TOO often, the cuisines of South Asia are lumped into one pot and blandly labelled ‘curry’. The nuances between Keralan and Nepalese, Bangladeshi and Pakistani food are largely ignored – especially if your only contact with them is via your local takeaway.
Until recently, Sri Lankan food was similarly neglected, but British chef Emily Dobbs is single-handedly trying to raise its profile.
With an interest in fresh, seasonal dishes, she wants to “remove the stigma that curries have to be greasy, oily and a takeaway food”.
“I often have a curry with scrambled eggs and salad; they can be really light and really colourful,” she enthuses.
It’s time we see Sri Lankan food as a distinct cuisine
The 29-year-old Londoner’s debut cookbook, Weligama is like sunshine distilled. The pages are filled with coconutty curries, zingy salads, hot and sour sambals and her egg hoppers – lacy crepe bowls hollowed out with a soft boiled egg perched in the middle (“they look really cool, and they’re really delicious”).
Emily made her name whipping up hoppers, selling them from her one-man market stall in south London. “Egg hoppers will become as recognisable as eggs benedict,” she says, adamant.
She reckons that so far, the flavours of Sri Lanka – think turmeric, cinnamon and tamarind – have been prevented from travelling further because of the country’s recent civil war, but that’s set to change.
“People ask me why I cook Sri Lankan food, and it’s because I like it,” explains Emily, who started visiting her uncle in the country as a child. “The first time I ever tried avocado, it was in a sweet Sri Lankan dessert. We ate with our hands, and ate things like shark curry – everything was so exotic and exciting.”
It’s OK to tweak and develop traditional recipes
However, don’t pick up Weligama expecting traditional recipes that have been handed down through the generations. “You wouldn’t get food like this in Sri Lanka – I take classic Sri Lankan recipes and British recipes and modernise them.”
By ‘modernise’, she means lightening and brightening dishes, and, where possible, swapping ingredients for ones you can actually find in the UK – for instance, you can’t get “beetroot the size of my head” in Britain, nor “this amazing buffalo curd yoghurt” that Emily loves, which is kept in clay terracotta pots and left out all day in the sun: “It’s just really satisfying to eat.”
Emily, who eventually trained at Ballymaloe Cookery School, began cooking in her early-20s, after studying for an art degree in Manchester. To tackle artists’ block, she went travelling and wound up cooking to support herself. She made her first curry while working with a “hillbilly” on a ranch in Wyoming. “He would just let me cook anything,” she remembers. “Thursday was my night and I’d cook curries. My granny, who’s 86 and once lived in Delhi, she’d email me recipes.” The recipe for the first curry she attempted, her grandmother’s peas and cheese dish, is in Weligama.
“I was really experimental and inquisitive,” adds Emily, recalling how at uni, she’d mix turmeric with egg yolk to make paint, while in America she’d prepare beef carpaccio using meat from the cattle on the ranch, and go foraging. “Wyoming had the best rocket I’ve ever had, really spicy and white dotted.”
Always be curious about what you’re eating
That inquisitiveness hasn’t faded, and comes in handy when trying to navigate Sri Lankan produce on her annual trips to the country. “I’ll go to a market and point at a vegetable and ask, ‘What is this?’ And they’ll say, ‘Madam, it’s 50 rupees’, and I’ll be like, ‘No! What’s it called?!”
Emily’s egg hopper street food stall is currently on hiatus, but she runs supper clubs and pop-ups, and dreams of running her own restaurant one day. “I’m always cooking, I feel my most relaxed when I’m cooking – it really calms me down,” she says thoughtfully. “I put all my creativity into food, it’s a mindful thing, it’s very artistic and creative – all the colours and textures – it’s how I express myself.”
