A Food Tour of Colombo, Sri Lanka

I had spent several days in the Maldives, and while I find the food at the Park Hyatt Hadahaa to be quite good there’s only a limited about that’s authentic regional cuisine.

I don’t have much desire to spend time in the Maldives capital for traditional Maldivian food (I admit, I miss the original Battutta’s at the Park Hyatt that has been replaced by the Island Grill) but especially now that I live in Austin I didn’t want to give the opportunity for at least Sri Lankan food a miss. A one night stop in Colombo on the way home made good sense to me. And I’d spend it trying local dishes.

Previous installments:

  1. Introduction, overview, and costs
  2. Star Alliance first class and business class lounges, LAX
  3. Etihad First Class, Los Angles – Abu Dhabi.. the 3rd Longest Flight in the World!
  4. Premier Inn, Abu Dhabi International Airport
  5. Etihad’s new business class lounge, Abu Dhabi
  6. Etihad Business Class, Abu Dhabi – Male
  7. Male Domestic Lounge and Maldivian, Male – Kooddoo, plus boat transfer to the Park Hyatt
  8. Park Hyatt Hadahaa, Maldives
  9. Park Hyatt Maldives Menus and Pricing
  10. Boat Transfer and Maldivian Domestic Flight from the Park Hyatt Maldives to Male
  11. Male Airport Lounge and (Alone In) Emirates First Class, Male – Colombo
  12. Hilton Colombo

Since I didn’t have much time, and I’m not an expert on either Sri Lankan food or getting around the capital, I decided to hire a guide for a few hours on my day in Colombo.

I started with someone I found at WithLocals.com who specializes in giving food tours. But after setting up the reservation with him, and even prepaying for the day, he unilaterally cancelled on me. Something about having to leave the country that day.

So I reached out to Blue Lanka Tours which was happy to customize exactly what I was looking for. For $75 they provided a car, driver, and a guide and the price included all the food we would eat as well. (Unquestionably we didn’t come close to eating our $75 worth, but having someone along familiar with the places and the food, whom we could talk to about it and who could suggest places to go, just helped us do things so much for efficiently on such a short visit.) They’re highly recommended.

We started off the late morning at the Pettah Floating Market that’s just minutes from the Hilton.

There you can buy any pirated DVD you wish for $1. Do people still have DVD players?

More importantly, there was food to try — simple ingredients, eaten as the locals do.

I think my absolute favorite way to eat fruits and vegetables, now, is covered in sugar and hot sauce.

We stopped for some amazing kottu, made of roti, vegetables, egg, meat, and spices.

We enjoyed it in the open air courtyard, with some falooda (which I’d previously only had at an Iranian cafe in Mumbai).

From there we left the floating market.

We didn’t stop at the restaurant promising there’d be no nearby desert (probably more of a marketing position in the mideast, perhaps).

I’m always intrigued by the adoption of Che Guevara symbols, and as we walked through a parking lot I found one juxtaposed with an a bald eagle in American red, white and blue. I do not think the driver understood the mixed messages here.

Sort of like the Argentine t-shirt that reads, “I have a Che Guevara t-shirt and I don’t know why”.

Time to stop for some deep fried street snacks!

    Just like the bulk section at Whole Foods!

On to some desserts to try.

These were amazing although probably too sweet.

The round yellow balls were made of chick peas, the yellow squares had a short bread consistency. The orange cake was the sweetest, most honey dripping thing I think I’ve eaten.

Finally, a well-rounded Sri Lankan vegetarian meal in a proper sit down restaurant.

Content, we made our way back to the Hilton to pack up for the journey home.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Seems like those places you ate at were really popular with the locals…. Not…. Every tour company pays a small amount to keep stuff like that open. Reality.

  2. Any idea what would make for a vegetarian hotel? No leather chairs, maybe?

  3. You paid 75 dollars for what you could do for free by simply being a normal tourist and exploring? You travel in such a sad sheltered way sir.

  4. I would never hire, can’t afford and never need for guides or experts. When we were in Huahin, Thailand, we took a tuktuk form the HIlton to Floating market, it was somewhere where they were hardly any cars, on return, we found no cars, taxis or tuktuks, there were some local guys with bikes standing and talking at a corner, we ask them if one of them can take us to Hilton and we would pay 150 bhat. They had hard time understanding Hilton first but later a guy knew it and my wife and I rode on his thin bike for half an hour and we got to our Hotel, hahaha. it was so much fun, I even kept taking pictures during the ride .

  5. @Tyler, no, I couldn’t have done this for free.

    * I needed transportation, that wasn’t free, that was included here
    * I needed food, that was the point and wouldn’t have been free, that was included here

    What I bought for the difference in price between those items and $75 was:

    * the plan where to go
    * explanations of the background of what I was eating
    * a much more efficient way to do it, if i was meandering around on my own as a tourist i wouldn’t have been able to try all of this in about 3 hours.

    That you ‘judge’ this is pretty sad, I think… Of course you keep reading and keep reading here, keep commenting negatively, and that’s the saddest of all.

