Sweet, sour and spicy: three recipes from O Tama Carey's new book, 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.

By Sarah Shaffi
Published 19 Apr 2022, 06:09 BST
O Tama Carey has been serving up Sri Lankan food at her Sydney restaurant, Lanka Filling ...

O Tama Carey has been serving up Sri Lankan food at her Sydney restaurant, Lanka Filling Station, since 2018. 

Photograph by O Tama Carey

What are the characteristics of Sri Lankan food?

The answer to that is really complicated, which is part of the reason why I’ve written this book. I know there’s a massive diaspora of Sri Lankans around who know their food really well, but [in the] mainstream there’s not a lot of restaurants in Australia that do Sri Lankan food. It’s 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’s sweetness from jaggery, which is similar to Thai palm sugar. And they use bitter greens as well, so there’s that. In terms of ingredients, the main thing you can’t really cook Sri Lankan food without are curry leaves, Maldive fish and fresh coconut.

Sri Lanka has a long history of being colonised and has a lot of different cultural influences. How is that reflected in the food?

That’s the main thing about the food today, all those different influences. There’s a deep-rooted influence first and foremost from India, and Tamil food. So that’s why rice and curry is the staple meal all over the island. But then you’ve 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’s a Dutch Burgher influence. With Tamil food, you’ve got hoppers [a bowl-shaped pancake], which is something we do quite a lot at the restaurant, and there’s 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 covers stir-fries or anything with chilli or that’s really spicy, but isn’t a curry.

How has Australia influenced the food you cook?

My cooking is the result of so many different influences — I’ve spent a lot of time cooking Chinese and Italian, I’ve 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’s not traditional, but I suppose flavour-wise it is more so.

How was it writing recipes that have traditionally been passed down orally?

It’s so tricky because I feel like what I’ve done is barely even scratch the surface. I’ve 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’ve 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 couldn’t 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’s funny because with that generation there was that secretiveness. There’s a great family story about how nan gave her chicken curry recipe to all five children, and they each got a slightly different version.

Discover the three recipes, below.

This addictive snack is simple to make and a perfect nibble with drinks. 

Photograph by Ansom Smart

1. Devilled cashews

This addictive snack is simple to make and a perfect nibble with drinks. The nuts should have an almost sweet flavour and be on the verge of being too salty and too hot. Make a larger batch if you like — they keep well for weeks in an airtight container.

Serves: 6-8    
Takes: 10 mins 

400g whole raw cashews
40g ghee
1 tbsp black mustard seeds 
6g curry leaves 
1 tbsp salt flakes, plus extra to taste
2½ tsp chilli flakes 
1 tbsp chilli powder, plus extra to taste

- Heat oven to 150C, 130C fan, gas 3.
- Spread out the cashews on a baking tray and place in the oven for 12-15 mins, giving them a toss 2-3 times throughout, until they are pale golden all over. Set aside to cool.
- Add the ghee to a large frying pan and place over a high heat. Once it’s melted, add the mustard seeds and fry, shaking the pan regularly, until the seeds just start to pop. Add the curry leaves and fry for 30 secs, stirring, then add the cooled cashews and half the salt, and stir well to coat the nuts.
- Continue to fry for 2-3 mins, stirring occasionally, until they turn a deep golden colour — a bit of charring is absolutely fine.
- Stir through the chilli flakes then swiftly remove the pan from the heat.
- Add the chilli powder and remaining salt and toss to coat. Taste and add more chilli or salt if you like. Set aside until just cool enough that you can easily eat them with your fingers. 

A good dal is a thing of beauty and comfort.

Photograph by Ansom Smart

2. Dal

A good dal is a thing of beauty and comfort, and this one is based on a recipe my mum taught me. Cheap, nutritious and simple to make, it tends to be a side dish, although really a bowl of rice and dal on its own is enough to warm the heart and fill the belly. Creamy, mild and very savoury, this is exactly the way we cook it at Lankan Filling Station. You can make it wetter or drier to suit your needs.

Serves: 4
Takes: 25 mins 

75g coconut oil
5g curry leaves
3 medium brown onions, peeled and roughly diced
3 large garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped 
2cm ginger, peeled and finely chopped
2½ tsp black mustard seeds
2 tsp ground turmeric
1 cinnamon stick
4 x 5cm pieces of pandan leaf (optional)
1 lemon grass stem (bottom 5cm only), 
lightly bruised
525g split red lentils, thoroughly washed 
450ml coconut cream

- Put the coconut oil into a medium-size saucepan and place over a medium heat. When it’s melted, add the curry leaves and fry, stirring, for 1 min. Add the onion, garlic and ginger. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, for 6-7 mins until the onion has softened. Lightly season with salt and pepper.
- Add the mustard seeds, turmeric and cinnamon. Cook, stirring, for 1-2 mins until the turmeric begins to catch on the base of the pan.
- Add the pandan leaf (if using), lemon grass and lentils, and stir well to combine. 
- Pour in the coconut cream along with 1 litre water. Mix well, then reduce the heat to low and simmer gently for 10-15 mins, stirring every now and then to check it’s not sticking to the pan. The dal is ready when the lentils have turned yellow and pulpy, while still retaining a little texture. Taste and season if you need to, remove the cinnamon and lemon grass, then serve piping hot.

This chutney isn’t based on a traditional recipe, but the hot, sweet and spicy flavours fit comfortably into a Sri Lankan meal.

Photograph by Ansom Smart

3. Pineapple chutney

This chutney isn’t based on a traditional recipe, but the hot, sweet and spicy flavours fit comfortably into a Sri Lankan meal. This will last for up to two months in the fridge or in sterilised jars at room temperature.

Serves: 8    
Takes: 20 mins 

1 small pineapple (around 750g), peeled and cut into 2cm cubes
200g jaggery, chopped (or soft dark brown sugar)
1 tbsp chilli powder 
2 tsp salt flakes 
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 whole star anise
1½ tsp ground cardamom

- Place all the ingredients in a large bowl. Mix well so the jaggery coats the pineapple and almost dissolves.
- Place a large nonstick frying pan over a high heat, then spoon in enough of the pineapple mix to form a single layer. Leave it to sit undisturbed for 2-3 mins, until the jaggery starts to catch and the pineapple has taken on a bit of colour. Continue cooking for another 7-8 mins, stirring every now and then, until the mixture starts to look almost burnt.
- Transfer the charred pineapple to a clean bowl and repeat with the remaining mixture, including any liquid that’s pooled in the bottom of the bowl. 
- Set aside all the cooked pineapple until it’s cool enough to touch. Remove the star anise, then turn it out onto a chopping board and chop it to your preferred consistency — although keep it reasonably chunky. It gets messy, so you may need to do this in batches.  
- Return the mix to the bowl, taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. You want to taste all the spices, particularly the pepper. Serve at room temperature with a curry, or transfer to sterilised jars and store in a cool, dark place.

Published in Issue 15 (spring 2022) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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