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HOPPERS: ON ITS BEST-LOVED SRI LANKAN DISHES
DISCOVER SOME OF SRI LANKA’S MOST ICONIC DISHES
The vibrant cuisine of Sri Lanka owes much to the island’s landscape and tropical climate, exploiting the abundance of spices and coconuts that grow across the country, as well as the fresh fish and seafood found off its coastline. Aromatic herbs and spices including black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, curry leaves, tamarind and pandan leaves feature heavily in many of Sri Lanka’s best-loved dishes, and coconut is ubiquitous, used in everything from curries and sambols to rotis. We chatted to head chef and co-founder of Hoppers, Karan Gokani, about his favourite Sri Lankan dishes.
The street food staple after which the restaurant is named, Hoppers are bowl-shaped pancakes made from fermented rice flour and coconut milk. Using a fermented, live batter gives a slight sourness to the flavour, and a bubbly texture. The batter is poured into a hot, dry, wok-like pan to result in a rounded pancake with thin, crispy edges and a slightly thicker base. "In Sri Lanka, hoppers are eaten at breakfast time or in the evenings, but not at lunch”, Karan explains, “people will eat them with sambol or as an accompaniment to curries”. As well as plain, there are also egg hoppers. To make these, an egg is simply dropped into the centre of the pancake, then covered, so that it almost steams. In Sri Lanka, hoppers are around 10cm in diameter, whereas at the restaurant, Karan makes larger ones, around 20cm, for people to tear and share.
Sambol refers to a number of side dishes eaten with meals in Sri Lanka. “I'm trying to understand what the true definition of a sambol is,” says Karan, “because it's a genre of food that spans everything from seeni sambol, made with caramelised onions cooked in spices, to the fresher, uncooked sambols, which are a bit more like a side salad or relish.” One of the most popular in the latter category is pol sambol, a coconut relish made with fresh grated coconut, shallots, chilli, lime juice, salt and Maldive Fish – a type of crushed, dried fish used commonly in Sri Lankan cooking to “add a beautiful burst of umami”, a little like fish sauce in Thai cooking.
String hoppers are vermicelli-style noodles made with rice flour and water that are pressed into a kind of disc and steamed. Eaten at breakfast and dinner, they’re often served with sambol or as an accompaniment to curries.
Mutton rolls are “one of Sri Lanka’s most iconic short eats”, says Karan. A ‘short eat’ refers to the snack-like foods found in bakeries and street food stalls across Sri Lanka, which include breads, fried dishes, and other snacks. “There's a lot of Chinese influences in Sri Lankan food,” he explains, “and these are often called Chinese rolls – they look a bit like spring rolls but they’re breadcrumbed, and commonly stuffed with chicken, vegetables or goat meat, which, interestingly, we call mutton in Sri Lanka”. At Hoppers, they’re made with mutton (not goat) and served with a mildly spiced mustard ketchup, flavoured with garlic and curry leaves.
BLACK PORK CURRY
“One of my favourite dishes,” says Karan, “black pork curry is very unique – unlike anything I’ve ever had before in India or South East Asia”. It’s made with a roasted curry powder which gives it the dark colour its name refers to, as well as a complex flavour. Although the exact recipe differs across the country, it usually contains tamarind and coconut, and uses fatty cuts of pork like belly or shoulder, which provide a rich flavour and unctuous texture.
“Kothu roti is a hugely popular late night snack all over Sri Lanka – the equivalent of a post-night-out kebab in the UK!”, says Karan. The dish is made up of finely chopped godamba roti, a paratha-like flatbread, as well as vegetables, eggs, meat or seafood, plus spices or curry sauce, stir-fried and chopped together with metal paddles on a scorching hot plate. “The characteristic clanking sound of the dish being prepared entices locals from miles away – long queues of hungry diners are a common site at most good kothu stalls,” Karan explains. Traditionally, in Sri Lanka, kothu roti is a cheap dish for using up leftovers and is bulked up with leftover roti rather than protein. At Hoppers it’s made with fresh roti, plenty of vegetables, curry sauce and generous chunks of tender lamb, braised jackfruit or mixed seafood.
Crab curry is popular in the coastal city of Negombo. Although the recipe differs across households, the sauce is typically coconut based, and gently spiced with fresh aromatics like lemongrass, pandan leaf, curry leaves and toasted fenugreek seeds. “It’s quite a simple curry, but the crab really shines through and brings depth of flavour”, Karan explains. “In Negombo, they go crazy for lagoon crabs, which are sweeter, but a little bit more involved to eat. At Hoppers, we use Sri Lankan swimmer crabs.”
Try Hoppers’ menus here, featuring some of the restaurant’s most popular dishes.