Cynthia Shanmugalingam’s new book Rambutan brings together her life in England and her Sri Lankan roots. By Primrose Monteiro-D’Souza
In Rambutan: Recipes From Sri Lanka, Cynthia Shanmugalingam uses 80 easy-to-make recipes to tell the story of a unique, spicy, fresh, vegan-friendly cuisine that embraces Javanese, Malay, Indian, Arab, Portuguese, Dutch and British influences.
Cynthia grew up in Coventry in England, but ate dishes adapted by her mother and grandmother at home and visited Sri Lanka every childhood holiday. The British-Sri Lankan cook has run pop-ups and street food stalls since 2014, and is the founder of a social enterprise street food truck Kitchenette Karts, which helps ex-offenders get a start in the food industry. She started doing Sri Lankan food pop-ups in 2019, and now has a restaurant in London, also called Rambutan.
The book combines stories of family and travel with candid photographs that capture ancient and modern Sri Lanka. We spoke to Cynthia about how Rambutan came to be…
Your book and your restaurant in London are both ‘Rambutan’. And you chose the name because it is as un-Indian as possible. Tell us your thoughts on how Sri Lankan food is distinctly different from Indian food.
Sri Lankan food does share some dishes – such as puttu, idiyappam, bowl-shaped appam, dosai, vadai and others – with India, especially food from Tamil Nadu and Kerala, but we have our own distinct spin on many of these. Jaffna roasted curry powder – heavy on coriander and other aromatics – is distinct, and we tend to braise dishes in coconut milk. We use a lot of Maldivian fish, lemongrass and pandan leaves in our cooking; and vinegar and sugar in dishes that come from the Portuguese influence. Some dishes are completely unique to the island, such as lamprais, and all the glorious island sambols – seeni sambol, ‘pol’ or coconut sambol, katta sambol, and many others.
How did you come to decide to write the book?
I had always dreamed of opening my own Sri Lankan restaurant; then, when the pandemic hit, I thought that dream would remain unfulfilled. My best friend suggested I do a cookbook version instead, and I realised it would be great fun to tell the story of Sri Lankan food the way I see it.
Your food is inspired, but not limited, by your Sri Lankan roots. Tell us more.
Rambutan is a project, like me, born of two cultures. As the diaspora, we feel caught between worlds. So there is a malu fish bun with a traditional filling but with a Taiwanese style of brioche I learned in London. My old Trinidadian flatmate and her mum taught me to cook plantain differently to how we cook it in Sri Lanka, and the resulting dish is a delicious hybrid. There’s a fried chicken sandwich with pol sambol that is based on my dad getting us a fried chicken bucket whenever we finished our summer exams in England, and eating it with my mum’s sambol.
Although you were born and brought up in England, you went to Sri Lanka for summer holidays and to visit your parents when they moved back to the country. What have these visits brought to your food?
Going to eat in the villages meant really cooking the old-fashioned way – milling spices on an ammi (stone grinder), seeing what a difference it makes, hand pressing coconut milk, everything very fresh, or preserved by very old methods. There’s just nothing like it, and no fancy hotel in Colombo can compete with the quality of the food aunties cook over a fire at home. Travelling with my dad when we were little kids also exposed us to a lot of great, simple street cooking, and the pleasures of eating pickled mango with chilli on the beach or fried chickpeas with coconut. Versions of those recipes are in the book.
What does your mum think of the way you cook Sri Lankan food?
Mum is my harshest critic; she’s the person whose judgement I trust the most. Some things she does are weird (like turmeric pongal with eggs for breakfast or roasting pumpkin for a curry – she doesn’t like to turn her oven on!), but I have made her a grilled corn sundal, like a kind of salad with a lot of citrusy lime, or a frozen falooda, or a different way of cooking prawns using the heads to make a spicy oil. She’ll give me a nod, and I know it must be really good. Sometimes, we do some testing together; she is very game for all my experiments and she is great fun to cook with.
Which is the recipe you are most happy to have included in the book and why?
I loved including my mum’s recipe for Jaffna lamb curry, which is traditional and really very easy. I hope it gets everyone into the cuisine; it’s so simple. My publishers let me do quite a long intro about my brother being too busy playing computer games to learn to cook and how Sri Lankan mothers let their sons get away with murder!
Was there any recipe that you decided to leave out?
There are dozens I had to leave out! A tamarind-shrimp kanji, many excellent fish curries, string hoppers because they require special equipment, puttu, many, many favourites. Maybe one day I’ll do a second book and fit them all in.
Also read: Curry Flavour With Sri Lankan Food