Sitting on the edge of the Indian Ocean, just below India, is a tiny teardrop-shaped island called Sri Lanka - Lanka is Sanskrit for island, in Tamil meaning 'that which glitters'. It is a country full of contradictions, and the food of Sri Lanka is equally hard to pin down.
While the dishes are slowly gaining international recognition, the foundations and building blocks of Sri Lankan cooking are complex. They reflect the many diverse peoples, history, flavours and ideas that have overlapped to create a cuisine that is distinct yet difficult to define.
It was O Tama Carey's love of the addictive pancake-like Sri Lankan staple hoppers that drove her to start professionally cooking the food from her youth, her heritage and her travels. In Lanka Food, the Lankan Filling Station owner brings her knowledge together with recipes that demystify vegetable-dominant curries, hoppers, and the full range of spices and curry powders that enliven Sri Lankan dishes.
- Lanka Food: Serendipity & Spice by O Tama Carey. Hardie Grant Books, $55. Pictures: Anson Smart
These roti are more like a flatbread, although they do puff up a little when freshly made and have a nice fluffy lightness to them. They are really simple to make, with hints of coconut and a pleasant savouriness from the onion and curry leaves. These can be enjoyed in many different ways: as a side to a curry meal, for breakfast with a runny dhal, boiled eggs and pol sambol, or treated like toast and spread with butter and Vegemite or even jam for an intriguing blend of sweet and savoury.
200 g grated coconut
325g self-raising flour
8g baking powder
65g eschalot, finely sliced
4g curry leaves, finely sliced
15g melted ghee
good pinch of salt flakes
1. Place all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well. I find using your hand in an almost kneading action is best. Slowly add approximately 50ml water and continue mixing with your hand until the mixture just comes together to form a slightly sticky dough. You may not need all the water so keep an eye on the texture as you mix; alternatively, you may need a little more water to achieve the right consistency.
2. Cover the bowl with a tea towel and leave to rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.
3. On a lightly floured bench, roll the dough into 10 balls (about 65g each), then flatten each ball into a round about 5mm thick. You can use a rolling pin if you like, although flattening the dough with your hands is also very effective. If you happen to have a tortilla press, this is the most effective tool.
4. You can cook the roti straight on a barbecue flat plate or use a frying pan. Whatever you choose, the roti will take four to five minutes to cook in total - you want to start it hot to get a little char, at which stage it will puff up a little, before cooking the other side over a slightly lower heat.
5. Serve immediately or cook them all together and rest on a wire rack before serving.
Note: The uncooked roti freeze well, though the texture will be a little less fluffy. Roll them out between sheets of baking paper and make a stack, then store in an airtight container in the freezer for a few months. You can cook them straight from frozen.
This is one of the simplest dishes on the menu at Lankan Filling Station and a surprising favourite with our customers, many of whom don't usually like cabbage. I have a special fondness for this vegetable, and this is a great way to use it. The ingredients are traditional but the way it's cooked is not; the ghee and wok cooking give it a richness and smokiness you wouldn't find in a more conventional mallung.
14g black mustard seeds
6g curry leaves
300g white cabbage, finely sliced
salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper
4g turmeric powder
50g grated coconut
1. Melt the ghee in a wok or wide-based frying pan over a high heat, add the mustard seeds and curry leaves and cook for a minute or so until the seeds start to pop and the leaves are fried.
2. Add the cabbage, season generously with salt and pepper and give everything a good mix. Cook, stirring, for one to two minutes, then add the turmeric and cook for another minute. While you need to keep the cabbage moving in the high heat of the wok, allow for some moments of stillness to encourage a little char.
3. Add the coconut and taste again for seasoning, then cook for another two to three minutes until the cabbage has wilted but still has a little crunch. This dish will be dry, the flavour a little buttery with hints of smoky char, rounded out by the soft sweetness of the coconut. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Chicken curry is very common as it's the one meat that every race and religion on the island can eat - at least those that eat meat. It's always better cooked on the bone as chicken is quite a delicate meat and needs all the extra flavour it can get. As a child it was one of the first curries I was willing to try, and my mum's version is still the one I aspire to. This recipe is based on those memories: it's hot and oily, tangy with tomatoes and sweetly spiced with cardamom and cloves. Traditionally you wouldn't see any Sri Lankan curries cooked in the oven, but this method works quite well.
1kg chicken thigh cutlets (you want the skin and bones)
15g long red chilli, sliced into rounds
100g diced red onion
15g finely chopped garlic
15g finely chopped ginger
15g finely chopped lemongrass, white part only
5g curry leaves
bottom 5cm of 1 lemongrass stem, lightly bruised
1 pandan leaf, tied in a knot
200ml coconut cream
600g tinned peeled tomatoes
salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper
Pounded rice mix:
12g rice (any variety)
8g grated coconut
2 green bird's eye chillies
3 cardamom pods
5 whole cloves
24g red curry powder (see below)
8g fenugreek seeds
7g mustard seeds
4g chilli flakes
4g chilli powder
4g sweet paprika
3g salt flakes
1. Use a cleaver to chop each chicken thigh across the bone into two or three pieces, depending on size. Set aside.
2. The next step is to prepare the pounded rice mix, which will make the gravy nice and thick. Tip the rice into a small frying pan and gently toast over a low heat for two to three minutes until it just begins to colour. Transfer to a bowl and set aside to cool.
