Cynthia Shanmugalingam

Cynthia Shanmugalingam

Cynthia Shanmugalingam

Cynthia Shanmugalingam spent years connecting people with work in food before she embarked on her own culinary career. Today, she brings village Sri Lankan cooking to London at her debut restaurant Rambutan in Borough Market.

Cynthia Shanmugalingam’s first memories of Sri Lanka are from a family holiday when she was just three. It wasn’t her first visit – her parents had been taking her since she was a baby – but it was, for obvious reasons, the first that stuck. During their holiday, the family travelled across the island, an opportunity they didn't realise would, after the outbreak of the Sri Lankan Civil War in 1983, become impossible until the millennium had passed. ‘I can still remember it,’ Cynthia says. ‘We ate red beans, which I hadn’t seen before, and lots of fresh fish. My friends in England were going to Disney, which I thought sounded magical and was really jealous of, but we had this cultural immersion in a world that my parents knew really well, but had left behind.’

That’s not to say that, back at home in Coventry, the cultural education stopped. Far from it – brought up in a Sri Lankan Tamil family, Cynthia was raised on authentic island cooking. ‘As a culture we have an obsessive relationship with food,’ she laughs. ‘My mum, and for a few years my grandmother when she lived with us, cooked Sri Lankan food for us every day. My dad, as well, would dice tinned sardines with turmeric, black pepper, green chilli and lime and we would have that on toast. My mum would make chicken curry, one of her homeliest things, while my grandmother would make pongal rice, a comforting coconut rice, which was sometimes savoury and sometimes sweet.’ Despite its centrality in her life, food wasn’t in Cynthia’s career plans; instead, she graduated from Cambridge with a degree in economics and for a while worked at the Treasury, motivated, she says, by a desire to understand how the world works.

A turning point came while she was working at a social enterprise in Bethnal Green. As she rose through the ranks, she found herself managing complex projects, on conference calls to people all over the world and, ultimately, stressed and frustrated. Though she was overseeing important work, it wasn’t hers. ‘I was sure I wanted to run my own thing,’ she nods. It was a friend who lived across the road from a food business incubator in the US, called La Cocina, that planted the seed for what came next. At the time, social media was beginning to play a bigger role in marketing, crowdfunding was taking off and the economics of starting a business were changing. ‘I knew it might be fun to help people start restaurants, although I had zero understanding of how to do that,’ she laughs.

Rather than being daunted, Cynthia was spurred on. She started interviewing high-profile restaurant founders about what they wish they’d known in their early days, from Ruth Rogers of The River Café to the founders of both Dishoom and Pret a Manger. Her street food charity – Kitchenette Karts – kickstarted careers and connected young people with work, but also gave Cynthia a crash course in the pitfalls to avoid when opening a restaurant. In 2012, with the civil war over, Cynthia’s family were once again able to travel the whole of Sri Lanka, giving her a taste of the country’s village cooking as an adult, but she was still some years away from realising that, actually, she could bring those flavours home to the UK. ‘I thought at the time that I wanted to help people with their restaurant ideas,’ she says, ‘and I did think there was something missing [in the UK] when I saw the food of Sri Lankan villages and my family’s village, but the idea didn’t crystallise until 2018 or 2019.’

By the time it did, the pandemic was right around the corner. In March 2020, Cynthia had shaken hands on a site in Shoreditch – now home to Manteca – after spending eighteen months finding the perfect home for what she knew by then would be Rambutan. It was a blow, along with the loss of her economist consultancy work. ‘I didn’t know what I was going to do,’ she says. ‘But a really good friend said ‘why don’t you try and do a cookbook of Rambutan?’ It seemed like one of the only things I could do, just me and my laptop.’ The challenge was set: Cynthia had ten months to write her cookbook, a ‘gruelling and inspiring’ process, she says, which saw her relocate to Sri Lanka for six months of writing, market-hopping and recipe testing.

In summer 2022, Cynthia's cookbook – Rambutan: Recipes from Sri Lanka – hit bookshop shelves and plans for the restaurant started to take shape once more. And once Cynthia had found its Borough Market home, in March 2023 Rambutan finally opened its doors. Though – thanks to a flurry of restaurants and pop-ups – the cuisine's vibrant dishes are now more widely appreciated in the UK in their own right, rather than as an extension of those of the Indian subcontinent, it remains one of a handful of Sri Lankan in London and an even smaller number outside Soho. At Rambutan, charcoal clay burners put cooking over fire centre stage, while the open kitchen allows customers to talk to chefs as they prepare its menu of dal, grilled meats, pongal rice and sambols. ‘It’s an ode to village Sri Lankan cooking and the cooking of my heritage,’ she says, ‘but it’s also a diaspora restaurant, created by a second generation immigrant kid who is both an insider and an outsider.’

It is, also, unlikely to be Cynthia's only restaurant. She knows she'd love to open more, and takes pride in being a solo female founder of a Sri Lankan restaurant. ‘I would absolutely love to do more,’ she says. ‘There’s certainly a lot to get right and with Rambutan we are so early on in our journey, but I have learnt so much through it. There’s so much Sri Lankan food that my team wants to explore, too. What excites me most is simple, honest Sri Lankan cooking without frills. I won’t do a gel or quenelle or anything like that – I think it’s really beautiful and kind of gorgeous in its most rustic, organic form.’