Touring Colombo by tuk-tuk in search of Sri Lanka's best street food

The tuk-tuk three-wheelers weave in and out of the traffic to out-of-the-way culinary spots.
The tuk-tuk three-wheelers weave in and out of the traffic to out-of-the-way culinary spots. Photo: Megan Blandford

Colombo's traffic is hell. It's slightly less frustrating when travelling in a tuk-tuk; the three-wheelers weave in and out of the traffic, making up their own lanes when necessary (and when unnecessary).

But travelling in a convertible tuk-tuk, the top down, music pumping? Well, peak hour just became fun. It helped, too, that we were on our way to taste some of the Sri Lankan capital's best street food. 

Book with Tuk-Tuk Food Safari Bring and you can bring along your music device to plug into the tuk-tuk's speakers, and some alcoholic beverages (Sri Lanka's Lion beer is a popular choice). The tuk-tuk is even fitted with an icebox and drink holders. Good times, ahoy.

First stop: shopping the markets

We'd found ourselves with a free evening in Sri Lanka's biggest city, with one wish: to eat great food. We jumped on board a Tuk-Tuk Food Safari tour.

The first thing we discovered was that you haven't smelt cinnamon until you've smelt it freshly rolled in the markets of Sri Lanka. The strong aromas of the spice shop, our first stop, made our spice shelves at home smell like nothing but bland air. 

Around the market streets, we also drank coffee while surrounded by freshly picked beans, tasted some of Sri Lanka's famous teas, and the kids enjoyed a mango juice.

Plain hopper served with red chilli sambal.

Plain hopper served with red chilli sambal. Photo: Steven Siewert

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Hop to the hoppers

I'd read about hoppers – eggs cooked in bowl-shaped pancakes – and had even tried some. They were OK, but pretty plain. 

I was about to discover that my mistake had been eating them in a very non-Sri Lankan way.

When the hoppers were served to us in a tiny restaurant, I began to eat them the way my kids did: just as is. 

Our tour guide – who called himself Bob Marley – laughed and intervened, showing us how Sri Lankans eat a hopper: covered in coconut sambal, dhal​ and spicy sauces, then wrapped (a bit like a burrito) and held in your hands.

As it turns out, hoppers aren't just plain egg pancakes; they're the base for some classic Sri Lankan spicy deliciousness.

Kottu roti: a new favourite

If there's one thing I learnt at our next stop, it's to not trust a Sri Lankan's judgment of spiciness.

"It's not spicy at all," Bob Marley assured us, signalling that the kids would enjoy this stop. One bite proved otherwise; scattered through the dish was chunk after chunk of hot chilli.

Kottu roti, though, became one of our favourite Sri Lankan dishes. The big plateful of chopped roti flatbread, combined with vegetables, spices and egg, is cooked on a huge hot plate and then eaten with gusto.

It's tasty and very filling – and the latter didn't bode well for our food tour. We'd made the rookie error of scraping our plates clean, and were feeling decidedly nervous about fitting more food in. 

Onwards and upwards, however.

Sri Lankan street food.

Assorted curries and snacks at a stop on the Sri Lankan street food tour. Photo: Megan Blandford

The moment we were waiting for

Of course, the highlight of Sri Lankan cuisine is the curry.

We were driven slowly down a maze of busy side streets, high-fiving locals as they walked past and laughed at us dancing like Egyptians (what can I say? I've begun educating my kids on '80s music, starting with the Bangles), while standing in the back of the open-topped tuk-tuk.

We tamed our noise levels and set the wine aside as we came into a Muslim district of Colombo, and landed outside a stall filled with bowl after bowl of colourful curries. 

Here's an interesting thing about Sri Lankan curries: you don't just eat one with rice. Instead, you gather two, three or four on your plate with the rice, then mix it together. If you thought the flavour of one curry was complex and tasty, well, wait until it's combined.

This stall was clearly a local haunt, with no special catering to tourists – that is, there was no cutlery. 

So we did as the locals do: washed our hands, then dug into the curry and rice with our right hands. This felt surprisingly rebellious – I could hear my mum's voice in my head: "Don't eat with your hands!" – but I managed to get stuck into the food, without spilling too much.

By this stage, in order to sit back in the tuk-tuk, I had to undo the top button of my skirt.

Time for … dessert?

Our final stop was for a little dessert. But the cocktail of rich foods, combined with the sheer amount we'd eaten, meant that when Bob Marley presented a bowl of buffalo curd topped with coconut syrup, we could only manage a polite spoonful.

Being someone with a usually unstoppable sweet tooth, I never thought I'd say this, but dessert isn't necessary when you have Sri Lankan savouries on offer.

The details

The Tuk-Tuk Food Safari tour costs $US50 per adult, $US25 per child, free for kids under six – all food is included. The tour goes for about four hours. See tuktuksafarisrilanka.com