Kari the day: the rise of Sri Lankan cuisine

By James McAllister

- Last updated on GMT

The rise of Sri Lankan restaurants in London including Hoppers, Paradise and Kolamba

Related tags: Fine dining, Casual dining, Chefs, JKS Restaurants, Sri lanka

With Hoppers opening its biggest site to date in London’s King’s Cross last month, and two Sri Lankan restaurants recently launching in Soho, the lesser known subcontinental cuisine has moved into prime London territory.

"I could tell you a story about every little thing in here,” says Karan Gokani excitedly. The Hoppers director, who founded the business with his wife Sunaina Sethi and her brothers Jyotin and Karam (the three siblings respectively representing the J, K and S of parent group JKS Restaurants), is walking around his latest London restaurant, located mere metres from King’s Cross station, on Pancras Square. 

Holding 130 covers across its dining room, bar and terrace, King’s Cross is Hoppers’ third and biggest location to date. It’s a strikingly bright and colourful space that’s taken two years to bring to fruition (the site first came up back in 2018). The interior design – meticulously overseen by Gokani – takes its cues from landmarks found along the coastal route between the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo and the historical Dutch town of Galle, and comes complete with terracotta-toned floors and cast iron-framed glass lanterns.

At the fore is a huge, iron-clad concrete bar with a dedicated shelf of spirits including Colombo No. 7 gin, and Ceylon arrack (a traditional Sri Lankan spirit distilled from coconut palm, the bottles for which are subsequently repurposed by the restaurant to serve tap water in). Adorning the walls are an assortment of dramatic, hand-crafted wooden masks sourced directly from Sri Lanka by Gokani during his travels to Colombo, Hikkaduwa and Galle. And painted onto the ceiling is a selection of artistic designs inspired by those found in the Coats of Arms Bar at Jetwing’s famous Lighthouse hotel on the Galle seafront.

Moving into the mainstream

Having already established central London sites in Soho and Marylebone (in 2015 and 2017 respectively), this is hardly Hoppers’ first high-profile opening. However, being set on a larger operational scale, and located next to a major travel hub, King’s Cross does feel like a more mainstream proposition for the group and indeed for Sri Lankan food in general.

The opening of Hoppers’ first site on Frith Street in Soho was, at the time, welcomed by many as a watershed moment for Sri Lankan cuisine in the capital. Up until this point the availability of the cuisine was largely localised to areas like Wembley, Harrow, Tooting and Croydon, where large demographics of Indians and Sri Lankans had long since resided.

Hoppers

The Hoppers site in King's Cross is the group's largest to date

Since then, the cuisine has further cemented itself in prime London areas, not just with the expansion of Hoppers but with the arrival of two new restaurant operators, both of which, tellingly, have chosen to set up shop in Soho. First came Kolamba, which opened on Kingly Street in October last year; and then Paradise, which launched on Rupert Street little more than a month later.

Last month, on visiting Paradise, comedian Romesh Ranganathan wrote in TheGuardian​, ‘Sri Lankan food is finally cool’. So how, in a matter of only a few years, has the cuisine of an island country located to the south of India made a move into the London mainstream and even the regions (see Looking beyond London)?

“We like to think of it as a coming of age,” says Gokani of Hoppers’ growth. “All three restaurants are located in central London, but we see ourselves as a neighbourhood brand. King’s Cross is triple the size of our original site, and the design and setup is very different, but our priority remains on offering a fun and authentic dining experience.”

“With every site, you need to understand where you are and what you can bring to an area,” adds Sethi, who serves as operations director and wine buyer within JKS. “One of our key focal points from the start of this project has been accessibility; it’s why we originally chose to open in Soho. We’ve been going for five years now, but there are still plenty of people who aren’t familiar with the food we serve, which is why it’s really important each new site we open is approached very singularly.”

A combining of cuisines

Gokani, who grew up in the Indian city of Mumbai and originally came to the UK in 2005 as a law student, did look to the Sri Lankan restaurants of Wembley and Tooting when developing Hoppers, but the original idea came from a conversation with his brother-in-law Karam, who founded the JKS business. “We were in India at the time,” he says. “I wanted to open a restaurant focused on South Indian cuisine, while Karam was keen to explore Sri Lankan food. We started thinking of a concept built around both.”

