Acclaimed Chef O Tama Carey Shares Her Favourite Sydney Restaurants
It’s hard to imagine a young O Tama Carey being a fussy eater. What would she make of her future self, a chef-owner of the modern Sri Lankan restaurant Lankan Filling Station, cooking up fermented hoppers, deep-fried white chillies and turmeric-sauteed cabbage?
Not much, probably. “I was picky like you wouldn’t believe,” says Carey.
From persnickety child to Sydney’s hopper queen, it’s been quite a journey for Carey. Originally set on pursuing an acting career, she fell into hospitality quite accidentally as a 19-year-old backpacker, where, stumped for cash in London, a friend found her a job at Notting Hill restaurant The Good Cook.
On her return to Sydney, she notched up kitchen years working at some of Sydney’s finest establishments. She’s done French at Bistro Moncur, Chinese at Billy Kwong, and Italian at Berta (even there, she was sneaking curry leaves into the mod-Italian menu), and now, Sri Lankan.
“Sri Lanka is part of my heritage but I’m not sure [its cuisine] feels like home exactly,” says Carey. Growing up in Adelalde, her Sri Lankan-Burgher mother would cook dishes from the motherland only on special occasions. “I think it’s more the fact that Lankan Filling Station is my very own that it feels so good,” says Carey.
She’s got a lot to feel good about. Since opening in late July, Lankan has been packed with diners; some perhaps who’ve loyally followed Carey since her hopper-stall days at the Carriageworks Markets, others perhaps who are simply intrigued by the growing presence of Sri Lankan restaurants in the inner city.
“There’s a lot of [Sri Lankan restaurants] in the suburbs, but there’s not a lot of places doing modern Sri Lankan food,” she says. She cites an anecdotal increase in the number of Australian tourists travelling to the subcontinental nation: “There’s more of an awareness about Sri Lanka and its food, and that’s great.”
As well as populating the menu with curries, sambals and pan rolls – oh, those spiced beef pan rolls, some sort of crisp divine hybrid of a spring roll and a curry puff – Carey is on a mission to educate Sydney diners about Sri Lankan cuisine.
The biggest misconception? “That it’s like Indian food,” she says. With its mixed Dutch, Portuguese and British colonial history, ethnic groups (Sinhalese, Tamil, Burghers) and religions (Buddhism, Tamil-Hindu, Tamil-Muslim), Sri Lankan is not so much a melting pot, but a melting cauldron of gastronomic influences.
“I think that’s the flavour balances are a lot similar to Thai food. I find it interesting that Thailand and Sri Lanka are the two biggest Buddhist countries … [and] their food have a similarity in terms of balance and freshness, of sour, salty and sweet flavours,” she says.
Her proudest item on the Lankan menu is the hoppers, the bowl-shaped rice-and-coconut crepes that are essential to a Sri Lankan meal: tear a chunk, dunk it into a curry, repeat. They’re all too easy to eat, but are incredibly fiddly to make, requiring three different types of rice flour and a two-day fermentation process to achieve peak-hopper goodness.
“They’re a pain in the arse, they really are,” says Carey. But she admits that without the hoppers, there wouldn’t be Lankan Filling Station.
“The whole reason [I opened the restaurant] was to eat hoppers. It was greed. I wanted to eat hoppers and no-one would ever cook them for me,” she says.
But when she does want someone else to cook for her, here’s where she heads in Sydney.
Ester, Chippendale: “It’s my partner [Mat Lindsay’s] restaurant, but it’s also my one of my favourite restaurants and always has been. The menu changes so often, but one of my favourite things that I ate, ever, was the salt-baked mud crab. I was there on my own one day and I had a martini, and a half salt-baked mud crab all to myself. Someone tried to talk to me halfway through, and I was like, ‘Please don’t talk to me. I’m busy.’ I was very happy. Mat cooks good shellfish. He’s got a way with it.”
Chaco Bar, Darlinghurst: “It’s a little Japanese place on the corner which I love. They’re open for lunch too [for ramen], you just have to get in early.”
Poly, Surry Hills: “It’s just up the road [from Lankan Filling Station], so it’s handy, and just delicious.”
Four Ate Five, Surry Hills: “I do like the 485 breakfast, which is full of pickles and hummus.”
Bill and Toni’s, Darlinghurst: “They do good ol’ daggy sandwiches. I get them to make me a crispy bacon sandwich on toasted Turkish bread.”
Favourite ‘Cheap Eats’
Pho Pasteur, CBD: “My [go-to order] is the beef rice noodle soup, a small one. You have to ask for the sambal. I think they make their own – it’s a really dry [chilli sauce]. It’s so delicious.”
Published 20 December, 2018