The Best Place to Try the Top 8 Sri Lanka Street Food is Pettah in Colombo
Pettah is Colombo’s must-visit market bazaar: chaotic, crowded and colourful. This loud, potpourri of ethnicities is also the best place to sample some of Sri Lanka Food, street-style. You cannot come to Pettah and not be tempted by all the different types of food on offer in the many stalls and carts. Here are some of our favourite snacks and a quick guide to the best places to try them. Take in the sounds, smells and sights and live local life at its most intense.
You can find these orange-brown fried delicacies scattered throughout the streets of Pettah. Whether sold from portable carts right outside the Red Mosque, or retailed out of a brick-and-mortar shop, Pettah is a reliable producer of quality samosas. Chicken samosas are by far the most popular, but you can also find beef and vegetable versions. There’s something for everyone. A fail-safe option for some guaranteed, spiffingly good samosas is right next to the Red Mosque, but there’s plenty of choices all over Pettah.
Achcharu is what happens when you take fruit, cut it all up, add spicy and sweet flavours and mix it together. Fruit can include anything from, but not limited to, pineapple, mango, wood-apple, and local favourites such as ambarella and guava. Achcharu sellers are easy to spot by their colourful carts with glass windows through which trays of multi-hued fruit gleam at you temptingly. This can be a rather spicy snack, so if your tolerance is low pick one of the less spicy versions. Have some ice-cold water with you just in case. We like the carts around the Pettah Clock Tower for an unparalleled selection of pickled things and an unusual flavour palette that ranges from tangy sour to spicy sweet.
Khan Clock Tower . N.H.M. Abdul Cader Road . Pettah . Colombo 11
3. Isso Vade
You can’t come to Sri Lanka and not try a vade, a crispy lentil-cracker concoction, found across the country in little carts and roadside shops. Pettah is known for selling nearly every variety of vade known to man. A visit to Galle Face close by is never complete without some of the specialist prawn and crab vades on sale along the promenade.
Nana’s . Galle Face Green . Fort . Colombo 01
4. Cassava & Manioc Chips
The street’s answer to Lays and Doritos at a fraction of the price. these hugely popular chips sell like hot cakes in Pettah, and are usually made right next to the carts that sell them. They are slightly harder and crunchier in texture compared to regular potato chips and are lightly spiced with a smattering of chilli, salt and pepper. One of the best spots for cassava chips is right at the bottom of Second Cross St. at a cart run by a couple of guys who’ve been doing a roaring trade for years or go to any of the JK gram stores where you can sample any of the fried, spicy delights from the displays and pick your favourite in any quantity you prefer, by weighing it on a little scale on the counter. A 100g of any of the bites should come up to about 60lkr.
JK Grams . P1/6, Malwatta Rd. Colombo 11. many others around Pettah
5. Short Eats
The name says it all. A ’short eat’ is generally considered to be a light snack of vaguely Portuguese origin. While these can include anything from pastries to cakes, the most popular ones on the streets are patties, rolls, and cutlets. A patty is a fried flour dumpling, while rolls and cutlets are crumb fried. They are usually stuffed with a spicy mixture of tuna, onion and potatoes. Norris Hotel - which is not a hotel but a bakery – at Cross Street has a good selection.
Norris Hotel & Bakery . 10, 1st Cross Street . Pettah . Colombo 11
6. Bombay Sweets
If your tongue and mouth is burning from too many spicy street snacks, then all you have to do is walk into a shop marked ‘Bombay Sweet’ to grab some delectable sweet snacks which will melt in your mouth and dissolve all your hot troubles away. Try the musket for something nutty and chewy, or the barfi for something a little more crumbly, or jelebi pretzel shaped sugar-coated fried crisps
You have plenty of places to choose from, Pettah has what feels like 254 establishments with the name ‘Bombay Sweet’ plastered across its sign. Colombo as a whole probably has several more. Every single one of these outlets will probably claim to be ‘the original Bombay Sweet’ … It’s like a snack and dessert bar in one, they sell juices, sweets and small snacks. Our favourite Bombay Sweets is located opposite the Red Mosque. It eschews a flashy sign, opting instead for minimalist silver lettering on black fabric. A picture of the patriarch, the store is run by an old Bohrah family, hangs above the cashier. They sell a wide selection of famous Indian/Iranian sweets and do a roaring business in samosas.
Bombay Sweets . Pettah . Colombo 11 . next to Red Mosque & all over Pettah
One of the most authentically Sri Lankan snacks around, a plate of kottu is more of a meal really than something to casually bite into. Kottu is comprised of rotti or string-hoppers cut up into tiny pieces and mixed with egg, veggies and usually meat. You’ll know where to buy them by the loud banging noises coming out of restaurants that make them, the cooking process happens in the open air and is hypnotising to watch.
Pilawoos in nearby Fort is THE original Sri Lankan fast food restaurant and a great place to try kottu, when people aren’t having it for dinner, they’re having it after long nights of partying. Pilawoos is Colombo’s number 1 spot for post-party munchies. ‘Pila’ as it’s usually known is also a fantastic place to people watch. The place attracts people from all walks of life and is one of the rare places in Colombo where you’ll see wage laborers rub shoulders with corporate executives and spoiled rich kids with their Grab a plateful of steaming chicken cheese kottu and sit by the roadside and watch the world pass you by.
Fort Pilawoos Hotel . 100 Chatham Street . Fort . Colombo 01
Another popular snack you can even have as a meal, the hopper is a Sri Lankan favourite. It’s basically a very thin, very crispy, rice-flour pancake. Typically, it is eaten with a really spicy accompanying salad, dhal and gravy. Eating hoppers is usually a two-handed affair. Eating egg hoppers in particular can be one of the most rewarding culinary experiences in Sri Lanka, if you’re willing to get your hands dirty. Hoppers also come in sweeter variants with either milk or honey, popular grab-and-go options. Sri Suryas Hotel in Pettah does a mean hopper and some of the best South Indian vegetarian food in town.
Sri Suryas Hotel . Sea Street . Pettah . Colombo 11
Find all these local eateries and much more in a series of four digital handcrafted walking itineraries that bring you to the honest and authentic places in Colombo's most historic neighbourhoods: Pettah, Fort, Cinnamon Gardens and Slave Island. Each trail comes with a downloadable map, so you can get lost without getting lost.
Words by Abdul Halik Azeez
Halik is a Colombo-based visual artist and writer who uses everyday life in Sri Lanka as his inspiration. He likes to spend as much time as possible walking the streets and encountering the unexpected.
Photography by Kesara Ratnavibhushana
Kesara has been documenting cities for close to 20 years. His photographic practice is based in Colombo but also works internationally. His hometown is changing, rapidly, sometimes faster than even Kesara - a quick adaptor - can keep track of. He spends hours walking the streets recording its history and urban reality.
Colombo Heritage Collective
Colombo Heritage Collective is an NGO that cares for Colombo’s heritage and looks for ways to preserve the city’s unique identity in a time of rapid urbanisation.www.facebook.com/colomboheritagecollective
The Shared Cultural Heritage Fund of Dutch Culture supports projects that contribute to the visibility of the shared history that connects the Netherlands with Sri Lanka.internationalheritage.dutchculture.nl/en