  6. @Gary, “probably more of a marketing position in the mideast, perhaps”, FYI, that part of the world (including the Indian sub-continent) is called South Asia, not Middle East. The deserts in your picture are all typical Indian deserts. Not sure how you missed them in your trip(s) to Mumbai.

    @Christian, In that part of the world, a restaurant is many times referred to as a hotel; that is vegetarian hotel (restaurant) for you. Local ‘Communication Gap Adjusters’ are needed to figure out what the English language words mean in other parts of the world.

  7. @Ram I think you misunderstand, although I may have been unclear. Saying that a place doesn’t have a desert would be more compelling in the mideast than south asia — it was a play on “desert” versus “dessert”

  8. Thanks for the insight. My new thing to learn for the day. I personally find this really interesting, and any similar whirlwind food tours would be most welcome. Also, Sri Lanka is moving up the list as other places are scratched off, so the more perspective the better. To keep my string of stupid questions alive, is there a way to determine in advance whether a hotel is a hotel (restaurant) or a hotel (hotel)?

  9. Practically speaking, it sounds like you visited three food stalls and a restaurant, sampling a pretty straight-forward variety of Sri Lankan food. I’m sure you could have done it a good deal cheaper by hopping into the Che Guevara three-wheeler and asking the driver to take you to a market. In my experience, Sri Lankans are exceptionally interested in discussing food with foreigners and recommending places (one cab driver we hired insisted on stopping and a string of fruit stands so we could try each of six or seven different kinds of bananas, for instance). If you derived any insight into the foodways of Sri Lanka I don’t really see that knowledge reflected in the article.

    It’s beyond me, however, why there’s a value judgement attached to your method of travel. Those trying to score on the “I’m coolest traveler” scale are never, as it turns out, the coolest travelers.

    Anyway, to the point. From today’s NY Times:

    Kottu House Captures the (Good) Spirit of Sri Lanka


  10. I honestly think it is ridiculous that people are making comments on how Gary spent his time or money while travelling.

  11. Agreed. Gary’s commenters are the most entertaining. No one cares about pointing out typos more than Gary’s readers. Which I guess means they read all the words to find them.

    I miss the food in Sri Lanka, we spent two weeks there exploring small towns and the food was incredible. But haven’t been back since (feb 2012) and I’ve never seen kottu anywhere else. Have you seen it in southern India?

  12. Gary, you ever been to Shakthi in Alexandria? Their kottu is darn good and your picture is making me want to head over there after work…

  13. Food tours have become one of my favorite things to do away from home. Yes I can take myself to the market, but I would not know the history or what to try. Not to mention some of the food tours have taken me to some “hole in the wall” places that I would have never run across and tried.

  14. @Christian, That is a tough call. However the place that Gary visited has a sign ‘Ajantha Hotel & Ajantha Rest Inn’, So, it is a hotel with a restaurant. Western chain hotels would be using the standard terminology, but the local ones will have to be quizzed. One way to find out would be to see their ad or their signage to see what they offer, food or a room.

    If Gary wants to make the best use of his time and opts for a guided tour of the restaurants with food samplings in a new city, that is his call. Why are we making that a topic of discussion?

  15. @Ram – Thanks. Also, you’re absolutely right about readers getting all weird about how Gary spends his time and money.

  16. I’m glad Gary enjoyed himself> As a Sri Lankan, I know how varied our food can be, and each region can produce startlingly different flavors. That being said, while most tourists play it safe and try the more touristy spots, I would always encourage someone to try some of the classics, including elephant House. Stopping for short eats (an asian play on British High tea) on the way to the mountain city of Kandy is pretty key. i really miss all the delicious food, and being in Texas there aren’t any options for me. If you ever go to sri lanka, don’t miss:

    Kottu roti,
    Pani aapa (A hopper stuffed with honey…possibly an homage to the Dutch stroppwafel)
    Chinese rolls (imagine a crepe stuffed with curried fish, potatoes and egg, rolled up, breaded and then fried)
    Pattice (our version of an empanada)
    Egg hoppers (a crispy basket of flour with a fried egg in the middle)
    and of course the multitude of fruits and vegetables available (Jackfruit and rambutan being personal favorites).

  17. I’d love to have that kottu. The sweets look good too. They don’t drink milk with the sweets over there to temper down the sweetness (like cookies & milk).

    you covered a lot of ground in 3 hours. It was definitely worth the $75 you paid. I’d do the same so I’m bookmarking the tour company.

    I just wish there were more such tours available around the world.. I’d rather spend my energy observing the location rather than figuring out how to get to the next place.

  18. I had a one-week trip to Sri Lanka last month, felt enjoyable to visit a local tea shop and had dinner on the beach. Good to know about Sri Lanka’s history and cultures that time. Love it

  19. I did a same kind of tour which is known as tuk tuk safari in Kandy, Sri Lanka. They offered everything just for a very low price, it was around USD 50 a I remember. Checkout their site for more info http://www.getgotours.com

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