The Northern Provincial Capital, Jaffna, was hard hit by civil war, but is gradually recovering to cater to the influx of visitors, all eager to take in the culture. And what better way to do that than by exploring the local cuisine? Traditional Jaffna Cuisine is known as ‘Yarlpana Samayal’. It reflects the flavor wrought from the produce resourcefully scoured from the harsh lands. In Jaffna it is believed that the six senses of taste – ‘Arusuvai’ – should be echoed in food to achieve a perfect balance of flavor. These senses are, sweet, salty, bitter, sour, astringent and pungent.
Food in Jaffna makes use of a wide variety of spice mixes, many of which are used in Sinhala Ayurveda Medicine to promote good health. The food in Jaffna reflects heavy South Indian influences but possesses a distinctive flavor profile on its own; with the use of coconut milk, local herbs, chilies and spices to give it a fiery kick. Most of the food is cooked in clay pots over firewood, all which contributes towards the unique flavor of Jaffna cuisine, making for a truly gastronomical experience.
The most famous dish in Jaffna is undoubtedly the spicy Jaffna crab curry. It’s incredibly spicy champions the fresh sea food. Dosa*1, Idly*2, Pittu*3, Bone Rasam*4, Mutton Poriyal*5, Odiyal Kool*6, Varai*7, Brinjals (eggplant), Murunga (vegetable known as drum sticks) and Rasam*8 are a few of the signature dishes in Jaffna.
On the sweeter side of things, Jaffna cuisine takes the other end of the spectrum. While their savory dishes are extremely spicy, their sweet dishes are loaded with saccharine to satisfy your sugar cravings. The best known ice cream parlors in North are: ‘Rio Ice Cream’ and ‘Lingam’s Ice Cream’. There are also other local sweetmeats like Kesari*9, Halwas*10 and Jalebi*11.
With a basic understanding of the type of food you can expect to try in Jaffna, we now tell you where you can experience this food.
‘Hotel Rolex’ is undoubtedly the most famous eatery in Jaffna. It’s not an actual hotel though. What it is, is a pretty typical saivar kadé*12. Whatever Hotel Rolex lacks in grandeur, it makes up for tenfold with its reputation. The atmosphere is exciting and loud and their waiters have an expansive knowledge to help you with your menu selection process.
The food isn’t authentic Jaffna cuisine, but they offer up a good selection of hot biriyani*13 with sizeable chunks of juicy meat, parathas*14 and assorted little snacks. You can expect to pay about 300-500 lkr per person. Rolex is a definite must see spot when looking out for places to eat in Jaffna.
‘The Malayan’ is a vegetarian cafe in Jaffna established in 1951. They have a good breakfast and lunch menu, and the location of the café itself is pretty central. They have the usual Jaffna carbs such as Dosa, Idly, String Hoppers and Rice and the menu offers a choice of one carb with a Sambar and chutney.
Their varieties of dosa’s are pretty good, with onion, ghee and the regular paper dosa. All the meals are cheap, tasty and prepared well. They’re served up on banana leaves and it’s a charming experience.
The interior features a highly authentic old-school atmosphere with wood paneling, wooden cabinets and marble-topped tables, and the service is highly efficient and friendly. For about 250 lkr per person, the Malayan provides an authentic vegetarian meal in Jaffna.
‘Mangos’ is another vegetarian North & South Indian Restaurant. The restaurant is within walking distance of the Nallur Temple and the Rio Ice Cream Parlor and is a popular lunch time haunt. Their portions are huge and can be shared. It comes with the usual accompaniments as well as a sweet Payasam15 for dessert. You can fill up on a hearty and delicious vegetarian biriyani and only find the damage to your wallet at around 300 lkr.
Mangos staff are attentive and know the menu well. The restaurant is simple, clean and showcases authentic Jaffna cuisine and is well maintained, which shows in the quality of their food – Which is exceptional.
‘Thinesh Bake House’ is a high-quality bakery in Jaffna. All the biscuits, breads and baked goods are fresh and generously portioned. The buns are substantially larger than the Colombo counterparts and are soft, airy and delicious. They also have fragrant and tasty varieties of bread, and their garlic bread is one of their best sellers. The cookies, biscuits and all their baked goods are super fresh and most notably, they stray away from the usual practice of overly sweet food.
Service at Thinesh Bake House is brisk and professional and they have a constant steady stream of hungry and curious patrons. For high quality and affordable baked products, the Bake House is a great place to stop by and have a meal.
