Inside Sydney’s Sri Lankan Food Boom
Hopper to it.
If you’re noticing a spike in the number of hoppers, pol sambols and kottu roti seen around town, it’s probably because Sri Lankan food is having something of a moment right now in the Sydney food scene.
No longer to be conflated with Indian food, Sri Lankan cuisine is working its way into the limelight all on its own, thanks in no small part to a few key players working hard to place the complex, diverse flavours of the region firmly on the map.
Sri Lankan cuisine itself is a delightful amalgamation of influences, from India to the Middle East, Portugal and even England. Sri Lankan food has found a strong footing in the UK in the past two years – now it’s Australia’s turn.
According to Ruvanie De Zoysa, owner of recently-opened Sri Lankan-inspired eatery Hopper Kadé, Australians are looking to Sri Lankan food for something completely different.
“Sri Lankan food is so wholesome, flavourful and fresh,” she says. “It contains plenty of vegetables, so if you’re a vegan or a vegetarian, you’re laughing. I often wonder why we’re forced into eating cheap carb substitutes – particularly when you look at fast food – when you could just eat a hopper instead?”
Hoppers (or appam) are a quintessential Sri Lankan breakfast offering, and are at the heart of the casual restaurant De Zoysa runs with her partner, Chris Griffith. She explains that around the time she was thinking of starting her business, there weren’t many places in Sydney serving the bowl-shaped “crepes” made with coconut milk and rice flour and topped with heady curries, eggs and sambols. These days, things are a little different.
Hopper Kadé began as a stall at Orange Grove Markets at Tramsheds, and graduated to a permanent site just last week due to a veritable flood of demand. “We did a lot of planning and research before we even entered the markets,” De Zoysa says.
“The market stall was almost just to test the concept to see if there was demand – as it turned out, people loved it. Whatever feedback we had was generally positive, and it gathered its own momentum well beyond what we were doing to nurture that concept. From the get go people were asking when we were going to open a restaurant.”
In the last 12 months, inner city suburbs of Sydney have gained two new Sri Lankan restaurants (including Hopper Kadé), with a third to open up in Surry Hills this April. O Tama Carey, head chef and owner of forthcoming Sri Lankan diner Lankan Filling Station, says Australia’s love affair with Sri Lankan cuisine coincides with a newfound appreciation for the island nation itself.
“It’s really interesting that this is happening,” Carey says of the Sri Lankan food boom.
“Sri Lanka was a war-torn country for such a long time, and it changed so much. A lot more Australians are travelling there these days – I know many people who’ve gone there for the first time recently. So now, a cuisine that’s been undiscovered in Australia for so long is now getting more attention.”
Carey’s Darlinghurst restaurant, Lankan Filling Station, focuses on hoppers and ‘short eats’ – Sri Lanka’s answer to snacks. ‘Short eats’ are ubiquitous in Sri Lanka, eaten from about midday onwards and consisting of everything from crab cutlets and hot butter cuttlefish to kotthu roti, flaky flat bread chopped up and mixed with vegetables, meats and eggs.
Up until the last 12 months, Sri Lankan restaurant in Sydney were located proximally to migrant hubs, in suburbs like Toongabbie, Flemington, Croydon and Thornleigh. While Carey admits she still makes the trip to Croydon to visit her favourite spice shop regularly, the location of both Hopper Kadé and Lankan Filling Station speak to just how on-trend Sri Lankan food is becoming. Adding to the swell is Dish, a renowned Sri Lankan joint in Toongabbie that has this year found a second permanent home in Glebe to the delight of its city-dwelling fans.
Of course, as is the case with many cuisines adapted for Australian diners, some of those leading the Sri Lankan food charge aren’t sticking to the rulebook. Instead, they’re incorporating traditional elements of Sri Lankan cooking with a distinctly modern approach, blending the two to come up with something totally unique.
This is precisely the concept behind Hopper Kadé, De Zoysa tells The Upsider.
“We’re calling it Modern Lankan food – we’re bringing the essence and the goodness of the flavour and combining them with modern cooking techniques to create an Aussie Lankan menu.”
This plays out in a healthy, almost tapas-style menu designed to share. If you’re looking for authenticity over modern interpretations, De Zoysa suggests nothing quite tops a trip to Sri Lanka.
Carey agrees: “The really good stuff you’ll get is always home cooked. You need to find yourself an Auntie somewhere.”
Not sure how to begin your foray into Sri Lankan cuisine? Here’s a guide to some key terms to get you started:
Appam: Known in English as hoppers, these signature Sri Lankan snacks are eaten primarily for breakfast. They’re sometimes referred to as ‘Sri Lankan pancakes,’ and can be made sweet or savoury. A common variation is string hoppers (idiyappam), made with a hot water dough of rice meal or wheat flour steamed in the shape of a wicker mat.
Sambol: “Sambol is like an accompaniment or a condiment,” says De Zoysa. “It’s usually spicy, and it can consist of anything including coconut and onions but it always has chilli. At Hopper Kadé we use Maldive fish or bonito flakes to enhance the flavour of our sambols.” Hopper Kadé offers two sambols: a sweet and sour, and a pol or coconut sambol.
Ambul Thiyal: A hot, sour curry, originally created as a way of preserving fish in southern Sri Lanka. It usually consists of fish like tuna, onion, black pepper, chilli powder and other spices, curry leaves and garlic.
Kottu roti: Almost like Sri Lankan fried rice, kottu roti consists of flat bread cooked over a hot plate, then chopped up and mixed with meat and vegetables.
Lamprais: A Dutch-influenced dish consisting of oven-baked banana leaf packages of rice boiled in a stock, meatballs, meat curry, aubergine curry and a sweet onion sambol.
Visit Hopper Kadé at 253 Crown Street, Darlinghurst and Lankan Filling Station at Ground floor 58 Riley Street, East Sydney 2010, NSW. Lankan Filling Station is expected to open late April, 2018. Find Dish at either 381 Glebe Point Road, Glebe, or 7 Portico Parade, Toongabbie.
Published 27 February, 2018