3. Add the coconut to the pan and toast, stirring constantly so it doesn't burn, for two to three minutes until it is an even dark brown colour. Add to the bowl with the rice.
4. Using a mortar and pestle, pound the rice, coconut, chilli, cardamom and cloves to a fine consistency. Add a splash of water near the end to make a paste. Rub this mix through the chicken and let it sit in the fridge for an hour or so.
5. Combine the spice mix ingredients, massage into the chicken and set aside for another hour. You can do this the day before and leave it overnight in the fridge if preferred. If you are just leaving it for an hour, room temperature is fine.
6. Preheat the oven to 160C.
7. Mix all the remaining ingredients through the chicken, making sure you season well with salt and pepper. Transfer to a shallow baking dish or casserole dish that is large enough to fit everything snugly in a single layer.
8. Cover closely with a layer of baking paper, then seal with foil or a lid, and place in the oven. Bake for 80-90 minutes until the chicken is cooked through, checking it every half hour and giving it a good stir.
Red curry powder
Filled with sweet spices and chilli, this curry powder is used to make fiery red curries. Use it in any recipe that calls for a Jaffna curry powder. I know there are a lot of ingredients in this one, but the spices are all untoasted so it's just a matter of measuring and grinding. It has a good chilli kick to it, but if you want a rich redness in your curry without the heat, reduce the amount of chilli powder and flakes (or leave them out completely) and increase the paprika accordingly.
5g curry leaves
24g sweet paprika
20g chilli powder
20g coriander seeds
15g white peppercorns
13g chilli flakes
12g cumin seeds
10g cardamom seeds
8g fennel seeds
8g cinnamon quill, roughly crushed
7g turmeric powder
5g fenugreek seeds
3g star anise
1. Place the curry leaves in a frying pan over a medium-high heat and cook gently for about two minutes. Reduce the heat a little and cook for another one to two minutes until they are dry and toasted, but not browned.
2. Allow the leaves to cool completely, then combine them with the remaining spices and grind to a fine powder. Store in an airtight container.
Makes approximately 150g.
This recipe is almost exactly the same as the one Nan taught me; the one thing I have changed is the cooking method. Traditionally this dessert is steamed or baked until very firm, to the point where it can be cut, and forms tiny air holes which trap little pools of sugar syrup. Because I am not fond of this texture, at Lankan Filling Station we cook it until it is just set, giving it a silky texture similar to a soft creme caramel. It is a rich spiced custard, with a dark, more savoury sweetness from the jaggery. Usually served unadorned, we make a praline to sprinkle on top for added crunch.
360g jaggery, grated
400ml coconut cream
10ml vanilla essence
10ml rose essence
4g cardamom powder
2g cinnamon powder
1g freshly grated nutmeg
2g salt flakes
180g caster sugar
1. For the cashew praline, preheat the oven to 150C.
2. Spread out the cashews on a baking tray and toast for 15 minutes until they are uniformly pale golden, giving them a jiggle every five minutes to ensure they are cooking evenly. Set aside to cool. Tip the cashews onto a lined heatproof tray just large enough to fit the nuts snugly in a single layer.
3. Combine the sugar and 180ml water in a small saucepan over a medium heat and boil to a very dark caramel. Allow a good six to seven minutes for this - you want to take it to the very edge of burnt. Quickly and evenly pour the caramel over the cashews and season the top with a sprinkle of salt. Set aside to cool.
4. Once cooled, use a mortar and pestle to crush the praline into fine-ish chunks; a little bit powdery is good. Set aside. (You can make this ahead of time if you like and store in an airtight container until needed. It will keep for months.)
5. Place the jaggery and 250ml water in a small saucepan over a low heat and allow the jaggery to melt. Add the coconut cream and whisk to combine. Bring to a simmer, then take the pan off the heat and leave to cool to room temperature.
6. Whisk together the eggs, essences, spices and salt until just combined. Pour in the jaggery mix, whisking as you go, until smooth and well combined. Strain and allow to sit for 30 minutes.
7. Preheat the oven to 170C. Line a large roasting tin with a tea towel. Give the custard a good mix to disperse the spices and pour evenly into 10 shallow ovenproof bowls.
8. Place the bowls in the prepared tin (the tea towel will provide a more secure base) and pour enough hot water into the tin to come halfway up the side of the bowls. Cover the bowls with a sheet of baking paper, then tightly cover the tin with foil, securing it firmly.
9. Carefully place in the oven and bake for 40-60 minutes. The cooking time will depend on the bowls you use, so start checking from the 40-minute mark. You want the custard mix to be just set with a tiny jiggle in the middle. If not, put the tin back in the oven for a few more minutes and check again.
10. When ready, remove the tin from the oven, take off the foil and allow the wattalappam to cool in the water bath. When the water reaches room temperature, remove the custards. You can eat them straight away at room temperature or refrigerate and serve chilled. Top with a spoonful or two of the praline just before serving.