Within the spicy world of Sri Lankan snacking, short eats reign supreme. The name itself is charmingly ambiguous, and quite nonsensical (“short”…?!). They are one of the most pervasive foodstuffs in Sri Lanka, and can be found everywhere. They are flogged from behind glass counters on the street, from assorted trays of snacks presented to your table in restaurants and cafes, and from the large wicker baskets that are heaved on and off buses and trains by ambulant vendors. “Short eats” is an umbrella term; one that encapsulates a variety of savoury snacks such as vegetable roti, vada, dhal vada, and my personal favourite: pol (or coconut) roti. Prices range from LKR 5 (about 5 cents) for a dhal vada bought on the street, to LKR 40 (40 cents) for a vegetable roti. Delicious and affordable; there is not one good reason on earth not to like these things.
My preferred way of eating short eats (funny saying it like that) is in an eatery (or “hotel” as they are called in Lanka). This method is preferred as it reminds me of visiting a friend’s home. You sit down at a table, ask for short eats, and then a small platter of assorted snacks is placed in front of you. You eat what you like, and pay for what you have eaten. There is an inherent trustworthiness to the system that appeals, as does the mild thrill of never quite knowing what you’re going to get.
Eating short eats in an eatery (even funnier!) also enables you to take more time over your snacking, and to savour the flavours with a cup of tea. The beauty of being in Sri Lanka is that vegetarian options are always available and readily presented – you just need to ask the server to point out which eats don’t contain chicken or fish (or sometimes mutton). He will probably poke them with his fingers (or, even stroke them) when doing so. Don’t be put off, just think of it as some sort of validation.
Vegetable rotis are probably the most filling of the bunch, and are distinguishable for their large size, their triangular shape, and their density. They include a spicy potato filling, wrapped in multiple layers of chewy dough. In order to satisfy the Sri Lankan palate, the chilli often dominates, but the use of black pepper and curry leaves adds some much-needed nuance to the spice.
Dhal vada is probably the most ubiquitous (and certainly the cheapest) of all the short eats. They can easily be found by listening out for the fluid “vadavadavadavadavadaaaaarh” shouted by vendors in the streets. Hard and nutty, these things pack quite a protein punch. They consist of spiced lentils that are deep-fried and then dried. Eating 2-3 at a go will keep your hunger at bay for a good few hours, believe me.
Out of all the short eats, pol roti is my favourite. I could eat stacks of these (often do), and will always go out of my way to find them (even in Singapore). Dense and granular and filling, the coconut base lends a delicious sweetness to the saltiness of the dough. As pictured above, they are often served with sambal (a type of sweet chilli sauce known locally as lunu miris), although I usually either eat them as they are, or with dhal.
To foreigners like myself, sambal can at first glance seem a little off-putting. It’s bright red, peppered with chilli seeds, and seems to be nothing less than edible fire. Try it, and you will be surprised. It’s actually more sweet than spicy, and the best sambals have a salty tanginess to them that makes them seem playful, almost jam-like. Indeed, it’s so benign that some pol roti’s are served folded in half, with a layer of sambal slathered inside. Nice.
Short eats are a cornerstone of Sri Lankan food culture. They’re cheap, protein-packed, flavour-full, and vegetarian-friendly. Whilst some are healthier than others (there are a couple more deep-fried variants not included here), all are delicious. Oftentimes, the biggest difficulty you will face when eating them is knowing when to stop.