This New Cookbook Gives Sri Lankan Food Its Due

'Rambutan' is Cynthia Shanmugalingam's love letter to her roots.

October 31, 2022
Photo by Alex Lau

Here on the editorial team, we’re obsessed with Cynthia Shanmugalingam’s new cookbook, Rambutan: Recipes from Sri Lanka. So, we chatted with the London-based chef about opening a restaurant, avoiding clichés, and why you absolutely need fresh curry leaves in your kitchen.

Tell me a little bit about your background with food and cooking.

I was born and grew up in the UK, and I’m the youngest of three kids. My parents left Sri Lanka in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and I grew up eating Sri Lankan food at home, cooked for me by my mum and grandma.

At the end of the war, in 2009, I went back to Sri Lanka with my mom and dad—for so long, we weren’t able to go to the place where we came from because it was so violent and dangerous. I saw how we cooked in the village—over a wood fire, coconut milk from the garden, local vegetables, fresh-caught fish. I was blown away at how flavorful and delicious it was, and that’s when the idea began to do something like that in London. I began by doing pop-ups, supper clubs, and little dinners, and then, a couple years ago, I wanted to do a restaurant proper. My site fell apart because of COVID, and that’s why I wrote the book, because I had a dashed dream.

What is the one recipe in the book everyone should make, if you had to pick one?

I think it’s the dal. It’s so distinctively Sri Lankan because it has lemongrass and, if you can get it, Pandan leaf. It’s super easy, simple, and nutritious. You can just [throw in some] veg, like kale or pumpkin or whatever else you’ve got going on. My mum used to always do that when she was short on time and needed to fill hungry mouths. It’s complete, nutritious—just dal and rice, you’re having a good time.

Many of the recipes in the book call for fresh curry leaves. What’s distinct about them, and what role do they play in Sri Lankan food?

Curry leaves are used in lots of different ways—fried, [added to] a curry, infused into coconut milk, or left raw. They come from the same family of plants as citrus fruits and Sichuan peppercorns. They’re wildly zesty and flavorful, and they contain this compound called cinnamaldehyde, which is slightly cinnamony in flavor. [Curry leaves] are very distinctive, unique, and add a fragrance and basic flavor that is foundational to many Sri Lankan dishes. I would say it’s analogous to olive oil and Italian food. It’s very difficult to cook Sri Lankan food if you can’t get your hands on them.

Many of the recipes also include a ‘temper.’ Can you explain what that is, and why it’s useful?

You might fry onions and add spices, curry leaves, and other aromatics at the beginning of when you’re making a curry. A temper enables you to re-up on those flavors and add a burst of flavor at the end. You take a small pan, heat up some oil, and add onions, mustard seeds, whole spices, curry leaves, lemongrass, or other aromatics. You’re basically making a spiced oil, and then you pour the whole lot—oil and all—on top of what you’re making. The little bit of fat that’s in the oil adds flavor as well. It just transforms a dish into a completely different thing. It’s a wonderful quick and easy technique.

The visuals in the book are stunning. What was the creative process like, in terms of how you wanted to show these recipes visually, and what the reader experience would be like?

There were some big things I thought about: I didn’t want any elephants, or any kitsch, or any kind of ‘outsiders’ aesthetic. I wanted [the book] to be tropical, and I wanted it to be exuberant, but I didn’t want it to be clichéd.

Alex [Lau] is just an amazing photographer, and he’s got an amazing way with people. A lot of my family is quite shy—it’s hard to capture people without it feeling National Geographic-y. [I wanted the photos] to feel warm and intimate, like they’re my family and my friends. It’s not for an exhibition—they’re real, human relationships. He has a lot of humor in his picture that comes through, and warmth, and sweetness as well.

You have a restaurant coming soon. How has that process compared to writing the cookbook?

They’re very different energies. By the way, if you have anyone who ever is going to do both of those things at the same time—tell them not to. It’s very hardcore. It’s been an amazingly creatively fertile period for me, but it’s also been very exhausting. The book is—you’re kind of on your own [during the writing stage]. It’s you and a laptop. If you take a weekend off, on Monday, it’s exactly the same as where you left it on Friday. You’re kind of pushing it up the hill by yourself all the time. The restaurant has lots and lots of different people—carpenters, builders, project managers, investors, chefs. They’re really different modes of working.

I’m curious if growing up in the UK affected your style of cooking, or if those influences come through in the recipes at all?

I think it does, but my feelings about British food and culture [don’t really reflect] “English” food and culture. All my life, I’ve lived in places that had a lot of immigrants. At my first school, there were a lot of children whose parents came from the Caribbean, Pakistan, and India. Same at secondary school. We were lots of different people from lots of different places. So I feel like being in London, it’s very easy [to adopt new] techniques or ideas, but they’re not necessarily “English” ones.

Rambutan is definitely a political book—it doesn’t shy away from talking about Sri Lanka’s tumultuous history. Why did it feel important to include those stories?

Food is inherently political, and I didn’t want to shy away from that, or do a shallow, surface-level interaction with what [food and culture] is. Anthony Bourdain mastered that so beautifully in his shows and in his work. You felt like you were going on an adventure with him, but you also felt like you were getting something real. He didn’t shy away from difficult subjects that came up naturally as he was exploring the food and place and people that created it.

I’m Tamil. I’m a minority in Sri Lanka that has suffered—and continues to suffer—brutality from the police, army, and government in systemic ways. That’s actually why the diaspora is so big—it’s because so much of our family had to escape the war and oppression in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka doesn't tend to get much airtime in newspapers or in the news. The people of Sri Lanka, and what happens to them, are not considered important to an international audience. I wanted to try to tell the real story of Sri Lanka—all of it, the ugly side, the dark side. I hoped that it would leave readers with a more enriched understanding of the whole island and what people there were cooking.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Anabelle Doliner

Written by: Anabelle Doliner

Staff Editor