So far we have covered a wide spectrum of restaurants in Jaffna. Now we move on to exploring Jaffna Cuisine at its most basic form – Street Food. The Jaffna local market situated smack dab in the center of the Jaffna Town is the place to do just that.
The vendors here have learned the art of taking locally sourced ingredients and making fresh produce that you would be hard pressed to find elsewhere. Examples include the peanut candy (which harnesses the perfect balance of sweet, salty and crunchy) Stalls in every direction have sweets such as halwas and jalebis to tantalize your taste buds. Savory street snacks include steamed gram with onions and a sauce (Think of a Jaffna version of the Isso Vadai*16). Additionally, you can find mor milagai (buttermilk chilies), kadalaimaaor (roasted gram flour, scented with cardamom), panaddu (a sticky, stretchy and bitter-sweet made from the pulp of the palmyrah tree), and odiyal chips as well as the multi-coloured fruit cordials for sale by the bottle.
After the Jaffna crab curry, its saccharine infused ice cream is possibly the most famous culinary exports and a stalwart of the North. Within walking distance of the Nallur Kovil are situated two of Jaffna’s most famous ice cream haunts – ‘Rio Ice Cream’ and ‘Lingam’s Ice Cream’. Both are somewhat legendary and have their own steady following. What’s more, you can get your sugar fix between 200-300 lkr and as far as food explorations in Jaffna go, both are well worth the visit.
Both, Rio and Lingam’s have a variety of vegetarian homemade ice creams, juices and snacks. Rio’s special Sundae comprises of five large scoops of strawberry, chocolate, mango, coconut and fruit & nut. It comes with a generous sprinkling of cashew, smarties and hidden jewels of fresh fruit and jelly cubes. The ice cream is creamy and hits the perfect spot of sweetness.
The sundae special at Lingam’s also comes with five different scoops of ice cream flavors – Strawberry, chocolate, pistachio, mango and coconut, sprinkled with chocolate chips, jelly, cashews and Smarties. The different scoops blended well together and make for a delightful sugary coma.
In addition to the places mentioned above, there are a few more places you can eat at in Jaffna. ‘Sri Saiee Bawan’ is a good breakfast stop and is located opposite the Jaffna market and they serve up authentic vegetarian dishes. ‘Chelva Mahal’ is another eatery about 15 minutes North of the Jaffna town and they serve up a decent Jaffna crab curry, as well as their take on Chinese food and other assorted snacks and beverages.
The places to eat in Jaffna are not 5-star. But they have their own unique charm and have tapped into a niche market. The result is nothing short of spectacular. So make sure to check out these restaurants when you’re walking about in Jaffna exploring the city. What must be said especially about the food in Jaffna in conclusion is that that it reflects the story of a rich socio-cultural background in the North.
*1 Dosa is a fermented crepe made from rice batter and black lentils.
*2 Idly is made by steaming a batter consisting of fermented black lentils (de-husked) and rice.
*3 Pittu is a dish of steamed cylinders of ground rice layered with coconut.
*4 Bone Rasam is a luscious, flavorful, tangy and spicy soup made from (usually) mutton bones.
*5 Mutton Poriyal is a type if mutton stir fry flavored with a variety of spices and chilies.
*6 Odiyal Kool is a soup made with flour from the dried Palmyrah root
*7 Varai is a light and flavorful dish. Finely chopped or minced ingredients (a choice of meat) are tossed with coconut, green chilies, mustard seeds, red onions, turmeric powder and curry leaves to create a distinctive dish.
*8 Rasam is a kind of soup/broth, traditionally prepared using tamarind juice as a base, with the addition of tomato, chili pepper, pepper, cumin and other spices as seasonings.
*9 Kesari is a type of dessert made using saffron.
*10 Halwa refers to many types of dense, sweet confections. The recipes use flour, melted butter or ghee, sugar and optionally a variety of nuts and/or plums.
*11 Jalebis is a sweet made by deep-frying a wheat flour batter in pretzel or circular shapes, which are then soaked in sugar syrup.
*12 Saivar kadé is generally a small road-side shop specializing in tasty – and usually very cheap – food.
*13 Biriyani is a highly seasoned rice made to incorporate meat or vegetables.
*14 Paratha is a type of flat-bread.
*15 Payasam (or Kheer) is a rice pudding made by boiling rice with milk and sugar; it is flavoured with cardamom, raisins, saffron, cashew nuts, pistachios or almonds.
*16 Vada is a type of savory fritter-type snack made with lentils, chilies, onions and curry leaves.