A hybrid of South Sri Lankan cuisine with an Indian flair, food in Jaffna is mouth-wateringly unique for the travelling foodie. Despite this, it’s a surprisingly difficult task mapping out where to begin when searching for the most noteworthy hotspots.
While locals seek Western fast food joints such as Pizza Hut or KFC (rice and curry is a fixed staple 7 days a week at home), it makes sense that the food scene in the North is quite different to Colombo or the ever evolving South Coast.
For myself, an expansive scatter of unassuming local eateries lead to days wandering spontaneously across the city. While I enjoyed this humbling time, a month in Jaffna on a solo trip kindled my curious steps with ease. Travelling with others for just a couple of days, which I have also done, is a different experience entirely.
After several weeks exploring the City, the crème de la crème of the North’s foodie scene naturally presented themselves; from upmarket hotels to a no frills ‘cool spot’ a stone’s throw from the railway station.
While a thali (rice & curry) at my favourite vegetarian restaurant is around Rs.200 (£1), an indulgent buffet at Jetwing Jaffna is considerably more.
A penchant for spice? You may just find Northern food more taste igniting than further South. A delicate, spice sensitive palette? Request less chilli or an additional side serving of buffalo curd to cool each mouthful. It really does work and is a far less bizarre accompaniment than you may think.
Jaffna is one of my favourite spots in Sri Lanka. It’s authenticity and seclusion from the prime tourist hotspots seems to attract a more adventurous, culture-thirsty traveller.
Despite recent developments at an increasing rate (Cargills Square complex welcomed the first escalator to the City in 2013), its old world charm, local life and vibrant array of culinary offerings attracts me immensely as a destination.
Planning a trip? Don’t forget to visit my blog post 16 Things to Do in Jaffna. It’s a useful resource to print at home and bring along for on the go tips.
1. Nallur Bhavan ($)
250 Kovil Rd, Nallur
Closer to the famous Nallur Kovil than the City Centre, this is my all time favourite spot for a low key lunch in Jaffna and is one of the most affordable too.
Serving up a thali with fluffy white rice and generous array of vegetarian dishes which vary daily, it’s an all in one hearty dish for meat eaters and veggies alike- a perfect energy booster to last the whole day.
The thali, served everyday at lunch, was a manageable spice level for me but the kottu (served post 6pm) was very spicy. As I previously suggested you can request less chilli, especially for dishes made to order such as kottu.
2. Rio Ice Cream ($)
448A, AB20, Jaffna
One of Sri Lanka’s most loved ice cream parlours, Rio is a buzzing hotspot for locals, out of towners and tourists alike.
Serving up an abundance of juicy tropical flavours, it’s no wonder in the dry heat of the North that visitors flock to Rio for an icy treat.
My advice? Order the mango. It tastes as though the fruit was quite literally picked from the tree mere moments before. The pineapple is a close second.
There are all kinds of sundaes with multiple flavours covered in a sugary drizzle but I found the best way to enjoy Rio is with single flavours of local fruits.
You may be wondering what the pink concoction all the 5 year old’s in their ‘sunday best’ Kovil attire are clutching in between noisy slurps? Faludas are a milky, rose infused drink with pieces of jelly, sweet basil seeds and a whole load of sugar. It baffles me how they manage to stay on their best behaviour- give a kid one of these in the UK and they would be climbing the walls!
The counters are wooden panelled, a sort of Asian kitsch interpretation of a 1950’s American parlour. When I wandered back outside to the kaleidoscopic Nallur Kovil it felt completely surreal.
A Rio experience is not to be missed.
3. Amel Cafe & Cool Spot ($)
Station Road, Jaffna
Quite literally a stone’s throw from Jaffna Railway Station, the local ‘Cool Spot’ (the name ubiquitous across Sri Lanka) was my go to takeaway kottu joint before zipping back to my room at Green Grass Hotel to an evening of Bollywood music videos and photo editing.
