Sweet, sour and spicy: Tama Carey’s Lanka Food
O Tama Carey has been serving up Sri Lankan food at her Sydney restaurant, Lanka Filling Station, since 2018. With her new book, Lanka Food, she hopes to spread the word to the rest of the world.
Q. What are the characteristics of Sri Lankan food?
|O Tama Carey|
A. The answer to that is really complicated, which is part of the reason why I have written this book. I know there is a massive diaspora of Sri Lankans around who know their food really well, but [in the] mainstream there is not a lot of restaurants in Australia that do Sri Lankan food. It is a curry-based cuisine, but I think there are a lot of [similar] characteristics with Thai food, with that hot-sour balance. A lot of it is really spicy, and then there is sweetness from jaggery, which is similar to Thai palm sugar. And they use bitter greens as well, so there is that. In terms of ingredients, the main thing you cannot really cook Sri Lankan food without are curry leaves, Maldive fish and fresh coconut.
Q. Sri Lanka has a long history of being colonised and a lot of different cultural influences. How is that reflected in the food?
A. That is the main thing about the food today, all those different influences. There is a deep-rooted influence first and foremost from India, and Tamil food. So that is why rice and curry is the staple meal all over the island. But then you have got a lot of Muslim influence, which is really interesting — you see that in the ingredients and in specific dishes like biryani — and then there is a Dutch Burgher influence. With Tamil food, you have got hoppers [a bowl-shaped pancake], which is something we do quite a lot at the restaurant, and there is a Chinese influence as well, as there were once a lot of Chinese merchants. You notice that in the stir-fried dishes at the street food places — they all have woks. There are a lot of what they call ‘devilled’ dishes, which cover stir-fries or anything with chilli or that is really spicy, but is not a curry.
Q. How has Australia influenced the food you cook?
A. My cooking is the result of so many different influences — I have spent a lot of time cooking Chinese and Italian, I have spent time in French restaurants and Japanese restaurants — my background is from all over the place really. I use Sri Lankan ingredients, but I try to bring Australian ingredients in as much as possible, and, technique-wise, it is not traditional, but I suppose flavour-wise it is more so.
Q. How was it writing recipes that have traditionally been passed down orally?
A. It is so tricky because I feel like what I have done is barely even scratch the surface. I have travelled [to Sri Lanka] a lot, and my grandmother and my mum were really good cooks. When [my nan] was growing up and when my mum was being raised [in Sri Lanka], they had a lot of servants, who would have done a lot of the cooking. And so when my nan came to Australia in the 1970s, a lot of that influenced her cooking, because she suddenly had to cook for a family of five every single day when she would’ve had help before. And she had to do it in a country where she could not get all of the ingredients. Before [my restaurant], Lankan Filling Station, was a proper idea, I went to Perth, hung out with my nan for a month, and the aim was to get all the family recipes. Even then, she was very sneaky. Like I’d turn my back, and she’d be putting something in the pot. And it is funny because with that generation there was that secretiveness. There is a great family story about how nan gave her chicken curry recipe to all five children, and they each got a slightly different version.
|A good dal is a thing of beauty and comfort.|
|This chutney isn’t based on a traditional recipe, but the hot, sweet and spicy flavours fit comfortably into a Sri Lankan meal.|
|This addictive snack is simple to make and a perfect nibble with drinks.|