Sri Lanka: The Reality of Mealtime in the Midst of Economic Collapse

The island nation’s worst economic crisis since its 1948 independence has forced people to change how and what they eat.

Zinara Rathnayake

June 23, 2022

Sri Lanka: The Reality of Mealtime in the Midst of Economic Collapse
Sri Lankans buy food items at a market in Colombo, May 2022. (Getty)

Every weekend, my aunt would make roti and serve it piping hot with a side of katta sambol, a dried red chili paste with sea salt and a hint of lime, to the hungry passersby. Customers visit her stall along the Kurunegala-Anuradhapura highway, about 100 miles north of Colombo. During the week, my aunt works as a finance consultant, but, over the years, she turned a portion of her home into a kade, or a stall serving up food or groceries, on the weekend. Although she calls it “earning extra income,” the kade offered a sense of belonging for my aunt, who has lived alone since her husband’s death. For her, it’s a place to cook, eat, chat, and laugh over food. 

Soon, she brought home a new stove and an extra liquefied petroleum (LP) gas cylinder to make appa (bowl-shaped Sri Lankan snacks) and would serve deep-fry vade, tiny lentil fritters, with a cup of sweetened ginger-infused tea. But now, she can only make roti using a firewood stove.

While my aunt does not entirely depend on the income from her stall, Sri Lanka’s economic crisis — the worst since the country’s independence in 1948 — has forced food businesses across the island, both big and small, to shutter or find alternative ways to survive. The deteriorating economy, driven by the pandemic, declining tourism, and upcoming debt repayments, is pushing the island’s 22 million inhabitants to the brink. And the resulting rise in prices for food and essentials like cooking gas is changing how the country cooks, eats, and shares food.