O Tama Carey’s Sri Lankan roots haven’t protected her from feeling “fraudulent” about serving the island country’s cuisine. But after finishing her Lanka Food cookbook during the recent lockdown, the Lankan Filling Station chef now feels qualified to be making lamprais, thosa and peni pol pancakes.
“What is Sri Lankan food?”
It’s a question Carey has constantly asked herself since opening Lankan Filling Station three years ago in East Sydney.
“There’s no simple answer to it,” she says. There are so many cultural influences that have shaped the South Asian island nation’s cuisine: just untwist a serve of lamprais – layers of rice and curry wrapped in banana leaf – and you’ll realise how complex the story can be.
“It’s what you eat for lunch all over the country. But the Burghers obviously came and made it their own,” she says, referring to the local ethnic group who are of Eurasian descent. The inclusion of three-meat curry in lamprais is a clue to this: chicken is usually the common denominator meat, because Muslims don’t eat pork and Buddhists don’t consume beef. “But this is a Burgher dish, because it’s got all of that in it.” Then there’s the inclusion of frikandels (Dutch meatballs) and dried belachan paste – a punchy Malaysian touch, which also reflects the Burgher population in that country. “But it’s also rice and curry, so that’s Sri Lankan as well.”
The cuisine’s multi-flavoured history and complex origins are also the focus of her new Lanka Food cookbook, which she completed during the recent lockdown (and will hit book stores in March). Spending the last year on the book has been an illuminating and challenging experience.
“There’s that whole thing about feeling fraudulent about Sri Lankan food for me. Because I didn’t grow up there,” she says. “So in some ways, I do feel like I’m not Sri Lankan enough to be having a Sri Lankan restaurant. And also, since I’ve opened Lankan Filling Station, I’ve had more criticism about being authentic. Which is weird – because I actually am Sri Lankan.”
When she was cooking Chinese food at Billy Kwong, or presenting her take on Italian dishes at Berta, however, no one doubted Carey’s kitchen cred or culinary standing.
It reflects the double standard chefs of colour face when cooking from their own heritage – they’re expected to miraculously nail someone else’s ideal of their cuisine, instead of being allowed honest, evolving ideas about the food.
This criticism about being “authentic” enough is something “I’ve always struggled with”, says Carey. And writing the book during lockdown triggered these anxieties again. But since June 2020, when she first sketched out plans for her cookbook, she realised that she had actually spent a lifetime working on this project – and she was well qualified to talk about the cuisine.
Carey lived in Sri Lanka with her mother when she was a child, before any memories could properly form about the country. In 1998, she went on her first major trip there, with her mother – the first of many countless stays.
“All of my trips there have been about food,” the chef says. “My nan was such a good cook and I’ve cooked with her, and I’ve travelled there so much.” There have been many meals, questions and cooking lessons – a lifetime of banked knowledge about bracing sambols, lacey hoppers, warming curries and well-kneaded roti.
“You’re taking your heritage, you’ve explored it and you’re bringing it to the people.”
“I actually have been researching this book and I haven’t been making it up,” she says.
While getting elements of Lanka Food translated, her mum put Carey in touch with some of her old friends, just to make sure things checked out.
“I got to talk to someone my mum went to school with. I had such a lovely conversation with her,” the chef recalls. “She said: ‘your nan would be so proud of you; it is so wonderful what you’re doing. You’re taking your heritage, you’ve explored it and you’re bringing it to the people.’”
This praise might be the most important kind of so-called ‘authenticity’.
Carey’s family has strongly shaped her ideas about Sri Lankan cuisine and culture, something that has influenced her cooking at Lankan Filling Station as well as her approach to cooking at home. For example, cast an eye over Lanka Food’s cover, for instance, and you’ll see the words ‘serendipity and spice’ underneath the title. It’s a reference to the legend of Sri Lanka – and much more.
“The island has had so many names. Serendip (or Serendib) was one of the early names. And it was Arab traders that named it that,” Carey says. But there’s also a folk story her mother would tell her about Sri Lanka, involving one of Sinbad’s voyages going awry – the legendary sailor had run out of water and food and his passengers were going to die. “But then they smelt the cinnamon from Sri Lanka coming off the land. And that was why they found Sri Lanka,” she says. “That’s why they lived and that’s where the word ‘serendipity’ came from.”
Or so the story goes.
“This is what my mum told me, but my mum likes to make things up. So I tried to research this and it turns out it’s not entirely true. It has bits of truth to it,” she says.
For Carey, working on the book was a welcome relief from the challenges of the recent lockdown, where she had to keep Lankan Filling Station afloat and staff engaged while the restaurant’s doors remained closed for more than three months.
To bring in revenue, the restaurant joined the Providoor service, which allowed cold-freighted versions of their meals to be delivered as far as Canberra, 300 kilometres away. “I think it’s a great idea,” she says. The chef appreciated the opportunity to extend the restaurant’s reach, but “the biggest problem was that we couldn’t shut off orders”. Which meant her team had to unexpectedly prep 146 banquet menus one night.
“To pack it into boxes, it would take five of us an hour and a half. Just to put them into the boxes,” she says. “But to pack the food into actual packaging, it took days.”
To ensure all the elements didn’t break, crumble or spill mid-travels, the banquets had to be wrapped in a lot of packaging. Carey remembers they logged the number of containers required in a spreadsheet – during their busiest week, they were going through 4,500 individual items of packaging. “I just looked at that number and said, ‘take that off the spreadsheet, because I don’t want to see that number ever again’. Because that’s so much packaging and it just makes me feel a bit sick,” she says. That’s when they brought in glass jars and compostable bags to bring down the carbon footprint of their cold-freighted meals.
One upside of lockdown was the opportunity to explore new Sri Lankan dishes for the book – and consider them for the restaurant menu.
“There’s the pancake called a thosa. But it’s often pronounced ‘dosa’. So when I first had one in Sri Lanka, I was really disappointed, because I thought I was going to get a dosa and I really love dosas. I was like, ‘what is this nonsense?’” she says. It turned out they were delicious. “I think traditionally you make them with a combination of soaked rice and soaked lentils.” Her version of this savoury pancake is a brilliant shade of gold, coloured with turmeric until it’s as bright as midday sunshine. “I think they should be on a brunch menu.”
Getting a chance to flex more creativity, more newfound knowledge about Sri Lankan dishes, try out new specials, offer peni pol pancakes for Sunday brunch –they’re all things she’s been looking forward to doing since the restaurant reopened last October and Lankan Filling Station is no longer on pause.
“Coming out of lockdown, there feels like there’s a bit of energy again,” she says.
Lee Tran Lam is a writer, podcaster, and editor of New Voices on Food, a Diversity In Food Media anthology showcasing under-represented Australian talent. Her work has been published in The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Gourmet Traveller, and SBS Food. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Resy, too.