They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and the same is true, too, of women and children. It’s no big secret that the most direct route to understanding a culture is through its food – and, for those of us whose stomachs are every bit as big as their eyes, that culinary journey is the most beautiful one you could embark on.
It was an appetite for surfing as much as for food that drew Jon Lewin to Sri Lanka back in 2004, and, ever since, both things have lured him back for an annual pilgrimage – as have the country’s warm, welcoming residents. And, over a decade later, he’s published a tasty tribute to the Indian Ocean island.
The Locals’ Cookbook: Sri Lanka paints portraits of people through both photography and prose; coupling up cultural insights with tried-and-tested takes on Sri Lankan dishes. Gleaned directly from locals, Jon’s recipes are pretty authentic, but are made happily accessible for UK-based home cooks; this is food for cooking, not just looking at.
Jon reports that his debut cookbook is selling like the perennially-popular mutton rolls over in Sri Lanka, online, and in Bristol’s indie bookshops. In London, meanwhile, those planning a visit to Soho’s Hoppers should hop around the corner to Foyle’s: a copy of The Locals’ Cookbook is perfect for perusing when you end up in a long queue for your short eats.
Jon on Sri Lanka & his passion project
What’s your favourite recipe from the book, and why?
Ranji’s Dhal Curry. Ranji is my Sri Lankan mum, and has been making this recipe for me since the day I met her back in 2004. It’s the one dish that I can’t do without; my equivalent to comfort food. In Sri Lanka, I have it at least twice a day – maybe as breakfast with hoppers, for lunch with string hoppers, or as part of an evening spread with five or six other dishes. Even in the UK, I have it at least twice a week.
Many authentic South Asian cookbooks assume a degree of prior knowledge of cuisine and vocabulary in the reader – what challenges did you face in transforming the dishes you’d been taught into user-friendly recipes for uninitiated Western cooks?
This was the main challenge. With The Locals’ Cookbook being my first book, I hadn’t had much recipe-writing experience, so it was a very steep learning curve. Even though the majority of recipes are pretty straightforward, I tried to break them down even further so readers wouldn’t be intimidated.
The other issue was ingredients. Even though the dishes are simple to prepare, the long ingredients lists can be off-putting. Although exotic ingredients are becoming far more available in the UK, I recommended substitutes for more difficult-to-source items. As I say in the beginning of the book, once you have all the essentials to hand, you can’t really go wrong.
Did you share any British dishes with Sri Lankan locals?
Yes – I’m happy to eat local food, but a lot of tourists don’t want curry and rice three times a day. So I taught some of my restaurant-owning friends to make fish and chips, using local Lion lager in the batter. It goes down a storm, and in some cases it’s now a best-selling dish.
Are there any dishes you left out but would have loved to include?
Kothu roti – chopped roti mixed with your choice of fried vegetables, meat or fish; eggs; and an optional (but delicious) spicy sauce. It’s believed to have been invented by tea estate workers but is now one of the island’s best-loved dishes, available all over and regarded as a main street food delicacy.
Watching kothu roti being made is quite hypnotic, and you can hear the beat of it being made all over the island late into the night. It’s not overly difficult to make once you possess the skills and the proper equipment – two flat metal blades and a large hotplate – it was a real shame to leave it out, but I felt most people would find it hard to recreate in your average Western kitchen.
Can you share the story behind one of your all-time favourite photos in the book?
I’m going to go with shot of sunrise at the top of Adam’s Peak. This journey was really special – I set off in the dark at 2am with hundreds of locals and fellow tourists. After a hard slog up 5,200 steps, we arrived at the summit just in time to see the first rays of light shoot out from the horizon.
There’s a Buddhist temple at the top, along with many other shrines that cater for the different religions that visit this holy mountain. As the sun rose, the sound of drums and what sounded to me like some form of Sri Lankan bagpipe bellowed out. It was an amazingly spiritual experience – one I will never forget. The sunrise and views from each side of the peak were spectacular. If you visit this beautiful island, it’s a must-see.
Describe your fantasy day’s menu in Sri Lanka…
I’d have to say a simple breakfast of fresh passion fruit juice with Ranji’s dhal and hoppers; Biranga’s crab curry, string hoppers and dhal for lunch; then a seafood barbecue with my friend Rasika for dinner, followed by deep-fried caramelised coconut balls. I’d also have a few street snacks like breaded fish rolls and samosas in between.
Have you assimilated any Sri Lankan cooking techniques or eating habits into your own remit in the UK?
Without a doubt. I cook Sri Lankan at home a few times a week, and now add a lot of fresh grated coconut to other dishes – I can’t get enough of it. I also blend my own roasted and raw curry powder; these have become a major feature in my home cooking, too.
‘Taste memory’ is strongly linked to emotion – when you’re not there, how does eating Sri Lankan food make you feel?
Strangely enough, it makes me feel at home. I’ve spent over two years out of the last decade living over there, and the locals are now more like family to me than friends.
- Look out for my forthcoming post on more Sri Lankan food experiences and resources
- For more information and to order ‘The Locals’ Cookbook: Sri Lanka’ by Jon Lewin, click here
- To discover where to find kothu roti in London, click here
- For more inspiring South Asian cookbooks and food memoirs, click here
Image credit: All pictures by Jon Lewin