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O Tama Carey’s Sri Lankan spread – recipe

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Showstopper hoppers

A traditional hopper breakfast, with both plain and egg hoppers, alongside a spread of dal and sambols. Photograph: Anson Smart


The chef and owner of Lankan Filling Station shares her recipe for the intricate dish that made her famous, served with a big mixed plate of prawn curry, simple dal and sambols

My love of hoppers is a well-established fact. Long before I opened Lankan Filling Station, every trip to Sri Lanka inevitably turned into a mini hopper pilgrimage. I watched them being made, I questioned their makers and occasionally someone would let me on to their pans to attempt a hopper swirl.

Despite this borderline obsession, I had only really tried to make them from scratch once, with my nan in Perth. On reflection, it might have been a good idea to nail a recipe before committing to opening a restaurant.

When it came time to make my own recipes for LFS (or The Hopper Shop, as it was known then)the first test was with an instant hopper mix; they actually weren’t too bad, which was encouraging. I then tested version after version, until we finally settled on our current recipe.

Once I had conquered the recipe, we set up a market stall, our first foray into actually cooking and selling hoppers to real people. It was a nice easy entry; the hoppers came out well and we probably only made about 50 over a few hours.

Chef O Tama Carey on her restaurant opening: ‘The fear of that night will always stay with me.’
Chef O Tama Carey on her restaurant opening: ‘The fear of that night will always stay with me.’

However, this was closely followed by one of the worst kitchen experiences of my life.

Half an hour before opening a pop-up at a friend’s bakery, with a queue of about 40 people out the front, we started to test the batter. The hoppers weren’t coming out very well and a lot were sticking. Then two of our six burners decided not to work, closely followed by a third. Meanwhile, more and more people were joining the queue. There was a sense of doom in the air when it was time to open the doors.

It was like a bad dream. We were managing about one good hopper from every three, and even they were slow going. The last batch of people to arrive didn’t even get one hopper.

We had already committed to doing it again, so we had to pull ourselves together. We got some better burners (ones that actually worked) and some non-stick pans (up until then I’d been using traditional aluminium ones that need to be seasoned correctly with perfect batter to work). I looked at the batter recipe, which for some reason I’d tried to tweak, and went back to the original. We made it through, much more successfully, but the fear of that first night will always stay with me.

Hopper pans

Hopper pans, available from Sri Lankan or Indian grocers – or online. Photograph: Anson Smart 

For the curry powder
5g curry leaves
24g sweet paprika
20g chilli powder
20g coriander seeds
15g white peppercorns
13g chilli flakes
12g cumin seeds
10g cardamom seeds
8g fennel seeds
8g cinnamon quill
, roughly crushed
7g turmeric powder
5g fenugreek seeds
3g cloves
3g star anise

For the curry
50g ghee
10g curry leaves
350g sliced red onion
, sliced
35g garlic
, finely chopped
25g ginger, finely chopped

25g finely chopped lemongrass, white part only
6 red bird’s eye chillies
, finely chopped
Freshly ground white pepper
115g red curry powder
recipe above
600ml coconut cream
5 x 5cm pieces pandan leaf
60g tamarind concentrate
150g coriander
, well washed, leaves picked, stems and roots finely chopped
800g medium cleaned prawns, peeled and deveined, tails intact
Salt flakes
Juice of 1–2 limes

To make the curry powder, place the curry leaves in a frying pan over a medium-high heat and cook gently for about two minutes. Reduce the heat a little and cook for another one to two minutes until they are dry and toasted, but not browned.

Allow the leaves to cool completely, then combine them with the remaining spices and grind to a fine powder. Any left over can be stored in an airtight container.

To make the prawn curry, melt the ghee in a medium saucepan over a medium heat, then add the curry leaves and cook, stirring, for a minute or so until the leaves are fried. Add the onion, garlic, ginger, lemongrass and chilli and cook, stirring occasionally, for six to seven minutes, until the onion has softened. Lightly season with pepper.

