Sri Lanka is one of the most vegan-friendly destinations in the world, but there's still plenty to know if you're visiting the beautiful Ceylon country for the first time.
The best thing about being vegan in Sri Lanka is so many local meals are naturally vegan. And even if it's not vegan, it's usually easy to fix.
Sri Lanka is also one of the cheapest places to eat on earth. You can easily eat (and a lot) for under $1 USD per meal.
Vegan Sri Lanka Overview:
Sri Lankan words for vegan | Sinhala: Vigan, Tamil: Caiva Unavu
Best vegan locations | Colombo, Ella, Dickwella
Av. price of local meal | 180 LKR ($1 USD)
Av. price at western vegan restaurant | 900 LKR ($5 USD)
Popular tropical fruit | Jackfruit, king coconut, durian, mangoes
Popular vegan ingredients | Lentils, turmeric, potatoes, jackfruit, eggplant, pineapple
Common non-vegan ingredients | Ghee, fish, shrimp paste
Sri Lanka’s vegetarian culture
Sri Lanka is a culturally diverse country which is one of the reasons it's so appealing for visitors.
The country is made up of a Sinhala (Buddhist) majority, followed by Tamils (Hindus) and Muslims. This diversity leads to a fascinating blend of culture, religious buildings and ceremonies... and of course, food.
The Sinhalese and Tamil communities eat mostly vegetarian. As Sinhalese make up close to 75% and Tamil close to 13% of the population, you'll be surrounded by vegetarian (and vegan) food.
It's also a good idea to seek out specific Hindu communities in the northern and eastern regions where you'll find even more vegan eats.
Eating vegan in Sri Lanka
When it comes to local Sri Lankan food, it's quality over quantity.
Sri Lanka doesn't have a wide array of local dishes - but what it does have is more than enough.
Local food is commonly served buffet style and you only pay for what you eat.
Sometimes locals will personally serve plates of food to foreigners at local buffets as a kind gesture, but don't fret about the amount of food put on your table. You won't be charged for the food you don't eat.
Sri Lanka’s most popular meals
The two staples of Sri Lankan food are daal and Sri Lankan rice and curry.
Sri Lankan rice and curry is not as simple as it sounds. You'll usually be served four or more unique and flavorsome curries. I've never had some many single plates of food on my table as I had in Sri Lanka.
Dal is usually eaten with roti, which is an Indian bread similar to naan.
There are two different types of roti: coconut roti and paratha roti.
Coconut roti is always circular shaped and has a thick doughy texture. Whereas paratha roti is thin and flakey. Both are delicious.
Where to eat?
You can always find somewhere to eat in Sri Lanka.
Local buffets and bakeries are everywhere.
Sometimes the cheapest meals are found hidden inside tiny convenience stores. While these “restaurants” appear extremely cramped, they serve some of the tastiest and affordable meals in Sri Lanka.
Eating in Sri Lanka is an experience, especially for first-timers.
Locals eat with their hands, but most restaurants will provide cutlery if you prefer.
Every restaurant has a trough for washing hands before and after eating - and with all the tumeric in Sri Lankan food, make sure you scrub well, else you'll have yellow hands.
It's not uncommon for locals to sit next to you in a restaurant - even if tables are available. Sri Lankans don't share the western mentality when it comes to personal space and sharing tables is normal. You'll likely share a few smiles and maybe even a laugh at how you're eating.
You won't always decide what you're eating, either. Local waiters sometimes get excited when foreigners dine at their restaurants and they will automatically serve you what they think you'll like.
But you'll almost always only pay for what you actually eat.
Tipping is common in Sri Lanka, but not always expected. Even tipping small amounts is always received gratitude.
Sri Lanka’s hidden non-vegan ingredients
The most common non-vegan ingredient in Sri Lankan food is ghee. Ghee is a form of butter made from animal fats and is used to cook Sri Lankan curries.
Like all butter, it's non-essential to meals, so simply asking for no ghee doesn't cause many issues at restaurants.
Another hidden ingredient, which caught us by surprise, was the Maldive fish inside coconut sambal. Somewhat naively, we assumed coconut sambal was solely made up of coconut meat. It wasn't until after eating this dish, we found out it commonly contains fish.
Some Sri Lankan curries contain shrimp paste, so be mindful of that when ordering.
If you pay close attention to ghee, shrimp paste and Maldive fish, you shouldn’t have any issues eating vegan in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lankan Breakfast
Local Sri Lankan breakfast is delicious, but it's very different from a typical western breakfast.
Expect string hoppers, daal, coconut roti as standard. You might also be served hoppers, coconut sambal (check if its vegan) and fresh bread.
While breakfast isn't always spicy in Sri Lanka, it often is. It took me a few times to get used to a spicy breakfast - and now I love it.
String Hoppers are weirdly good.
While they don’t appear overly appetizing, these oddly shaped noodles are a staple of Sri Lankan breakfasts. They are made from rice flour and are often eaten with daal or curry and, of course, with your hands.
Dal and roti
The simplest and probably tastiest of Sri Lanka breakfasts is to dip roti into daal (Sri Lankan lentil curry) and repeat in a foodies' bliss.
These are not your typical pancakes.
A rolled-up yellow pancake is a common item at breakfast or on the go. They are very sweet and resemble more of a stuffed crepe than a pancake.
It can be common to make these with eggs, so check before you eat.
Sri Lankan Lunch and Dinner
There is little variation between meals in Sri Lanka. We would often eat the same meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner - and we're not complaining.
Sri Lankan Rice & Curry
Sri Lankan Rice and Curry is everywhere in Sri Lanka. While there are some meat options, it's most commonly made vegetarian/vegan depending on whether ghee is used.
