Sri Lanka is one of my bucket list travel destinations. I was curious to see if there were any restaurants in Bangkok specializing in Sri Lankan food. In my search I could only find one–Manel Lanka (official Facebook page). I had lunch there and was absolutely blown away by how incredibly flavorful the dishes were, how different it was from the Indian cuisine I am used to, and how inexpensive the meal was (a 6 course set lunch for 120 baht). It seemed I’d stumbled on a place worth writing about!
So I decided to return to Manel Lanka for dinner with my gal, Anna, and my pal, Jake. Jake has experience traveling in Sri Lanka and a knowledge of their food that vastly overshadows my knowledge of zero. He was also instrumental in picking some of the must try dishes and reassuring me that I wasn’t taking crazy pills. It wasn’t my imagination–he confirmed it’s really good food. Manel Lanka serves authentic, delicious Sri Lankan food that reminded him of his experiences in Sri Lanka.
Allow me to show you just a taste of some of the Sri Lankan food available on Manel Lanka’s menu!
How Indian and Sri Lankan food differ…
First a quick word about how Sri Lankan food differs from Indian food. Because of its location, Sri Lankan food is somewhat similar to Southern Indian cuisine, but there are differences. First there’s a bigger influence of seafood in the Sri Lankan kitchen. Sri Lanka has a larger variety of seafood curry and stew dishes. But even many vegetable dishes and curries are seasoned with dried fish.
Other subtle differences are in the rice and the papadam. In India basmati rice is what is normally served with rice dishes where as in Sri Lanka they use much smaller grain rices. A papadam in India is usually large and quite thin, where Sri Lankans enjoy a smaller, thicker, crispy papadam.
But the biggest difference between Sri Lankan and Indian food is that Sri Lankans use a lot of coconut–it is a dominant ingredient in the ktichen and no meal would be complete without some dish with coconut. I’m not just talking about the coconut cream/water. I also mean the coconut itself. Coconut (Pol) Sambal is an example of a traditional dish that must have a place at the table.
Manel Lanka makes a great Coconut (Pol) Sambal (80 baht). This dish is made by finely grating coconut and mixing it with red chili flakes, and onion. It’s best enjoyed with pittu or string hoppers and drizzling a few spoonfuls of khiri hodi! Fortunately, Manel Lanka has these on the menu.
Pittu (80 baht) are steamed cylinders of ground rice layered with coconut. String Hoppers (40 baht/10 pcs) are basically thin rice noodles that are steamed. Kiri Hodi (60 baht) is a simple thin gravy made with coconut milk and fragrant spices. Together these 3 dishes make excellent accompaniments to enhance the flavors of the Coconut Sambal dish.
But enough of the light fare stuff. Don’t get me wrong…these dishes are great and very traditional for Sri Lankan cuisine. Try them. But what gets my taste buds revved are the more “heavy hitter” dishes at Manel Lanka. The plates that made me wipe the sweat off my brow and go “WOW!”.
I’ve never had an onion dish quite like this. Seeni Sambol (100 baht) is basically a sweet and spicy relish made by caramelizing onions and adding loads of fiery chilis. It’s further seasoned with curry leaves, cinnamon bark, cloves, cardamon pods, and tamarind sauce . Served as a condiment to be enjoyed with string hoppers or any other bread or rice dish, this is a dish that also stands on its own. I mean it hits every flavor profile on your tongue, sweet, spicy, salty, and sour. I highly recommend this dish.
Also known as “isso baduma” in Sri Lanka, Deviled Prawns (220 baht) is another “heavy hitter” dish as far as both flavors and textures are concerned. Manel Lanka cooks this dish with the prawn shells on so that the shells crisp and soak up the flavor from the pandan leaves and ginger. I peeled the first prawn, but then realized 2 things: it wasn’t worth the mess/effort, and it was much more enjoyable and flavorful just eating the whole thing shell and all. Just dive in!
