Treasure island: an introduction to Sri Lankan cuisine

Treasure island: an introduction to Sri Lankan cuisine

by Great British Chefs 08 October 2020

Coconuts, curry leaves, chillies (and more coconuts) – restaurant owners Eroshan and Aushi Meewella talk about Sri Lankan cuisine and their Soho restaurant Kolamba, before sharing six easy recipes that showcase the island's flavours.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Britain’s love for Indian food has been going strong since the boom of curry houses in the 1950s and ‘60s. There are now over 9,000 Indian restaurants in the UK, spanning the spectrum of Anglicised high street takeaways, region-specific eateries and Michelin-starred temples to fine dining. But when it comes to the food of Sri Lanka, a beautiful island nation just twenty-seven kilometres off the coast of southern India, a lot of us assume it’s no different to what’s found on the subcontinent.

That couldn’t be further from the truth. Sri Lankan dishes are fresh, vibrant, distinct and starting to become known in their own right thanks to a clutch of restaurants in London. First there was Hoppers, which introduced people to the Sri Lankan savoury pancake of the same name (alongside other southern Indian dishes). Now there’s Kolamba, a modern restaurant in the heart of Soho with a more focused approach to authenticity and the sorts of dishes cooked and eaten in homes across the island.

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‘We went into the restaurant business because we felt Sri Lankan food has always been very underrepresented in London,’ says Eroshan Meewella, who opened Kolamba with his wife Aushi at the end of 2019. ‘Hoppers did a fantastic job when it came along in 2015, but we wanted to introduce people to a real taste of the food found across Sri Lanka in a modern, contemporary setting. With all the trouble Sri Lanka has endured over the past twenty-five years, it’s only recently that people have started to visit the country. We wanted our restaurant to act as a sort of shop window, so people can experience the food of the island before going there.’

Eroshan came to the UK when he was just two years old, so his initial association with Sri Lanka only really came through his mother’s cooking. As he grew older the family would return to the island more often, and once he met his wife Aushi in Colombo (the capital city after which the restaurant is named), the two of them decided to open Kolamba and offer London a taste of authentic, homely Sri Lankan cooking.

‘I’d say around eight dishes that are on the menu right now come from home cooks rather than professional chefs,’ he says. ‘The fish cutlets are cooked using my own mother’s recipe. Everything we serve has been inspired by our trips around Sri Lanka and eating in people’s homes rather than what you’d find in restaurants, and I think that encompasses Sri Lankan flavours in their purest form.’

But what makes Sri Lankan flavours stand out against those found in India? A lot of it comes down to one ingredient: coconut. Despite being a relatively small island it’s the world’s fourth-largest exporter of coconuts, and they are integral to almost every aspect of the national cuisine. ‘We’re always compared to India when it comes to our food, but there are real differences between what we cook and eat compared to the rest of the subcontinent,’ says Eroshan. ‘We don’t use any animal fats in our cooking – no ghee, butter, cream or yoghurt – because coconut adds all the rich creaminess we need instead. We go through a couple of hundred coconuts a week here at the restaurant, so it’s the single most important ingredient.’

A lack of animal fat makes many of Sri Lanka’s vegetable dishes naturally vegan, but there are other aspects of the cuisine that make it stand out too. ‘Cutlets’ are one of the many small fried snacks known as ‘short eats’ in Sri Lanka, sold on street corners filled with all sorts of ingredients and an edible example of the island’s immigrant and colonial past. Pork is eaten much more commonly than in India, often in a ‘black’ curry with plenty of pepper. Few meals are complete without a sambol (or sambal) of some kind on the side, an intensely flavoured relish that can be added to dishes according to taste. And then there are of course the hoppers: lacy savoury pancakes not too dissimilar to dosas over the water in India.

It’s this wealth of relatively unknown dishes, ingredients and flavours that made Eroshan and Aushi want to make their restaurant offer something as authentic as possible in the UK. ‘Sri Lankan food is so new to a lot of people here, whereas Indian restaurants have had forty or fifty years of introducing their cuisine to the British public,’ says Eroshan. ‘Sri Lankan food has had five years, if that. I think that’s why we have a responsibility to be as authentic as possible, so British people can get to know what the food is all about. Once that’s established, you can then start evolving and progressing the cuisine into the realms of fine dining, but for now I think we’re one of only a handful of restaurants around the world even serving Sri Lankan cuisine in a modern restaurant environment.’

kolamba.co.uk