London: May 2021
Coconut, cinnamon, black pepper, cardamom, curry leaves, Maldive fish. Ingredients like these are proof of the powerful flavours of Sri Lankan cuisine. We had been craving for an authentic version of these flavours for long before the pandemic, and Hoppers was the answer. A small chance to travel to the beachsides of Galle from our chairs in cloudy London.
Karam Sethi, the brains behind several successful Indian restaurants such as Gymkhana and Trishna, proposes a take on Sri Lankan street and family-style food. The offering focuses on snacks (or short eats, which reminds us of the Chinese xiao chi) and attempts to recreate a feast with a diverse range of dishes. The food is excellent, designed with clear care for balance of flavours and the intention to showcase the island’s gastronomy with respect. The menu covers most of Sri Lanka’s famous favourites, with a distinct bias towards seafood.
As per the current regulations under the COVID-19 pandemic, on this occasion we were sat in their modern terrace at King’s Cross. Sadly, the feast-style food did not deliver the best experience under the chilly British weather. The eight dishes were served at once at our table and quickly went cold. It did present a rare opportunity: to taste cold bone marrow. We do not recommend it… At least we avoided having to queue, which apparently was common in pre-pandemic times.
Fortunately, there are high chances that this will be our last pandemic-influenced meal and other than that, we had a great gastronomic experience. We ordered their Taste of Hoppers tasting menu which comprises seven dishes for £35. It starts with lanka mixture. Crunchy and addictive, it is the perfect appetiser.
The following dishes appeared almost instantly after. Let’s start with the Mutton Rolls with Sri Lankan Hot Sauce. Analogous to Gỏi cuốn, or Vietnamese rolls, they proved to be a pleasing finger food. They are made with a filling akin to a samosas consisting of a mix of Northern Indian spices with potato and mutton. This snack is unique, however, for its use of a pancake or crèpe as a wrapper. The rolls are dipped in breadcrumbs, fried and served with a hot sauce based on tomato.
The Hot Butter Squid consisted of a stir-fry of squid, red onions and peppers with butter. The fried squid acquires a red colour with the addition of tomato and chilli powder. The end result reminds us of Hakka cuisine stir-fries, where the balance of the spicy squid is achieved by the sweetness of the red onions and the green notes of the peppers.
A more intriguing dish was the Bone Marrow Varuval with Roti. This Tamil curry is dominated by the citrus aromas of curry leaves and cardamom. The amalgam of bone marrow and curry is sublime. The spoonfuls of marrow melt into the rich curry yielding a balance of fat, citrus and spice that shows great mastery of the Sri Lankan cuisine. Stacked among the other dishes, this one suffered fatally in the outside terrace, quickly turning cold. Eventually the bone marrow congealed, becoming a chewy greasy goo. Imagine eating cold cubes of butter swimming in curry… The gambota roti, beautifully layered and crispy, was nonetheless delicious.
The Lamb Kotthu Roti was one of our favourites of the day. It is one of those street food dishes that simply hits the spot. A stir-fry of roti with lamb, egg, roti, leaves and vegetables. The bread soaks up all the juices and releases them in every bite.
Another famous Sri Lankan street food is the Hopper, particularly for breakfast. It’s a fun concept, a kind of crèpe made with rice flour and coconut milk and formed in the shape of a bowl. It becomes a perfect carrier for fried or scrambled eggs. Fold as a taco and enjoy.
The dosa is served along a decent selection of a Sri Lankan red lentil dhal (perfumed with cinnamon and cardamom), a tangy raita, a deeply caramelised onion sambol, and the classic sambol consisting of a mixture of ground coconut, dried fish, onion and chilli.
The small portions of Black Pork and Fish Kari accompanying the plate with the dosa were, with the kotthu, the highlight of the evening. The fish, flaky and juicy, was delightful on that fiery curry. In turn, this was our first encounter with this basalt black pork curry, and it happened to be a stunner. The dark roasted curry spices, along with tamarind and black pepper, plays beautifully with the fatty pork bites.