Though they share noticeable parallels, Sri Lankan and South Indian food remains very distinctive, and Gokani is clear that Hoppers is not intended to be a fusion restaurant. “What we’re doing is bringing together two cuisines that are similar, and also uniquely different.”

This is, perhaps, best epitomised by the decision to put hoppers and dosas front and centre on the menu; both of which are traditionally served as a side with curries and chutneys. The former – a bowl-shaped pancake that’s made from fermented rice flour and coconut milk – is widely seen as synonymous with Sri Lankan cuisine. While the latter – a crispier, flatter pancake, more akin to a crepe in appearance and made using a fermented lentil and rice batter – is a staple South Indian dish. 

While technically inspired by both South Indian and Sri Lankan cuisine, it’s the latter that Hoppers has become more widely associated with. “There’s a level of familiarity to the food, but it also offers something that feels completely new to a lot of people,” says Gokani, when asked why that is. “Sri Lanka is an island that has been colonised several times in its history, and each time that has left a mark on the cuisine. And from the beginning we’ve worked hard to make sure the Sri Lankan food we serve is as authentic as possible, right down to the levels of spice and the ingredients used.”

Gokani estimates that about 70% of the dishes served at King’s Cross are new, including a selection of bar bites, grills, and beachside-inspired snacks. These include jumbo-sized prawns barbecued with black pepper and curry leaves; sizzling beef poriyal (stir fry); and mackerel grilled with chukka butter. 

There’s also a melting pot of influences to be found on the menu. Sinhalese dishes like ambulthiyal (a sour fish curry popular in the south of the island) sit alongside a selection of Tamil-style curries (‘karis’) featuring black pork, swimmer crab, and whole quail. Then there are the Eastern flavours, represented in dishes like the devilled squid; and the street food staples like kothu, a popular mix of chopped roti cooked with vegetables, meat or seafood.

Across the board heat levels are kept high, but never overpoweringly so. “There was no appetite to try to dumb down the authenticity of the dish in order for it to appeal more to a Western palate,” says Sethi. “Instead, what we’ve tried to do as we’ve developed the menu is create a balance by also featuring dishes that are inherently mild.”

Kolamba

Soho's Kolamba is influenced by the bold flavours of Sri Lankan home cooking 

Developing Sri Lanka’s offer

If Hoppers has demonstrated that there is a market for Sri Lankan restaurants in the heart of the capital, then Kolamba and Paradise have shown there’s space for it to develop. 

“We always knew we wanted to open in Soho,” says Aushi Meewella, who runs Kolamba with her husband Eroshan. “This area has always been very food focused, and there’s a big market here for curious diners who are keen to try new things.”

Aushi and Eroshan, who both previously worked in the property sector, had been talking about opening a Sri Lankan-focused restaurant for a while. “We always thought it was funny that a native Sri Lankan had never opened a Sri Lankan restaurant in a prime central London location, and that’s what we wanted to change,” Aushi, who grew up in Colombo, continues. “Hoppers did a great job of championing the cuisine and showing that people believed in it, but Sri Lankan food has so many little nuances that we knew there was room to create something new and different.”

Similarly to Gokani, there’s a real passion and determination in Aushi and Eroshan to offer their guests a very personal experience. The pair were primarily influenced by the bold flavours of Sri Lankan home-cooking, with many of Kolamba’s signature dishes coming from recipes handed down to the owners from people back home. 

“Ask anyone in Colombo where the best place to get Sri Lankan food is and the chances are they’ll say it’s ‘at home’,” says Eroshan. “The idea for us was to capture that same warmth and comfort. We wanted the food you get at Kolamba to be the same as what you’d find over there.”

Both restaurants have proved to be noticeably popular with London’s foodie community, and been championed by national critics: Grace Dent called every dish at Kolamba “a lesson in flavour and authenticity”, while Marina O’Loughlin described Paradise as “divine”. 

Aushi and Eroshan credit the growing interest in Sri Lankan food as reflective of the rising levels of tourism to the island nation (it was named the best country in the world to visit in 2019 by Lonely Planet), something that’s echoed by Hoppers' Sethi. 

