaves, sugar, some ginger, and cardamom). In Sri Lanka, we do our tea in a different way. Usually, we have three types of tea. For plain tea, we add tea water (tea leaves/tea dust are soaked in hot water) into the cup according to our preference of colour, taste and strength of the tea we prefer. My mother prefers it mild red while my father and I love it black or deep brown. Then we add sugar and it’s simple, here’s a warm cuppa for some energy or new life.
Sometimes we add pieces of ginger to the tea cup or soak ginger in the tea water to prepare ginger tea. Mornings in Sri Lanka don’t begin without a cup of milk tea. We add a little milk to the plain tea. It’s usually milk powder and not fresh milk.
We aren’t heavy coffee drinkers. At least not all of us. But Sri Lankan coffee does exist. I will always remember the palpable taste of the local Harishchandra coffee my mother seldom made me as a kid. She adds milk powder to make it creamy and thick. Similarly, variations of South Indian filter coffee or kaafi (which is boiled milk mixed with finely grinded, brewed coffee) is available in many hole-in-the-wall eateries run by the Tamil community. It’s frothier than the cuppa you get at a Sinhalese household.
14. Tin paal tea
Love it or hate it, but extremely sweet tin paal tea is here to stay. In many parts of the island populated by the Tamil and the Muslim community, tin paal tea is popular. It’s milk tea but made with condensed milk. We’ve had cups of them in the bustling Pettah market. We’ve gulped them down despite the excessive sweat notes by the beach in Jaffna or inside a morning joint filled with the aroma of fresh bakery goods. In Colombo, we highly recommend you try it at Upali’s by Nawaloka.
15. Kola kenda
Kola Kenda is a healthy breakfast drink in Sri Lanka. It’s made with coconut milk, some boiled rice, and extract of the green leaves or herbs. We use green leaves such as gotukola, mukunuwenna or katuwel batu for kola kenda. It’s however not a juice, and has somewhat the texture of a Chinese congee. It’s pulpy and thick. Historically, kola kenda was a homemade drink and rarely available in shops. But now, you’d come across many makeshift stalls selling this herbal porridge.
16. Rice & Curry
I’m sorry…what? Rice…? For breakfast?
Yes. Yes. And yes. There’s this saying in Sinhala: Udetath bath, dawaltath bath, retath bath. It means we eat rice for every three meals. And that is mostly true. Now, however, if you find rice & curry in breakfast joints, it’s mostly red rice with two or three curries. A sprat fry with coconut sambol or boiled or fried egg is very popular with morning rice. There’s white rice as well. Sometimes, a simple, mildly-spiced lentils curry with dry fish fry and coconut sambol make for a sublime breakfast.
17. Boiled tapioca
Tapioca is the root starch which comes from the cassava plant. Boiled tapioca is a popular breakfast food in Sri Lanka. It tastes delicious with lunu miris, coconut sambol or as always, a spicy chicken curry.
18. Sweet potato or bathala
We also boil sweet potato–bathala in Sinhalese. There are two types of bathala we find in Sri Lanka, rathu (red) bathala and kaha (yellow) bathala. My mother is a huge fan of boiled bathala and often eats them with some scraped coconut.
19. Sri lankan omelette
Like many other ways of preparing eggs, we also have our own way. Sri lankan omelette is fluffy and has crispy edges. It’s usually fried until the egg yolk is completely dead and there’s no juicy part left in it, so I’m not a huge fan. But it’s a filling omelette made with sliced red chili, onions, curry leaves and other spices, perfect for quick brunch. The omelette is folded before it goes on to the plate.
For idli, we use a fermented batter made with rice flour and black lentils. This is steamed into a round shape. In Sri Lanka, our idli is thick and doesn’t have the soft, delicate texture and the freshness South Indian idlis often have. But idlis are a popular breakfast food in Sri Lanka, especially in Tamil households. Pictured here is Idli from South India!
21. Aloo bonda
Nathan and I have fond memories devouring aloo bonda for breakfast with a cup of hot milk tea at a hole in the wall before our work. Popular at eateries run by Tamils or those located in Tamil neighborhoods in Sri Lanka, aloo bondas are delicious, ball-shaped, fried fritters stuffed with spicy potato mix.
22. Steamed legumes
Yes! These are absolutely popular for breakfast here in our little island. Some much loved options included steamed mung beans or steamed cowpea with grated coconut or a spicy lunu miris. Steamed kadala or chickpea is eaten with grated coconut. Sometimes, kadala is steamed and tempered with a little oil, chili flakes and curry leaves. It is my favourite and it’s delicious!
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