Delicious Sri Lanka: Australia's new favourite destination

Sri Lanka - View from Above

With beautiful beaches, rich culture and lush hinterland the visitor will quickly find something to enthral them in Sri Lanka. Video courtesy of Boeing and Emirates

It was the crab curry that got me. The rich, spicy sauce that ended up covering my hands and splattering my clothes. The sweet, salty crab meat that I had to work for, wrenching from the shell, twisting and snapping and slurping. The rice, piled high, mixed through with that fiery red sauce, shovelled towards my face with maniacal glee.

You haven't had a curry until you've had a crab curry in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. This is a thing of beauty, a sauce made with cumin, peppercorns, mustard seeds, fennel, coriander, fenugreek, chilli and more, cooked with fresh sand crabs straight from the ocean. It's hot, it's sweet, and it's umami-rich.

Of all the delicious food I've eaten in Sri Lanka, of all the streetside snacks, the standard rice-and-curry combos and the high-end dinners, this was the best, and it was served in a no-frills restaurant called Cosy on a dusty backstreet in the north of the country.

Sri Lanka. I really liked the whole country, from the high country of Kandy to the beaches of Unawatuna, from the bustle of Colombo to the history of Galle. But that curry? I still think about that curry. I would return just for that curry.

And I'm not alone – at least, I'm not alone in my desire to return. Australians are loving Sri Lanka right now. For a country that was at war not so long ago, known more for Tamil Tigers than native wildlife, Sri Lanka has experienced a phenomenal boost in visitor numbers, particularly from Australia.

In the last year, the number of Australians visiting this sub-continental island nation has surged 15 per cent, up to 91,500. There's been a 400 per cent increase in the last decade. Sri Lanka is only small, and somewhat niche, and yet it's the sixth most-searched destination on traveller.com.au.

So what's the attraction? It's not just the crab curries, though you could be excused for travelling there just to get your hands on one. The truth is that there's a whole range of factors that have come together to attract people to this sultry island nation.

One is definitely the food, and Australians' increased interest in cuisine. Sri Lankan food is seriously good. Every budget restaurant in every small town there seems to serve absolutely delicious, banquet style "rice and curry" combos cooked in the local style, heaped with sambals and sauces and trimmings. Then you have places doing kothu roti, the stir-fry of chopped roti, meat, egg and sauce. You have hoppers, the sour pancakes served sweet or savoury. You have "short eats", the peppery deep-fried goodies peddled on every street corner.

In fact, the only disappointing meals I've had in Sri Lanka have been at high-end hotels and resorts, where the chefs tend to dial all the flavours down to suit Western tastes. The stuff they churn out with is bland and expensive – not a great combination.

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But anyway, back to the good stuff. There's an air of exoticism to Sri Lanka that surely appeals to Australians: it's different there, it's an adventure, you can ride around in tuk-tuks and tear around on scooters and drink beer and eat curry with your hands. And yet Sri Lanka is also fairly safe and approachable, a far more laidback version of the insanity of India, a destination you can choose to make as wild or as relaxing as you really please.     

There are plenty of affordable, high-end resorts in Sri Lanka if that's your thing. You can lounge around by a beach, or relax in the cool surrounds of a tea plantation, or stay in a historic old building in a major city. Alternatively, you can hang out in a cheap, friendly hostel in a backpacker-friendly town such as mountainous Ella, or beachside Unawatuna.

Sri Lanka is also attractive as a diverse and yet self-contained destination, the sort of country you can tour in a few weeks and feel like you've hit all of the highlights. You can be hanging out in Kandy one day, soaking up the colonial charm, and then hit the beach the day after. You can check out an emerging destination such as the formerly war-torn Jaffna, or stroll the tourist-friendly promenades of the Galle Fort.

There's wildlife viewing in Sri Lanka too, national parks filled with elephants and leopards and the like – though, to be honest, that's not what I'd travel to the country for. It's a bit of a circus at places like Yala and Minneriya, where cars crowd around the animals, jostling for space. I'd save the wildlife viewing experience for an African safari.

Instead, go to Sri Lanka for the food, go for the beaches, go for the beautiful high country, go for the adventure and go for the charm. And go for the people, who will inevitably give you a warm welcome, who will want to know where you're from, what you're doing there, and where you're planning to go.

And, if you're lucky, they might just steer you towards their favourite crab curry.

Have you been to Sri Lanka? What's the attraction for Australians? Do you plan to go back?

See also: Airline review: SriLankan Airlines A320 economy class

See also: Non-stop flights from Australia to Sri Lanka take off

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: Instagram.com/bengroundwater 

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