Food Culture, Veganism, and a Big Appetite in Sri Lanka
How much rice and curry is too much rice and curry? Is there a dangerous amount?
These two questions were constantly on my mind during my three months in Sri Lanka. I spent just over 90 days following my appetite and consuming absolutely everything vegan in my path. Despite always having a mucky smile on my face and a top trouser button undone, this wasn’t a purely gluttonous adventure—this was research.
I delved into this fascinating country and, in the name of veganism, ate all of the vegan food I could. For research purposes. Obviously. Aside from discovering loads of incredible food I also wanted to learn about the real Sri Lanka and everything that might influence life as a vegan on the island.
To get this authentic insight I knew a guidebook tour would definitely not do the trick. I set out to live, breathe and most importantly eat like a (vegan) local. These are some of the things I learned;
There is no vegan food but lots of food is vegan
Life as a vegan in Sri Lanka is great. That’s what you probably read this to find out, right? With that being said you won’t find vegan food on the island as the term is barely recognised. Nowadays you can say vegan in most eateries and you’ll be pointed towards plant-based goodness, but in Sri Lanka you’ll be met with blank stares.
The food isn’t vegan, it doesn’t have any labels or a special section, it just doesn’t contain any animal products. This took a while to get used to.
All you have to do is ask
Veganism is not understood but the concept of a dietary requirement most definitely is. As an island of deeply religious cultures abstaining from certain foods is understood and respected. For that reason all you have to do is ask. But, instead of asking for vegan food you’ll need to ask if dishes contain animal products or list foods you don’t eat.
English is widely spoken and that makes these culinary conversations easy and actually enjoyable. It was a good way to meet the locals and the chefs would quite often come and show you there was no meat in the dishes.
Rice and curry is the top dog
Food is varied and diverse but no matter where you are rice and curry is the top dog, and for good reason. With a mountain of fluffy white rice, a constantly changing selection of curries, some sambol, and some broken poppadoms it really is the staple of Sri Lankan cuisine.
After eating this for almost 3 meals a day I rarely came across the same tasting curry twice. Everything I had from local eateries was fresh, affordable and really bloody tasty.
How can you eat so much but feel so good?
My capacity really was put to the test and I’m a big eater. Throughout my travels I have never seen portions of rice so big — they were monstrous. And on top of this a lot of eateries would come and serve you more as you began to finish. Never one to say no, particularly to exquisite vegan curries, I ended up consuming a seriously shocking (or impressive) amount of food each day.
Despite the excessive eating after 3 months I didn’t gain any weight and I actually felt very healthy. The curries were heavily spiced and flavoursome but you would never feel overly full or bloated. Even in the hot and sometimes humid climate the dishes didn’t weigh you down. Huge quantities aside Sri Lankan food is largely vegetable based and pretty healthy so if you add in all the exotic fruit available you can maintain a good diet.
Money makes a big difference, especially as a vegan
To me everything tastes better at a good price. I don’t know about you but I’m immediately sceptical of food I have to pay more than average for. This was never an issue in Sri Lanka. As long as the food is local it’s astoundingly cheap and served to generous quantities. Get yourselves to a local joint and you can eat handsomely for £1. Want to eat your own body weight in perfectly ripe fruit? That’ll be £2.
Cheap food also has another benefit to us veggies. Across the island the base of most meals is vegan and meat is added at an extra cost. This means not only is vegan food remarkably cheaper it’s also kept and cooked separately from the dead stuff.
It’s all homegrown
The island is blessed by being geographically diverse and all the fruit, vegetables and spices you could ever want grow naturally. Very little food is imported and you can really taste that most dishes are fresh, handmade and use local products. It also means that outside of the big cities the main food available is seasonal with no GM tasteless fruit sold throughout the year. You still have the beautiful anticipation of waiting for your favourites to become available and that first mouthful after months… man it’s good!
Food makes the culture and culture makes the food
As you travel through the country you’ll notice the food changes from region to region. Not to the same extent as India but Sri Lanka is a small, culturally diverse island that has developed into a culinary melting pot. The main ethnic groups are the Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamils, and Moors of Arab descent. On top of this the Dutch and English colonial years have also left their influences. Each culture has distinct styles of cooking, unique flavours and dishes so you have something new to try no matter where you are.
Religion makes a big difference
Over 70% of Sri Lankans identify as Buddhist, 12% Hindu and 9% Muslim and as you can imagine this really influences food culture.
Despite Buddhist teachings in Sri Lanka very few are vegans compared to other Buddhist countries. Their interpretation is that no animal should be killed directly for them but eating animals someone else has killed is fine…
Although I saw and heard a lot of contradictory things, most monks chose a life of few material goods, living from the generosity of others. In these circumstances monks are instructed to eat anything that is given to them as long as it wasn’t killed directly for them.
This Buddhist tradition changes from country to country but most monks expressed respect and admiration for people choosing a pure form of veganism.
Hindu culture on the other hand has a lot more similarities with vegan morals. The majority live by a Pure Veg diet which for the most part is vegan however it can still use honey or milk products like ghee. In Pure Veg eateries you’ll find the widest selection of vegan dishes so you know you’re in for a good time!
Both religions have hugely symbolic importance for animals, particularly cows and elephants, and you’ll notice this around the island. Whilst you still do see animals exploited for tourism or entertainment the situation is a lot better than some surrounding countries.
Tourist vs local food
Online you may see travellers complaining about the food and service in Sri Lanka but I’m fairly sure I know the reason for this. Food on the island takes two different forms; tourist food and local food. I’ve not come across a single person who embraced local food and didn’t absolutely love it. Many of the travellers who stuck to touristy areas, hotel breakfasts, and international options were not satisfied. But that’s not real Sri Lankan food. Look for an eatery busy with locals and prepare to be blown away!
Don’t judge a book by its cover
This is generally my rule when I’m on the road, but it’s so important in Sri Lanka. I’m sure there are some good swanky restaurants around the country but I spent my time in all the places Lonely Planet would probably advise against. From cows walking through the kitchen to bugs falling off the ceiling, the best places I ate were… rough around the edges to say the least.
Throughout the whole of my 3 months, I ate in a touristy restaurant once and I can honestly say it was my only bad food experience in Sri Lanka.
Would I go back to Sri Lanka? In a heartbeat.
Once you move away from the crowds there is so much more to Sri Lanka than meets the eye. The culture is beautifully intricate and vegan the food is plentiful if you’re looking in the right places. Just go with the local flow and pack some loose fitting trousers.