SPICED ROAST CHICKEN WITH BROWN SUGAR, LIMES AND COCONUT MILK
2kg free-range chicken
1/2 quantity chilli butter, melted
800ml coconut milk
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the chilli butter:
250g salted butter, softened
4 red bird’s-eye chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
1tsp chilli powder
1tsp smoked paprika
15g garlic, peeled (optional)
For the marinade:
500g natural yoghurt or curd
50g fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
50g garlic, peeled
1tbsp chilli powder
1tbsp freshly ground black pepper
For the brown sugar limes:
2tbsp coconut oil, melted
2tbsp brown sugar or grated jiggery
Chopped fresh herbs
1. Make the marinade – whizz everything in a blender, or grate the ginger and garlic into a bowl and combine with the yoghurt and spices using a wooden spoon. And make the chilli butter – also whizz everything in a blender (save half in the fridge for another time).
2. Next, spatchcock the chicken. Turn it over onto its back with its head facing towards you. Cut down each side of the chicken along the spine with strong kitchen scissors, then turn the chicken over and press down hard on the breast with both hands until you have flattened the chicken. Alternatively, you could ask your butcher to do this.
3. Cover the chicken with the marinade, inside and out. Leave overnight in the fridge or for at least a couple of hours.
4. Preheat the oven to 200°C/fan 180°C/gas 6 and find a roasting tin that allows the chicken to fit snugly inside.
5. Fit the bird in the roasting tin with the coconut milk and cook on the middle shelf for 45-50 minutes. A large 2kg chicken should cook perfectly during this time. For a slightly smaller bird, check if cooked after 45 minutes by pulling gently on a leg and seeing whether the juices run clear, basting the chicken juices and coconut milk over the chicken every 10 minutes or so.
6. Meanwhile, cut the limes in half and put in a bowl. Mix in the oil and sugar and place skin side down on a baking tray with most of the sugar on the flesh. Place on the top shelf of the oven in the last 20 minutes of cooking.
7. Put the chicken juices and coconut milk that remain in the tin through a sieve and season to taste with more salt or brown sugar if necessary. Transfer the chicken to a warm serving plate and leave to rest for at least 20 and up to 40 minutes uncovered, then serve it with the sieved sauce, the brown sugar limes, some chopped fresh herbs and pomegranate seeds (and any optional sides you fancy).
GOTU KOLA DISH
(Serves 2 as a side dish)
30g flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
15g mint, finely chopped
50g freshly grated coconut
Juice of 1 lime
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
A handful of cherry tomatoes, chopped
2 anchovies, finely chopped
1 green chilli, deseeded and thinly sliced
1 spring onion, finely chopped
1 celery stick, thinly sliced
Handful of pomegranate seeds
1. Put the parsley and mint in a bowl. In another bowl, add the coconut and season with the lime juice and some salt and black pepper. Stir well and add to the herbs along with the onion and tomatoes.
2. Add the anchovies (these are a must if you aren’t vegetarian) and any of the optional ingredients you like. If you are serving with a spicy curry, avoid the green chilli and serve as a refreshing salad, seasoned well with lime juice and salt.
TUNA AMBUL THIYAL
(Serves 2-4 as a side dish)
500g fresh tuna steaks
1tsp chilli powder
2tbsp roasted curry powder
1tsp freshly ground black pepper
1tbsp vegetable or coconut oil
Handful of curry leaves
5g pandan (if you can find it)
2 small red onions, thinly sliced
1-2 green bird’s-eye chillies, de-seeded and sliced
10g fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
10g garlic, peeled and sliced
1tsp sea salt, plus extra pinch
1tbsp tamarind paste
1 cinnamon stick, broken in half
Squeeze of lime juice
A handful of coriander leaves
1 lime, cut into wedges
Sliced avocado and green salad (optional)
1. Chop the tuna into 3cm pieces and marinate with the chilli powder, curry powder and black pepper. Set aside.
2. Heat the oil in a saucepan and, when beginning to smoke, add the curry leaves followed by the pandan, onions, green chillies, ginger and garlic. Season with the salt. Fry for a couple of minutes then add the fish and two tablespoons of water, and the tamarind paste, cinnamon and a big pinch of salt. Stir and cook on a high heat for a minute then add a squeeze of lime juice.
3. Serve with coriander leaves and lime wedges, with some sliced avocado and a green salad, if you like.
n Weligama: Recipes From Sri Lanka by Emily Dobbs, photography by Issy Croker, is published by Seven Dials, priced £25. Available now.