Sri Lankan street food is hopping in the UK.
Or perhaps that should be ‘hoppering,’ seeing as how the country’s most recognisable food is the hopper: a bowl-shaped, fermented answer to the pancake made out of rice flour and coconut milk. Golden and crispy at the edges and doughy in the centre, it is often topped with curry or spices.
Famously, the hopper in the UK has also become synonymous with a whole egg baked into the base. But there’s so much more the country’s street food can offer.
In London, Hoppers is the best-known restaurant for the country’s food, with two sites that offer everything from dosas and rice to roasts and kotthu (a stir-fry) – dishes inspired by Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu, a South Indian state.
But it’s what’s happening outside the capital that suggests that Sri Lankan food could be going mainstream.
Street-food brand The Coconut Tree has two restaurants in Cheltenham and Oxford and has recently agreed terms on a third site in central Bristol. It is also looking at further locations with the help of leisure property company Fleurets.
The budding chain was founded by five Sri Lankan friends and offers a menu of casual sharing plates.
A combination of cuisines
So what exactly is Sri Lankan food?
It’s a common question for one of The Coconut Tree founders, Mithra Fernando, who describes it as a hybrid of different influences and tastes.
He tells Food Spark that it’s a meeting of Indian food’s spicy and aromatic flavours with Thai food’s use of coconut milk and fresh, green ingredients, while 300 years of colonisation in Sri Lanka by the Portuguese, Dutch and English have also had an impact on the food.
“Street food in Sri Lanka is very different. It’s highly prepped, quickly served, has lot of flavours and lots of heat, but at the same time it’s very filling,” he says.
“I think the hoppers are the highest selling, most common Sri Lankan street food. I don’t think anybody anywhere else in the world does hoppers. It’s quite easy to make, very simple, but full of flavour – and that’s basically Sri Lankan food to me.”
Anna Garrod, The Coconut Tree’s brand director, has her sights set on the race to get Sri Lankan food out to the UK population the fastest. She believes the food can work anywhere in the country due to its authenticity and range of flavours, made accessible via the brand’s tapas-style approach.
“I think Sri Lankan food is growing in popularity because it’s got such a vegan and vegetarian aspect to it as well, which is a huge rising trend in this country, so we are ticking some boxes that that cuisine naturally hits. It’s got a lot of superfoods within it… and the price point of our menu means everyone is welcome to the table,” she comments.
New dish development
When it comes to the menu at The Coconut Tree, Garrod admits that hoppers are their biggest selling item, but there are many other in-demand dishes.
Among these are the mutton roll, a fried pancake stuffed with spicy mutton pieces; the fried okra; and the clay pot fish with slow-cooked tuna in goraka spices, which create a hot, sour and peppery taste.
The Coconut Tree menu also has a ‘devilled dishes’ section, where Sri Lankan recipes are served in street-food versions. One of the most ordered is the kotthu, which is eaten all over Sri Lanka and is becoming a big trend in America, according to Fernando.
“It’s a wok dish – a stir-fry – and instead of using rice, you use roti that is finely chopped and you mix it with fresh vegetables, a curry paste cooked sauce and meat,” he says.
Every quarter, the chain has a cook-off where the team puts forward new dishes, usually inspired by what their mothers and grandmothers used to cook them, but which also takes into account British seasonality. These items then replace some of the less popular eats, while the bestsellers stay put.
The most recent menu development session has just taken place, with new additions heavily leaning on plant-based eating. The Dirty Jack is a baby jackfruit cooked in TCT black spice, lemongrass and coconut milk, while the Sick Beet mixes golden and red beets with apple cider vinegar. It’s Not Tomato Soup does contain tomatoes, but stews them in turmeric, pandan leaves, curry leaves, ginger, garlic and coconut milk.
Also being added to the desserts is the Drunken Banana: caramelised golden bananas with Sri Lankan Lion beer batter that are dipped in treacle.
Trial and error
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing with the offering. Garrod says when The Coconut Tree was first launched, it was somewhat trial and error with the menu, but now they have a real feel for the winning dishes.
Garrod remembers one dish they thought would be a massive hit – a herbal-style porridge that Sri Lankans often eat for breakfast called kola kanda – that just didn’t take off.
“It might have been ahead of its time and we might bring it out later. We started doing that because we thought health conscious is a big thing and it’s made of supergreens,” she says.
“People did like it, but people come here for a good time, so it’s difficult to sell these amazing cocktails and then a supergreens dish... Our whole menu is pretty healthy, but we are not a health-food store.”
Fernando says he can already see Sri Lankan food starting to take a foothold. When he first arrived in the UK in 2000, there were no supermarkets with Sri Lankan options, but now Tesco and Ocado stock a couple of ready meals. “Sri Lankan food is starting to make a statement here,” he says.