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A celebration of the island nation’s Sri Lankan food with dishes from Rambutan, the new cookbook by economist turned restaurateur Cynthia Shanmugalingam ,growing up in Coventry in the 1980s and 90s, Cynthia Shanmugalingam recalls being faintly embarrassed by Sri Lankan food. She has a vivid memory of her friend Amy coming over to her house when they were 15. As usual, Shanmugalingam’s mum set up Amy and Cynthia in one room, eating fish and chips, while in another room the rest of the family had a selection of curries and rice.
“I don’t know why we did that,” Shanmugalingam says. “It’s not like somebody said our food was disgusting or anything, but maybe it was an inherited perception. Anyway, Amy said, ‘Can I have what you’re having in there?’ And I was like, ‘Don’t ruin the chips! It’s the only time I’m allowed to eat them.’ I remember my parents saying to Amy, ‘I don’t think you’ll like it.’ But she said, ‘Can I just try it?’ She thought it was delicious. That was a turning point for me.”
Now in her early 40s, Shanmugalingam considers Sri Lankan food to be “one of the world’s most unsung cuisines”. She is hoping to help change that, first with a very personal cookbook, Rambutan: Sri Lankan food, and then in the autumn by opening a restaurant of the same name in London’s Borough Market. Shanmugalingam wasn’t planning for the two ventures to run so close together, but her “pandemic baby” turned into pandemic twins.
What defines and distinguishes Sri Lankan food? Well, curries definitely are at the heart of it. “If it moves, we can curry it,” Shanmugalingam likes to joke. But what makes it unique, she thinks, are the different cultures and colonisers that have tweaked the cuisine over the centuries: Javanese, Malay, Indian, Arab, Portuguese, Dutch and British among them. Coconut milk and oil are more abundant than butter or ghee; there’s phenomenal seafood from shallow lagoon waters; dal and rotis from southern India. “It’s a melting pot of all these different influences,” Shanmugalingam says.
There are a few reasons, she believes, that Sri Lankan food isn’t better known outside its borders. The obvious one is the 25-year civil war that started in 1983 between the Sinhala majority government and Tamil rebels. The country remains profoundly turbulent: shortages of food, fuel and medicines have left it on the brink of collapse this year. “For a country so beautiful and interesting,” Shanmugalingam says, “it’s not as travelled to as it could have been if it hadn’t elected a series of idiots.”
Shanmugalingam, whose parents left for the UK in the 1960s, also suggests another factor. “Sri Lankan tend to do sensible jobs,” she says. “My sister’s a doctor and my cousins are actuaries. I studied economics, which I always say is like doing fine art if you’re Sri Lankan. It’s the most out-there thing you’re allowed to do.”
The result is a cookbook that somehow feels fresh but familiar. Partly because of the bounty of coconut oil, fruit and vegetables in Sri Lanka, more than half the recipes in Rambutan are vegan. “I’m technically Hindu,” Shanmugalingam says, “and most of us don’t eat meat on Fridays. Most of us are part-time vegetarian basically.”
Shanmugalingam is hopeful that Rambutan represents the best of Sri Lankan at a difficult time for the country. “People borrow and exchange a lot,” she says. “Then there are dishes that everybody knows are the best: like crab curry from Jaffna or black pork belly curry from the south. So, on some things, we agree.”
Recipes from Rambutan by Cynthia Shanmugalingam
Prawn curry with tamarind (above)
To make it easier, my recipe is made either with raw shelled prawns, or prawns you have shelled yourself. If you have time and want the flavour bomb of the original, it’s worth the effort to get shelling, and then to spend two minutes making a little spicy prawn oil with the shells and heads. It sounds like it could be a bit cheffy or oily, but it’s super-easy and makes for a glossy, complex, glorious dish. Instructions for both methods are below.
raw prawns 500g with shells on (300g without)
coconut or vegetable oil 1 tbsp, plus 2 tbsp for the prawn oil
Sri Lankan (SL) curry powder 2 tsp (see below), plus 1 tsp for the prawn oil
tamarind block 1½ golf-ball-sized pieces, soaked in 60ml warm water for 10 minutes
red onion 1, peeled and finely sliced
fresh curry leaves 10
garlic 1 clove, peeled and finely sliced
fresh ginger 2cm piece, peeled and finely sliced
salt a pinch
coconut milk 200ml
For Sri Lankan (SL) curry powder
coriander seeds 30g
cumin seeds 15g
fennel seeds 15g
black peppercorns 15g
coconut or vegetable oil 2 tbsp
fresh curry leaves 8-10
dried Kashmiri or medium hot red chillies 70g
ground turmeric ¼ tsp
It’s worth making your own batch of SL curry powder. It takes 10 minutes and will keep in the fridge in a jar for three months, but feel free to scale the quantities up or down depending on your needs.
Make sure the windows are open and the ventilation is on, because roasting the chillies will kick up an intense smell that carries through the house. In a dry pan over a low-medium heat, roast the coriander, cumin and fennel seeds and black peppercorns for 1-2 minutes, stirring regularly, until they begin to be really fragrant, then pour them into a bowl. Add the oil to the pan, and cook the curry leaves and dried chillies for 2-3 minutes, stirring often. Remove from the heat and when cool, blitz in a spice grinder or mini food processor until fine – you can blitz it in batches if you need to. Stir in the turmeric, and put the whole lot in a jam jar
If you’re making the prawn oil, place a sieve over a heatproof bowl. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a wok or medium-sized pan over a high heat. When it’s shimmering and hot, add the prawn heads and shells and 1 teaspoon of SL curry powder. Stir-fry vigorously for 7-8 minutes, until the shells are pink; give the heads a bit of a squeeze with the end of your spoon as you go, as they’re full of sweet flavour. Switch off the heat, and pass the prawn oil through your sieve into the bowl, discarding any prawn shells left in the sieve.
To make the Sri Lankan curry, squeeze the tamarind with your fingers, then discard the seeds and skin, leaving behind the pulpy water. Add 1 tablespoon of oil to your wok or pan over a medium-high heat. Fry the onion for 4-5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until soft. Add the curry leaves, garlic and ginger. Stir-fry for 30 seconds until the garlic is just getting fragrant, then stir in the tamarind water, 2 teaspoons of SL curry powder and the salt, and bring to a boil.
Turn the heat down to a simmer and cook through for 2-3 minutes. Finally, add the prawns and coconut milk, and stir through. Bring back to a simmer and cook for 3-4 minutes – no more or the prawns will overcook.
Switch off the heat and if you have it, pour the prawn oil into the curry and stir it in gently so that it is nice and glossy. Dish up, and finish with a generous squeeze of lime.
Tomato rasam broth with leek and coriander