'I feel most relaxed when I'm cooking .... I put all of my creativity into the food'
Can't afford to jet off for some winter sun? A Sri Lankan curry should hit the spot instead, says Abi Jackson
Too often, the cuisines of South Asia are lumped into one pot and blandly labelled 'curry'. The nuances between Keralan and Nepalese, Bangladeshi and Pakistani food are largely ignored - especially if your only contact with them is via your local takeaway.
Until recently, Sri Lankan food was similarly neglected, but UK chef Emily Dobbs is single-handedly trying to raise its profile. With an interest in fresh, seasonal dishes, she wants to "remove the stigma that curries have to be greasy, oily and a takeaway food".
"I often have a curry with scrambled eggs and salad; they can be really light and really colourful," she enthuses.
It's time we see Sri Lankan food as a distinct cuisine
The 29-year-old Londoner's debut cookbook, Weligama is like sunshine distilled. The pages are filled with coconutty curries, zingy salads, hot and sour sambals and her egg hoppers - lacy crepe bowls hollowed out with a soft boiled egg perched in the middle ("they look really cool, and they're really delicious").
Emily made her name whipping up hoppers, selling them from her one-man market stall in south London. "Egg hoppers will become as recognisable as eggs Benedict," she says, adamant. She reckons that so far, the flavours of Sri Lanka - think turmeric, cinnamon and tamarind - have been prevented from travelling further because of the country's civil war, but that's set to change.
"People ask me why I cook Sri Lankan food, and it's because I like it," explains Emily, who started visiting her uncle in the country as a child. "The first time I ever tried avocado, it was in a sweet Sri Lankan dessert. We ate with our hands, and ate things like shark curry - everything was so exotic and exciting."
It's okay to tweak and develop traditional recipes
However, don't pick up Weligama expecting traditional recipes that have been handed down the generations. "You wouldn't get food like this in Sri Lanka - I take classic Sri Lankan recipes and British recipes and modernise them," says Emily.
By 'modernise', she means lightening and brightening dishes, and, where possible, swapping ingredients for ones you can actually find in the UK - for instance, you can't get "beetroot the size of my head" here, nor "this amazing buffalo curd yoghurt" that Emily loves, which is kept in clay terracotta pots and left out all day in the sun: "It's just really satisfying to eat."
Emily, who eventually trained at Ballymaloe Cookery School, began cooking in her early 20s, after studying for an art degree in Manchester. To tackle artist's block, she went travelling and wound up cooking to support herself. She made her first curry while working with a "hillbilly" on a ranch in Wyoming. "He would just let me cook anything," she remembers. "Thursday was my night and I'd cook curries. My granny, who's 86 and once lived in Delhi, she'd email me recipes." The recipe for the first curry she attempted, her grandmother's peas and cheese dish, is in Weligama.
"I was really experimental and inquisitive," adds Emily, recalling how at uni she'd mix turmeric with egg yolk to make paint, while in America she'd prepare beef carpaccio using meat from the cattle on the ranch, and go foraging. "Wyoming had the best rocket I've ever had, really spicy and white-dotted," she says.
Always be curious about what you're eating
That inquisitiveness hasn't faded, and comes in handy when trying to navigate Sri Lankan produce on her annual trips to the country. "I'll go to a market and point at a vegetable and ask, 'What is this?' And they'll say, 'Madam, it's 50 rupees', and I'll be like, 'No. What's it called?"
Emily's egg hopper street food stall is on hiatus, but she runs supper clubs and pop-ups and dreams of running her own restaurant. "I'm always cooking, I feel my most relaxed when I'm cooking - it really calms me down," she says. "I put all my creativity into food. It's a mindful thing, it's very artistic and creative. All the colours and textures, it's how I express myself."
Weligama: Recipes From Sri Lanka by Emily Dobbs, photography by Issy Croker, is published by Seven Dials, priced £25. Available now
Tuna ambul thiyal
What you'll need
500g fresh tuna steaks
1tsp chilli powder
2tbsps roasted curry powder
1tsp freshly ground black pepper
1tbsp vegetable or coconut oil
Handful of curry leaves
5g pandan (if you can find it)
2 small red onions, thinly sliced
1-2 green bird's-eye chillies, de-seeded and sliced
10g fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
10g garlic, peeled and sliced
1tsp sea salt, plus extra pinch
1tbsp tamarind paste
1 cinnamon stick, broken in half
Squeeze of lime juice
A handful of coriander leaves
1 lime, cut into wedges
Sliced avocado and green salad (optional)
Chop the tuna into 3cm pieces and marinate with the chilli powder, curry powder and black pepper. Set aside.
Heat the oil in a saucepan and, when beginning to smoke, add the curry leaves followed by the pandan, onions, green chillies, ginger and garlic. Season with the salt. Fry for a couple of minutes then add the fish and two tablespoons of water, and the tamarind paste, cinnamon and a big pinch of salt. Stir and cook on a high heat for a minute then add a squeeze of lime juice.
Serve with coriander leaves and lime wedges, with some sliced avocado and a green salad, if you like.
Serves 2-4 as a side
Gotu kola salad
What you'll need
30g flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
15g mint, finely chopped
50g freshly grated coconut
Juice of 1 lime
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ a small red onion, thinly sliced
A handful of cherry tomatoes, chopped
2 anchovies, finely chopped
1 green chilli, deseeded and thinly sliced
1 spring onion, finely chopped
1 celery stick, thinly sliced
Handful of pomegranate seeds
Put the parsley and mint in a bowl. In another bowl, add the coconut and season with the lime juice and some salt and black pepper.
Stir well and add to the herbs along with the onion and tomatoes.
Add the anchovies (these are a must if you aren't vegetarian) and any of the optional ingredients you like.
If you are serving with a spicy curry, avoid the green chilli and serve as a refreshing salad, seasoned well with lime juice and salt.
Serves 2 as a side