Despite said Cool Spot nowhere to be seen on Trip Advisor (quelle horror!) it’s unmissible along station road opposite Northgate by Jetwing Hotels.
A 100% no frills, sustenance at its most affordable, local finest food joint.
I usually ordered a cup of tea while waiting for the food to be ready if two people were working at one time and it was quiet.
4. Lingans ($)
Clock Tower Road, Jaffna
I was exploring the streets of Jaffna (a.k.a getting semi-lost!) when I encountered a towering green building. Ever curious, I intuitively shuffled up the steps to be greeted by a friendly gentleman at the entrance.
Despite requesting a Trip Advisor review before I so much as glanced at the menu, his quirky personality and enthusiasm won me over.
The pineapple ice cream tasted as though I was eating mouthfuls of frozen, perfectly ripe fruit.
Although I’m sure you can’t go far wrong in the land of mangoes, the mango juice was also divine. No unnecessary added sugar or water as is the norm at some restaurants.
Meandering through chairs and tables to pay my (very affordable) bill, I spotted a towering batch of what appeared to be freshly baked seeni sambol buns. Ever the Lankan baked goods enthusiast, I couldn’t resist a takeaway for an afternoon pick me up.
Despite being a little crumpled in my bag by the time I reached the hotel, it was quite honestly the best seeni sambol bun I’ve had to this day. The perfect consistency of sweet and spicy with an oh so soft spongy bread- I can almost taste it just thinking about it!
5. Malayan Cafe ($)
C Ponnampalam Rd, Jaffna
A bustling cafe in the heart of Jaffna, look no further for a local foodie experience than the Malayan Cafe.
It can be a little baffling when you enter as to who or where to order from. Find a seat and go with the flow, ask the waiter what he recommends or ask for an assortment of vadai and a thosai.
The banana leaf ‘plates’ add a novel, eco friendly touch. It’s not the most enticing presentation as the sauce is ladled from overflowing metal buckets but is more than satisfying on the taste buds and an experience not to be forgotten!
From my experience the food was consistently fresh, especially if you opt for an early lunch between 12-1pm.
6. Green Grass Hotel ($$)
33 Asservatham Lane, Jaffna
The hotel may need a refurbishment pronto (I stayed there for approx 7 nights during my time in Jaffna) but the restaurant is a cosy little haven for a long lunch- which it inevitably will be if busy!
Be persistent and persevere because the food is worth it. There’s a section of the menu dedicated to Jaffna cuisine which is where I ordered from the majority of the time.
Also be prepared to be a little flexible as some dishes are seasonal, may run out or are only served in the evening.
My favourites included crab curry, chickpeas & aubergine, cucumber raita (to cool the spice) and dhal. I would suggest ordering an assortment of dishes instead of one main per person.
7. Mangos ($$)
359/3, Temple Road, Jaffna
Located in a tree canopied alcove less than a minute’s walk from the road leading to Nallur Kovil, Mangos is one of the most frequented foodie spots for international visitors.
The menu is limited during lunchtime hours as is the case with most restaurants in Jaffna. The daily thali special with a fresh fruit juice tends to be the best choice.
For the extended menu, visit post 6pm when paneer paper thosais & kottu emerge from the kitchen to the sea of hungry travellers.
It’s a little more expensive than other local restaurants serving dishes of a similar quality but it’s worth it for the evening ambience and flavoursome paneer dishes.
The spice levels tend to be lower than elsewhere as they cater for a higher footfall of westerners.
8. Jetwing Jaffna ($$$)
37, Mahatma Gandhi Road, Jaffna
The most extravagant of all, Jetwing Jaffna is my favourite hotel on the luxury spectrum in Jaffna.
In addition to their well curated a la carte menu, they offer a weekly Jaffna buffet with an impressive selection of savoury and sweet dishes.
For serious foodies intentionally intertwine your stay in Jaffna with the buffet night. It’s a time conscious way to tick off more than a handful of local dishes in one sitting.
Enjoy your stay in Jaffna! Feel free to comment below with your favourite spots.