Move over blackened fish…
One thing I quickly realized about my experience with Sri Lankan cuisine, if it looks gross it probably tastes amazing. This Fish Ambul Thiel (200 baht) is a great example of that. It isn’t pretty. But what it lacks in visual appeal it more than makes up for in taste. This is Sri Lanka’s contribution to the blackened fish category of dishes, and it’s a winner! The goraka and black pepper give the fish a “blackened” appearance and a slightly sour and rich spicy flavor. I’ve never had anything like it and can’t recommend it enough.
A hangover preventative?
Chicken Koththu (120 baht) seems like the Sri Lankan equivalent to a hash. But substitute potatoes with chopped/fried godhamba roti (also known as parata), and go nuts with the spices (ginger, garlic, curry leaves, and green chilies). In my book, this makes it a great hangover preventative (or curative).
Since Manel Lanka offers large beers of Singha or Chang for 100 baht, and the food can be quite spicy so you might find yourself imbibing, it’s a good idea to order a koththu dish. I can vouch that it is great as leftovers, too!
The godhamba roti, or Parata (20 baht) is also nice to have on hand for filling with the deviled prawns and fish ambul thiel (and mopping up the gravy from both dishes).
A flavor bomb finale…
Forget dessert. I found that the best way to end our feast was with a very traditional flavor bomb, the Egg Hopper (30 baht/ea). Egg hoppers are paper thin crepe like bowls made from rice flour, coconut milk, yeast, and sugar. The yeast ferments the batter overnight so that the end result is a light, crispy flavorful shell.
It’s meant to be eaten without ceremony. Put the cutlery away. Fold it up like a taco and enjoy this flavor bomb!
Eating Solo? No problem.
As I said in the beginning, my first experience at Manel Lanka was for lunch. During lunch their menu options are a bit limited from what is available for dinner as they focus their kitchen efforts on a few menu set meals. However, these menu set meals are also available for dinner and are an excellent way to experience a variety of tasty Sri Lankan dishes without breaking the bank.
The Set Menu Chicken (120 baht) consists of 6 dishes and a large bowl of steamed white rice. On that day I enjoyed snake gourd curry, chicken curry, gotu kola salad, dhal curry, beetroot salad, and papadums with dried chili and fish.
A chat with the manager…
During my visit I had the chance to chat with Sampath, the manager and brother to one of the owners of Manel Lanka, and learn a little about the restaurant.
The Manel Family originally came from Negombo, the west coast city situated at the mouth of the Negombo Lagoon. In 2002 they left Sri Lanka and eventually settled in Bangkok. In 2011 they opened Manel Lanka, a place to share their family recipes, introduce Bangkok to authentic cuisine, and offer Sri Lankans living in the city a taste of home.
Because they didn’t advertise, they stayed under the radar of Bangkok’s food scene. But their cooking skills were quickly recognized and in May/June of 2012 they were tapped to provide the catering service to H.E. the President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksha during his official visit to the Kingdom of Thailand.
The hope of the Manel Lanka family is to continue to provide authentic, delicious Sri Lankan food to the Bangkok community and to inspire others to visit their homeland of Sri Lanka.
I’m hungry. Where is it?
The Manel Lanka restaurant is located on Soi Ratchaprarop 4 (which is across from the Indra Square complex). It’s a bit off the path for MRT/BTS stations, but if you’re not averse to taking a bus this bus stop drops you within 100 meters of the restaurant and there are many bus lines servicing it.
There is ample seating inside with air conditioning so don’t let the Bangkok heat scare you away. The servers are incredibly friendly and happy to assist with the menu, recommending dishes that go well together. The kitchen service is also very fast, and often they bring all of the dishes out at once. The dish portions are ample, and very reasonably priced, so expect leftovers and a cheap bill at the end.
If you’re wanting to experience Sri Lanka food in Bangkok, Manel Lanka is the place to visit! Should you visit I would love to hear your feedback. Please feel free to comment below, e-mail directly, or message me on Facebook!