Add the curry powder and cook, stirring, for one to two minutes until it begins to catch on the bottom of the pan.

Add the coconut cream, pandan leaf, tamarind and 600ml water and stir well. Reduce the heat to low and gently simmer, stirring occasionally, for 10 to 12 minutes until the sauce has reduced and thickened. Stir in the coriander stem and root.

Allow your curry base to cool completely, then mix in the prawns. Transfer to an airtight container and place in the fridge overnight.

When you are ready to finish cooking the curry, remove it from the fridge – it will have thickened considerably. Scoop it into a medium saucepan and gradually bring to a simmer over a gentle heat, stirring every now and then.

Once the sauce starts to simmer, season to taste with salt and more pepper if needed. Cook the prawns until they are just cooked, about nine to 12 minutes, depending on their size. The curry will have quite a lot of thick sauce, very hot and sour, but you should be able to detect the sweetness of the prawns. Season to taste with a little lime juice before serving.


A good dal is a thing of beauty and comfort. This dal is based on the recipe my mum taught me: creamy, mild and very savoury, this is exactly the way we cook it at the restaurant.

‘A thing of beauty and comfort’: O Tama Carey’s dal
‘A thing of beauty and comfort’: O Tama Carey’s dal Photograph: Anson Smart

Serves 4–6

75g coconut oil
5g curry leaves
550g brown onions
, cut into medium dice
18g garlic
, finely chopped
15g ginger
, finely chopped
Salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper
7g black mustard seeds
5g turmeric powder
1 cinnamon quill
4 x 5cm pieces pandan leaf
Bottom 5cm of 1 lemongrass stem
, lightly bruised
525g red lentils
, thoroughly washed
450ml coconut cream

Melt the coconut oil in a medium saucepan over a medium heat. Add the curry leaves and cook, stirring, for a minute or so until the leaves are fried. Add the onion, garlic and ginger and cook, stirring occasionally, for six to seven minutes until the onion has softened. Lightly season with salt and pepper.

Add the mustard seeds, turmeric and cinnamon and cook, stirring, for one to two minutes until the turmeric begins to catch on the bottom of the pan.

Add the pandan leaf, lemongrass and lentils and give everything a good stir to combine.

Pour in the coconut cream and 1 litre of water and mix well, then reduce the heat to low and simmer gently for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. The dal is ready when all the lentils have just given away and turned yellow, while still retaining a little texture. Reseason with salt and pepper and serve hot.

Pol sambol

Meaning coconut sambol, this is ubiquitous in Sri Lanka. During any given day on the island, you would be hard pressed to not eat a version of it at some stage. This recipe makes more than you need for an average meal (about 450g) but it will keep for a good week in the fridge and is delicious on many things. I like it on toast with butter, particularly if there is a poached egg involved.

Serves 8–10

Sweet, smoky, and umami, pol sambol is a ubiquitous accompaniment to many Sri Lankan dishes

Sweet, smoky, and umami, pol sambol is a ubiquitous accompaniment to many Sri Lankan dishes. Photograph: Anson Smart

300g grated coconut
100g shallot
, finely sliced
3 small green chillies
, finely chopped
20g Maldive fish flakes
, ground
5g chilli powder
3g black pepper
, freshly ground
3g sweet paprika
Juice of 1–2 limes
Salt flakes

Place all the ingredients, apart from the lime juice and salt, in a bowl and firmly mix them together with one hand, using a squeezing and kneading motion. This not only combines the ingredients, it also helps release the oils from the coconut. Keep going until the texture of the sambol is almost a little sticky.

Season to taste with lime juice and a generous amount of salt, mixing and squeezing again. Serve at room temperature.

Lunu miris

This version is paste-like and slightly fiery, with an extra punch from the Maldive fish flakes. Not for the faint-h


A fiery sambol – not for the faint-hearted

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