Midnight at Colombo Airport, stepping out into the humid, slightly foetid tropical night after an 11 hour flight. The usual welcome on such trips, a taxi driver flourishing a card with my name, misspelt. All is not as it was meant to be, alas. A small group press trip has turned out to be just solo me after the others bailed out and the Sri Lankan tourist folk have buggered up the itinerary, too.
My scheduled B&B is taken; my host is under the impression I was arriving the previous night. He shows pity, though, pours us some wine and accommodates me in a box room come cupboard. Over breakfast he tells me a government minister had recently been assassinated in his own swimming pool along the road. My good fortune? The airport runway has been patched up after yet another Tamil Tigers bombing raid.
All this is long ago. The island once known as Serendib and, in colonial times, Ceylon, is in volatile chaos once again as I write, but not with the sense of danger pervading that 2005 visit. It was post the horrors of Tsunami but peace with Tamil rebels was yet several years away. As vivid as the elephant sanctuary, tea plantations and temples of Kandy was an encounter in a hotel outside that Buddhist stronghold. Karen was a former Norwegian police officer seconded to control (with an ever diminishing team) a breakaway Tamil territory. She was driving back there after ferrying a wounded rebel colonel by airbus to hospital captivity in the capital.
Despite all this turbulent back story I was greeted warmly in every village and fed royally, my chilli heat tolerance a great help. Looking back, though, I never really got to grips with the country or its cuisine.
That’s where Cynthia Shanmugalingam comes in. Her recently published, beautifully illustrated Rambutan: Recipes from Sri Lanka (Bloomsbury, £26) explores both, from the perspective of a Tamil expatriate in England. Coventry, where her parents arrived in the Sixties, is a far cry from her family’s origins in Point Pedro at the northern tip of Sri Lanka but the anecdotes that link each life are at the core of an evocative narrative that transcends mere cookbook.
“I felt it was a special honour to be able to tell the real story of an immigrant Tamil kid like me, and I didn’t want to do a sort of tourist idea of Sri Lanka. I wanted to write a cookbook with all the melancholy and joy that comes with losing a homeland,” the former Treasury economist told the Independent newspaper. So, yes, it doesn’t fight shy of addressing the internecine conflict that overshadowed her growing up, while still conveying the sheer sensuous joy of the places she knew, the food she ate.
The 80 recipes are revelatory, too, making it easier to recreate at home the raw and pickled dishes, sambols, curries, rice and rotis, coconut and, yes, that are at the heart of Sri Lankan cuisine.
Cynthia will be showcasing all of these when her own restaurant, Rambutan, naturally, opens in Borough Market in October, capitalising (and perhaps improving? upon the success of groundbreaking London Sri Lankan restaurants such as the Hoppers chain, Paradise and, my own favourite in Kingly Street, Soho, Kolamba. Meanwhile, flying the flag in the North West is Stockport-based Little Lanka, shortlisted for ‘Food Trader of the Year’ in the 2022 Manchester Food and Drink Awards.
What I can’t see on the Little Lanka take-out menu is Mutton Rolls, a hugely popular street food dish I first encountered when I finally arrived at the prime reason for my Sri Lanka trip, the Colombo Food and Drink Festival. So good I ate three. The name suggest there’s bread involved; think again. Let’s turn to page 266 of Rambutan for a proper evaluation – and a recipe I really didn’t do justice to when I attempted it recently.
Cynthia suggests Colombo’s benchmark mutton rolls are to be found in the quirky Hotel Nippon – consisting of a slow-cooked mutton curry, wrapped in a Chinese pancake, breaded and then fried into a crisp, red-hot snack. The hotel is in an area known as Slave Island, home to the 40,000 strong Sri Lankan Malay community, whose cafes serve deep-fried cow’s lung and a tripe curry. Let’s admit I’m happy just to pursue the mutton (I used hogget) roll, recipe below (my version and how it should look)…
2tbsp coconut or veg oil; 1 finely diced red onion; 10 fresh curry leaves; 1 garlic clove, finely chopped; 2cm fresh root ginger, finely chopped; 300g mutton (or lamb) trimmed of fat an diced into 2cm cubes; 2cm piece of cinnamon stick; ½tsp sugar; 2tbsp SL curry powder (below); 100g waxy potatoes diced into 1cm cubes; 100ml coconut milk; ¼ whole nutmeg grated.
Coating: 100g panko breadcrumbs; 1tsp ground turmeric; 250g plain white flour; 1tsp salt; 3 large organic or free range eggs; 200ml milk; 200ml water; 100ml veg oil for shallow frying; ½tsp meat powder (below).
Sri Lankan curry powder: 30g coriander seeds,15g cumin seed,15g black peppercorns 2tbsp coconut or vegetable oil 2, 10 fresh curry leaves, 70g dried Kashmiri or medium hot red chillies, ¼ tsp ground turmeric.
Meat powder: 4 whole cardamom pods; 2tsp fennel seeds; 4 cloves; 2.5cm piece of cinnamon stick; ¼ nutmeg, grated.
Fry the onion over medium heat until translucent. Add curry leaves garlic and ginger for a minute, then the hogget, cinnamon, sugar, salt and SL curry powder. Just cover the lamb with cold water and bring it to a gentle simmer, to last for a couple of hours.
While the lamb is cooking boil the seasoned potatoes for six minutes, drain.
Scoop the cooking liquid from the meat. Reduce it in a small saucepan for 10 minutes, to thicken, then add drained potatoes and coconut milk, stirring in nutmeg and meat powder. Combine with meat again and remove cinnamon stick.
Make coating by slightly crushing the panko and half the turmeric together. Put the flour, the remaining turmeric and salt in a mixing bowl. Break the eggs, whisk in then gradually add milk until smooth; whisk in the water now, a third at a time.
Heat veg oil in a small pan, pour enough batter into the pan so that it’s 2mm thick. Swirl it around to let it cook for around 30 second so it’s cooked. Transfer and keep warm and repeat until you have eight pancakes. To make the rolls take one one warm pancake and place two tablespoons of the meat mixture. Fold the pancake tightly around like a burrito to seal. Repeat. Coat them all with breadcrumbs.
Fry two mutton rolls in a heavy-based pan with oil to a depth of 1cm, two minutes on each side, using tongs to hold and tun them. Repeat with the rest of the rolls. Keep warm, serve with sriracha.
So what’s a rambutan and what can you do with it?
The name of Cynthia’s book and imminent restaurant is Rambutan. Oddly this lychee-like fruit has a rather minor role in the narrative, taking centre stage in a dessert recipe I’m eager to attempt – ‘Rambutan and Rose frozen Falada’.
It features first in one of the most vivid chapters, ‘Eat Fruit with Salt and Chilli’, introduced by her favourite uncle: “One day Athappa put a small hairy, red and yellow fruit into my hands from a brown paper bag and told me to crack it open. A rambutan. I dug my nails into the crisp, spiky shell and prised out a translucent orb, a meaty scented jelly, all sugar and perfume and a faint sourness at the same time.”
This woman can write. My main picture is from the book, taken by the brilliant San Francisco-based photographer, Alex Lau.