With its sweltering heat and a predilection for spicy food, Sri Lanka shares a lot of similarities with neighboring India. However, the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean” is definitely its own destination, with distinctive historical and cultural forces, and – as Anthony Bourdain discovers over the course of his two visits to the south Asian country –, a unique and distinctive style to this otherwise familiar cuisine.
Anthony Bourdain visited Sri Lanka to film season 5 (episode 9) of No Reservations and season 10 (episode 5) of Parts Unknown. Despite being different shows and networks, these two on-screen visits allowed him to contrast the country over time as well as his own transformation as a traveler.
If you’re planning a trip to this island nation and want to visit the same places visited by Anthony Bourdain in Sri Lanka during his trips, below you’ll find a list of them all – including some non-restaurant food experiences he had. Grab your bags, open your mind, and get ready to discover all that Sri Lanka has to offer.
Want to watch the episodes where Anthony Bourdain visits Sri Lanka?
The No Reservations episode is available on Amazon, Hulu, and Apple TV, and the Parts Unknown episode is available on Amazon and Apple TV.
No Reservations (2009)
Anthony Bourdain’s first trip to Sri Lanka happened in 2009, at the tail end of a decades-long Civil War. Venturing from the capital to the countryside, Bourdain and his crew showed how special Sri Lanka is, and opened the door for many more to feel comfortable traveling there in the coming years.
Unknown Eatery (Colombo)
Beginning his journey with local fixer and Baltimore native Skiz Fernando, Bourdain enjoys a jaw-rattling trishaw ride around the city of Colombo.
To aid with overcoming the oppressive climate, Tony has a breakfast of seeni sambol, an onion curry made with chili, tamarind, cinnamon, and a little bit of sugar. Accompanied with condiments including a refreshing coconut sambol and lunu miris (a spicy Sri Lankan paste), the whole dish is served in a thin cup-shaped pancake with a coddled egg at the center.
New Rifka Catering (Colombo)
Journeying into the back alleys of Colombo, Skiz takes Tony to the New Rifka Catering company, which specializes in providing services for large gatherings and parties, to enjoy a traditional biriyani; parboiled, short grain rice is added to a vat of raw chicken, which is then sealed with dough and slow cooked for several hours, and includes layers of spices such as clove, cardamom, chili powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and star anise.
Once cooked, the biriyani is served with a barrage of condiments; mixed pickle achcharu (a type of chutney with capsicum, peppers, onions, and curry leaves, in a date paste), a curry consisting of liver, peas, and cashews, and Maldive fish, a type of dried and cured tuna, ground up and served with oil.
Barefoot Café (Colombo)
Tony next visits Barefoot Café, and meets with its owner Koluu Ranawake, Sri Lanka’s first celebrity chef. Learning more about traditional Sinhalese cooking, Tony enjoys a black curry, made with roast coconut and rice, seasoned with coriander seeds, cumin seeds, fenugreek, cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon, then roasted and ground together.
Dutch Burgher Union (Colombo)
A remnant of Sri Lanka’s colonial past, the Dutch Burgher Union has a well-lubricated country club vibe. After being introduced to arrack, a liquor made from the sap of fermented coconut flowers and dyed red with burnt sugar, Bourdain is served a traditional lamprais.
Not to be confused with the similar sounding eel, lamprais is another hangover from the colonial days, a traditional Dutch Burgher curry; onion, ginger, garlic, curry leaves, chili powder, and tamarind is cooked together, to which is added a mix of chicken, beef, and pork. The whole mixture is then added to a filling of rice, wrapped in a banana leaf, and baked in an oven.
Hotel De Pilawoos (Colombo)
Tony next finds himself at the Hotel De Pilawoos where he indulges in one of his favorite experiences – late-night drinking food! In Sri Lanka, this role is served by the national dish, kottu roti.
Popular among late-night party-goers, this is a greasy mix of diced vegetables, raw beaten egg, and chopped wheat roti bread, with a heavy dollop of curry sauce. This mixture is then cooked on a sizzling hot griddle whilst being continually chopped, then served al fresco with a smattering of gravy. Perfect for soaking up any lingering beer in one’s system!
Foundation of Goodness (Seenigama)
Following a train ride to the south of the country, Bourdain next visits the village of Seenigama and the Foundation of Goodness, run by Kushil Gunasekera.
Here he is served a meal of Sri Lankan low country specialties; red rice, indigenous to the region and cooked with pink husks still on, parippu (a yellow lentil curry cooked in coconut milk), clay pot simmered tuna with chili, onion, and gorka fruit, stewed jackfruit curry, and coconut sambal, made with freshly shredded coconut, diced red onion and chiles, served as a condiment.
Whilst “open,” please note this is a charitable foundation and not a restaurant, so it is not open to patrons in the same way as others on this list.
Private Family Gathering (Chilaw)
Tony’s first trip to Sri Lanka ends with a home-cooked meal with Skiz’s family, specifically the matriarch Leela and her legendary crab curry. Renowned as being the spiciest dish in the country, the freshly caught crab is slow-cooked for hours before serving, along with chicken curry (all organs included!), and a refreshing cashew curry, all washed down with a toddy, the fresher coconut flower juice version of the previously consumed arrack.
Bourdain reflects on this magical country, and what matters most: amazing home-cooked food surrounded by friends and family.
Parts Unknown (2017)
Almost a decade later, Anthony Bourdain returned to Sri Lanka to see how much had changed – and how much he had as a traveler returning to a place he was entranced by. As usual, his journey was through both cuisine and culture.
Nana’s King Beach Side Food
Revisiting a more stable Sri Lanka a decade later, Bourdain finds a country that feels more open, and with an array of food on offer that is no less delicious. At Nana’s beachside bar, Tony meets with Dharshan Munidasa (owner of a local restaurant Ministry of Crab, which he did not visit) for a prawn and fish curry, lighter than equivalent dishes in India due to Sri Lanka’s abundant seafood, served with traditional roti flatbreads.
Bourdain then makes a quick stop at Vits Food with local journalist Kumar Lopez, for a chicken curry, this time served with spicy potato, pickled beetroot, rice, and eaten by hand directly from a shallow bowl
Private Home/Beach Gathering
Of course, Tony wouldn’t let a second chance for the crab curry pass him by, and he makes the 10hr journey north on the newly reopened (at the time of airing) Queen of Jaffna train to the eponymous city. Here, sat amongst friends in an intimate jungle setting, Bourdain enjoys what he calls the “holy grail of Sri Lankan cuisine,” enjoying a crab curry that is equally as spicy and delicious as last time, before a locally caught grouper and squid, wrapped in banana leaf and grilled over hot coals.
Have any questions about these places visited by Anthony Bourdain in Sri Lanka or the episodes he filmed there? Let me know in the comments below.