“When we opened Hoppers in Soho, we had lots of guests saying they were either going to Sri Lanka or had just been,” she says. “There was a lot more knowledge and curiosity about the food, and people were impressed by how accessible it was; both in terms of location and price point.”

Hoppers, Kolamba, and Paradise all carry noticeably different menus (there isn’t one primary dish that features on all three), but their models are similar, with a focus on combining small and large sharing plates, and prices predominately ranging between £10 and £15 for bigger dishes. 

“In order to make a concept like this work in central London you have to make sure it’s constantly fluid,” says Gokani. “The focus is always on making sure we can get the dishes
out fast to sustain a regular turnover, while ensuring it’s never to the detriment of quality.

We have plenty of Sri Lankan regulars who visit, and if the cooking wasn’t up to scratch, we’d know about it.”

Part of the challenge at Hoppers as the company has evolved has been finding chefs familiar with Sri Lankan cooking so as to maintain that consistency. “There’s only a small community of chefs that know this food, and they’re in demand right now,” says Sethi. “We’re currently working to advance our training initiatives so more chefs can become specialised in this area, which will operationally allow for greater opportunities in the future.” 

Hoppers-Mussels-dish

The last Hoppers site focuses on seafood

A growing appetite 

While there is a growing appetite for Sri Lankan cuisine in the capital, it seems unlikely its popularity will ever reach the dizzy heights of its Indian counterpart. But that doesn’t mean the cuisine won’t become further established on these shores. “Sri Lankan cuisine is following a similar trajectory to what we’ve seen happen to Indian food,” says Gokani. “Ultimately, though, it doesn’t have the same range. Trying to modify it for different market areas would be tricky, particularly if you wanted to move it into fine-dining.”

The Kolamba duo agree that Sri Lankan cuisine is best suited to the mid-market, and they expect its popularity to keep growing. “We know people who are looking to do their own thing based around Sri Lankan food in London at the moment; there’s a real faith in the cuisine right now,” says Eroshan.

Despite their respective confidence, both Kolamba and Hoppers err on the side of caution when it comes to talk of expansion. “It’s still early days,” says Aushi. “This is a new industry for us, one full of challenges. At the moment, our focus is on working out how to best maximise this first site. But we have a huge bank of recipes still to explore, so there’s scope to evolve the concept.”

Gokani shares a similar mindset. “Hoppers will never be a chain in a traditional sense,” he says. “When we opened in Soho, we were approached by so many people who wanted to franchise it globally, but it was never something we wanted to do; this was never designed to be a cookie-cutter brand.”

International expansion, though, isn’t out of the question. “At JKS there are certain brands we believe could work abroad, and Hoppers is certainly one of them,” says Sethi. “But the same ethos will always remain, to make sure we have an understanding of the local market before we open somewhere. Whatever we do next, it will always be about being presented with the right opportunity, at the right time.” 

Looking beyond London

The growing appetite for Sri Lankan food hasn’t only been felt in the capital. Having opened its first restaurant in Cheltenham in 2016, The Coconut Tree – which was founded by Sri Lankan friends Praveen Thanginah, Dan Fernando, Shamil Fernando, Mithra Fernando, and Rodrigo Rashinthe – now operates six regional sites across the UK, and is on the hunt
for more.

“We created The Coconut Tree with a very authentic message that echoes across all Sri Lankan hospitality: ‘everyone is welcome to the table’, and, as our families say, ‘we should always make room for more guests that may show up’,” says Anna Garrod, who
joined the group as brand director shortly after it launched. “Our aim has always been to produce fresh Sri Lankan street food in a warm ambience, and at affordable prices.”

The group recently announced that it is working with Fleurets to expand its estate, with sites in Birmingham, Exeter and Reading currently labelled as a priority. And beyond that?

“We want to be in neighbourhoods that have local trade, but also want to create a destination by creating our vibe in a pub-style environment,” says Garrod. “You won’t find us wanting a trophy location because our vibe is that we don’t want to load that cost onto our otherwise ‘authentic’ street food approach. And we don’t wish our customers to pay for it via their bill either.”

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