Meet the Husband-and-Wife Team Behind Sri Lanka's First Sinhalese-Tamil Cookbook

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Meet the Husband-and-Wife Team Behind Sri Lanka's First Sinhalese-Tamil Cookbook

Conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils raged in Sri Lanka until 2009. But in the pages of Sri Lanka: The Cookbook, dishes from both ethnic groups—including hoppers, dhal, and tamarind curry—sit side by side.

Queensbury is at the nether end of the London Underground Metropolitan Line—the bit on the Tube map that your eye never drifts up to, it's so far away from the centre.

But if you make the trek north of the river, you'll discover that this 1930s suburb is a home to a long-standing Sri Lankan community. Across the road from Queensbury station is a large South Asian supermarket and it is here—among the shelves of dried coriander leaves, chili flakes, and jackfruit—that I meet Sri Lankan cook Prakash Sivanathan. He and his wife Niranjala Ellawala have just written Sri Lanka: The Cookbook, a comprehensive recipe book that celebrates the food of their home country.

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Sivanathan and I make our way into the store and are confronted by shelves of tropical vegetables, boxed up alongside shallots and aubergines.

"Snake gourds, jackfruit seeds, bitter gourd, banana flowers … " he lists. "When we first moved to the UK, it was very difficult to get any ingredients."

Prakash Sivanathan, co-author of Sri Lanka: The Cookbook, in a South Asian supermarket in Queensbury, London. Photo by the author.

Jackfruit.

Sivanathan and Ellawala came to London in the 1970s and found it almost impossible to recreate the dishes they grew up with.

"We had to make a special trip to Liverpool Street to a place near Petticoat Lane to buy things like curry leaves, which we couldn't find anywhere, and even lentils," Sivanathan remembers. "There was rice, but it was American grain. Now look at all the variety."

He gestures towards the sacks and sacks of different kinds of rice stacked up beside us on the supermarket's shelves.

Sacks of rice on sale in the supermarket.

"I think it changed in 1987," he adds with specificity. To give a potted history, there are two major ethnic groups living in Sri Lanka: the Sinhalese, who live mostly in the south and west of the island, and the Tamils in the north and the east. For many years after the British left and Sri Lanka became its own independent nation, tensions rumbled and in 1983, they erupted into civil war. Four years later, the northern Tamil city of Jaffna was under siege, and people from that area began to flee.

Sivanathan continues: "The war started, and Tamil refugees started to come. They came to England because there was already an established community of people from Sri Lanka here, and because they already had English as a language."

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He suggests that the conflict's end in 2009 has helped spark broader interest in Sri Lankan cuisine.

Aubergines.

Banana flowers.

"More people are travelling because the conflict is over, permanently I hope, and are discovering the treasures of Sri Lankan food."

But Sivanathan and Ellawala are representatives of the peace—both in their cooking and in their marriage. Ellawala is Sinhalese and Sivanathan is Tamil and though they married before war broke out, they're still unusual.

"It wasn't common, and we knew that, but eventually our parents had to accept it," says Sivanathan. "Now people keep telling us that what we've written has never been attempted or done before, putting Tamil and Sinhalese recipes together in the same book."

Jackfruit seeds.

He goes on to explain the differences between the two cuisines.

"The north and the east is a dry zone, whereas the south is very lush and green, and this has an impact on the food," he says. "All the spices are grown in the south—cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, and pepper. They grow more peppers and so tend to use black pepper more for spice in the food, whereas in the north we grow chillies, which we grind when they're ripe to use in our cooking, and we make more use of coriander and fenugreek."

There are also different variations on common ingredients.

"In the north and the east, we use tamarind, whereas in the south they use a different kind known as Malabar tamarind. That makes a big difference to the flavour. In the north, we make our string hoppers [rice noodles] fatter and heavier, whereas in the south they're very light. And I eat a lot of fish because I've got that northern influence and grew up by the sea in Jaffna. But then Sri Lanka is an island and we are surrounded by the sea so that might not just be me."

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A packet of "instant" string hoppers, the Sri Lankan rice noodle.

I'm curious to know how Sivanathan and Ellawala manage to avoid arguments—first in the restaurant they used to run together, and now in their own kitchen at home. Sivanathan laughs.

"We used to fight, when it came to cooking, first about who was going to do it because we were both so keen to be in the kitchen! Then we'd have to agree about how to cook things and in the end we decided that if my wife was cooking, I would leave the kitchen and vice versa. Now I might chop onions for her, but otherwise we stay out of each other's way."

Wambatu moju. Photo taken from Sri Lanka:he Cookbook by Prakash Sivanathan and Niranjala Ellawala, published by Frances Lincoln.

Today we're shopping for the ingredients to make wambatu moju, a Sinhalese pickled aubergine dish that goes well with string hoppers. The shop tape plays the music of Indian singer Vani Jayram, who croons away in Tamil.

"Is there any dish that unites both Sinhalese and Tamil communities?" I wonder.

"Dhal," says Sivanathan, straight away. "You can eat that everywhere."

He pauses. "Well, it's slightly different. In the south they use more turmeric than we do and crushed chillies, whereas in the north we poach, fry, and temper the lentils and then add in the spice."

I'm a big believer in the power of food to bring people together—whether that's Sinhalese and Tamil sharing dhal or Londoners relishing dishes of people who came to the city first as refugees. Sivanathan and Ellawala working peaceably in their kitchen, and putting the recipes of their previously warring peoples together in one book, are proof enough for me.

Main photo taken from Sri Lanka: The Cookbook by Prakash Sivanathan and Niranjala Ellawala, published by Frances Lincoln.