There are two ways you'll eat rice and curry. One is at a buffet, where you'll serve yourself on a single plate. The other is more likely at a restaurant where you'll be served anywhere between 4-8 plates of varying curries.
Common curries are:
- Jackfruit curry
- Daal fry
- Potato curry
- Pineapple curry
- Eggplant curry
Kottu is chopped up roti served with veggies.
The wonderfully obnoxious dish, kottu, can be heard being prepared from the streets as the clang of a cook chopping roti into hundreds of pieces.
Veggie kottu is vegan and one of the cheapest meals you'll find.
Daal and roti
A breakfast, lunch and dinner staple. We couldn't get enough of daal and roti, no matter the time of day or night.
Street food and snacks
You don't have to look far to find vegan snacks in Sri Lanka.
Small stalls and shopfronts serving hot and cold snacks line almost every town.
Street food and street snacks include:
- Daal Vada (Fried daal)
- Roasted chickpeas
You can also find popular vegan snacks from local convenience stores too.
Best places for vegans in Sri Lanka
The beauty of Sri Lanka is you can go anywhere in the country and you won't be too limited by lack of vegan food.
However, there are still areas of the country that are better than others - especially if you're in the country for a long time and want to enjoy some western food comforts.
We spent early 2020 remote working in the Dickwella-Hirketiya area.
This southern coastal town is off the main tourist trail and is truly an unknown gem.
While being a small town, there are a lot of great vegan eats including vegan burgers, plant-based poke bowls, and middle eastern choices.
You can read all about the town's vegan options in our Dickwella vegan guide.
Dickwella is good for:
- Vegan food
- Quiet beaches
- Getting away from tourists
Dickwella is bad for:
- Fancy accommodation
Colombo is perhaps the best place for vegan food as it's the largest city in the country.
Our favorite thing about Colombo was the huge Indian and Arabic communities that live there. This, of course, means lots of Indian and middle eastern food options available.
Colombo is good for:
- Cultural foods
- Cheap meals
Colombo is bad for:
- Natural beauty
- Quiet time
As probably the most popular tourist destination in Sri Lanka, it's no wonder Ella is thriving as a vegan destination.
There are plenty of western food options in Ella, but you'll find prices the highest in the country here.
If you don't mind hordes of tourists and higher prices, Ella is a beautiful town close to gorgeous hikes.
Ella is good for:
- Vegan food
- Natural beauty
- Things to do
Ella is bad for:
- Expensive meals
- Lots of tourists
Tangalle is often skipped by those on the regular tourist trail.
The small beach town doesn't offer much beyond its quiet beaches and relaxed feel. However, a small community of yogis has given the town a little vegan edge.
You'll find a few cafes offering plant-based milks and some vegan breakfasts.
Tangalle is good for:
Tangalle is bad for:
- Meeting people
I didn't expect Galle Fort to hold vegan options, but I was wrong.
The most visited tourist destination in Sri Lanka has lots of cool cafes and restaurants offering vegan options.
This is due to the high volume of western tourists visiting the Fort.
If you're planning on eating here, it'll cost you. Galle might be the most expensive place to eat in Sri Lanka.
Galle Fort is good for:
- Unique cafes with vegan options
- Beautiful architecture
Galle Fort is bad for:
Sri Lankan Supermarkets for vegans
Supermarkets are small and limited in Sri Lanka, especially outside of Colombo and major tourist hubs.
Due to this, we didn't have much luck finding specialty vegan options in Sri Lankan supermarkets - especially as we were based in Dickwella for most of our time and the one supermarket was very limited.
We rarely cooked our own meals in Sri Lanka due to limited supermarket options and the insanely cheap price of eating out.
Leading supermarkets in Sri Lanka
- Cargills Food City
- Keells Super
- Laughs Supermarket
Supermarkets are one of the rare places where debit/credit cards are accepted.
A lot of Sri Lankan supermarkets also have a pharmacy and liquor store attached. The beer is cheapest from supermarkets.
Vegan tourism in Sri Lanka
Vegan cooking classes
Almost every town where there are tourists you'll find cooking classes.
Cooking classes mostly involve cooking vegetarian meals, however, it's worth approaching the cook at least 24 hours before the class to ensure they have the right vegan ingredients.
Ella Spice Garden is one of the most popular cooking classes in Sri Lanka and caters to vegans.
Ethics of a jeep safari
We had - and still have - ethical questions regarding Sri Lanka's wildlife safaris.
In early 2020, we took a jeep safari at Udawalawe National Park. You can find our ethical review of Udawalawe here.
The main concern when it comes to Sri Lankan jeep safaris is the overcrowding of wildlife. This is particularly concerning at Yala, which is why we chose Udawalawe instead.
At the end of the day, it's important to do your research when considering jeep safaris. I feel the fewer tourists, the more ethical the safari becomes.
Travel the country by Tuktuk
You might be used to riding in the back of tuktuks around Asia, but in Sri Lanka it's possible to become your own tuktuk driver and tour the country in your very own tuktuk.
We did this early 2020 and it was the highlight of our time in Sri Lanka. We wrote this guide on how to rent a tuktuk in Sri Lanka, which includes a discount code for our readers.
Is renting a tuktuk ethical?
Before renting a tuktuk in Sri Lanka we wanted to ensure we wouldn't be taking business out of the local Sri Lankan economy.
After all, tourism plays a big role for locals and we wanted to ensure our money was used to help not hinder.
We rented our tuktuk from TukTuk Rental. This business links local tuktuk owners with customers and the money goes back to the owners. You can read up on TukTuk Rental's social policy here.
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I recommend World Nomads as my favorite travel insurance provider.