81 Burwood Rd
Hawthorn VIC 3122
+61 3 9077 2389
Disclaimer: Peter and Libby attended this event as guests of Tusk Gallery and Undertow Media.
Growing up, I had quite a few Sri Lankan friends. Back then, I wasn’t the foodie that I am now so I never wondered why there were so many Sri Lankans in my school but barely any Sri Lankan restaurants in Melbourne. Hell, I only know one Thai person so what’s with all these suburban Thai restaurants?!
Recently though, I had a few conversations about Sri Lankan food with my part Dutch-Sri Lankan friend Peter. Wanting to know more about this mysterious cuisine, I asked him what he knew about it and whether he ate it a lot growing up. Sadly, he wasn’t particularly useful - all he could tell me was that Sri Lankans cooked a lot of curries and sweets with peculiar names such as ‘love cake’. Thus, when Roxanne from Undertow Media contacted me to see if I was keen to sample some Sri Lankan food at Tusk Gallery, I happily accepted.
As part of Good Food Month, several restaurants have been offering special set dinners under the ‘World Dinners’ banner. Tusk Gallery is one of the participating restaurants and their ‘Flavours of Old Ceylon’ four-course set dinner serves as a great introduction to Sri Lankan cuisine. This was perfect for a newbie like me and a fake Sri Lankan like Pete.
We began with some hoppers, which are pancakes made with fermented rice batter and coconut milk. They can be eaten plain or filled with anything from egg to honey to curries. Tonight, we were given two hoppers each. One had coconut sambol (chilli grated coconut) in it, while the other had meat (curried lamb for me, curried prawns for Pete).
We did the whole switcheroo-slash-mix-and-match thing so that we could sample both the lamb and prawn ones – both were delicious. In particular, the lamb curry was more Indonesian rendang than any Indian curry in that it was very rich with spices, but not a lot of heat. The best bit, however, was eating the hoppers themselves once they had soaked up all the curry sauces.
When the waiter mentioned the name of this dish, I automatically assumed that we’d get a curry and roti-type dish so imagine my surprise when I saw a bowl filled with chicken, fried egg and vegies, garnished with micro herbs. I couldn’t see them at first, but there were also little bits of roti in the bowl. The type of roti used here is Godhamba roti, a dense roti that’s been chopped into little pieces using metal blades. It’s kind of like eating fried noodles – but with roti. Very delicious.
Then we had lamprais. No, not lampreys, Sir Tyrion. Lamprais. Pete said this was a Dutch Burgher dish that he’s enjoyed from time to time. I was actually excited about eating this dish because there is a very similar Indonesian dish called nasi bogana which is native to my mother’s hometown Tegal, Central Java. This then sparked a discussion about Dutch influences on both Sri Lankan and Indonesian food.
What both dishes have in common is first and foremost, the banana leaf that holds everything together. The fillings, of course, aren’t identical but very similar – rice, egg, sambal, curries and whatever else you feel like. While the Indonesian version has coconut-flavoured rice, the lamprais rice here is perfumed with onions, spices, stock and ghee.
Meanwhile, the chicken curry here was flavoured with cinnamon, cardamom and cloves rather than curry and chilli. This meant that it was not heavy, yet it still remained flavoursome. The fried ball you see on the left is a frikkadeller, a Dutch meatball. This Dutch ball got me excited (snigger, snigger) because again, there’s an Indonesian version of this called the perkedel – the same thing, but with mashed potatoes as well as meat.
Our dessert was the traditional wattalapam, a coconut pudding made with coconut milk and cardamom, cloves and nutmeg. Pete wasn’t familiar with this dish but Wikipedia told me that it’s a Tamil Muslim dish that’s popular in South India and Sri Lankan. Either way, it was a very lovely end to our meal – I thought of it as a Sri Lankan panna cotta.
Although Pete insisted that this wasn’t a true Sri Lankan dining experience per se (by that, he means that Sri Lankans generally don’t ‘do’ restaurants – street food and home cooked meals are the way to go), he still thought our meal was great. I had to agree and hey, c’mon, we were in Hawthorn after all. Our waiter was friendly and the food came out very quickly even though the restaurant got quite busy just as we left. The Flavours of Old Ceylon dinner was a great way to introduce the uninitiated to Sri Lankan food in a homely and intimate setting and based on my experience, I am keen to try more Sri Lankan restaurants.
Postscript: Tusk Gallery are offering the Flavours of Old Ceylon dinner for two more nights this year. Details: $40 per head, 28-29th November 2013, any time between 6:00 pm – 10:00 pm. Book now to secure your place!