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The Taste With Vir: Sri Lankan cuisine and Hoppers

By, Delhi
Oct 17, 2023 09:11 AM IST

I spent several days in Sri Lanka a couple of years ago trying only to eat the local cuisine and I can’t recall a single bad meal.

Indians who visit Sri Lanka for the first time usually come back saying how much it reminded them of Kerala. I am not so sure about that. Though it is a small island, Sri Lanka has such a wide variety of landscapes that it is hard to generalise. (But then Kerala has it all too; from beaches to backwaters to hills.)

Almost from the day it opened, one of my favourite restaurants in London has been Hoppers. (Instagram/@hopperslondon)

What is clear, however, is that Indians who go to Lanka thinking “it is just an extension of our country” are in for a surprise. In some ways, it does look like India but the vibe, the people and the cultures are very different from here. Even the Tamils of northern Sri Lanka are different from ours in many respects.

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The food can be confusing. Yes, the Sri Lankans eat dal. But they call it dal curry and add coconut milk to it. They add dried fish to many dishes, which always surprises Indians. Many decades ago, I was part of an Indian delegation to Sri Lanka. A vegetarian member of our delegation told a Lankan chef how much he had enjoyed the aubergine at lunch . What was the unusual spice he tasted in the dish?

Dried fish, said the chef.

The colour drained from the vegetarian’s face and our party quickly moved on.

The Lankans also have great sambals (a cross between pickles and chutneys) that have more in common with South East Asian food than our own cuisine. And the dishes that must be Indian in origin have often been transformed. Apparently the Sri Lankan hopper comes from India—from our appam and even the word hopper is supposed to be derived from the word appam. (How? Don’t ask me. I have no clue.) But the Lankan hoppers are very different from our appams and their famous egg hopper (of which we have no exact counterpart) is a thing of beauty.

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Despite all this, I have found one way in which Kerala, Sri Lanka and the hopper are connected. Almost from the day it opened, one of my favourite restaurants in London has been Hoppers, described as a Sri Lankan restaurant, though the kitchen is full of Keralites. The head chef is a Malayali. Renjith Sarathchandran is probably the best Indian chef you have not heard of. Low-profile and unassuming, he rarely ventures out of the kitchen but has built up a crack team which runs the three Hoppers branches: The small Soho original, the always jam-packed Wigmore Street outlet and now, a larger operation at King’s Cross.

Renijth has powerful backing. Hopper is owned by the mighty JKS group run by the two Sethi brothers and their sister Sunaina. Though Karam, the creative head of the group had the original idea for a Sri Lankan restaurant, Hoppers is mostly the creation of his brother-in-law Karan Gokani.

Karan grew up in Mumbai, read Law at Cambridge and then gave it all up to run restaurants. It helps that he is supposed to be an astonishing cook. As the critic Fay Maschler has written “Karan is one of the best cooks I have ever encountered and not just of the Sri Lankan and Indian traditions.” Karan is also a great restaurateur. The king of New York’s restaurant scene Danny Meyer (though I suspect that Meyer may be best known outside of New York for his Shake Shack chain) described his first visit to Hoppers as “one of the most exciting lunches I have ever had”. He was impressed, he said by Gokani’s enthusiasm, his sense of hospitality and by how he looked after his staff.

Ever since it opened, not only has the first Hoppers been full but the accolades have kept coming. Yotam Ottolenghi, the celebrated British-Israeli chef has written “How lucky we are to have Hoppers!” And Angela Hartnett, one of London’s most respected chefs, has said “I want to spend a week in the kitchen with Karan cooking”.

So how does a Gujarati boy from Mumbai put Sri Lankan food on the map? Well, partly I imagine, it is because Karan loves Sri Lanka. But it also has to do with his childhood in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Mumbai where he developed a love for South Indian food.

The menu at Hoppers is a mix: A central core of Sri Lankan favourites supplemented with dishes from South India and with entirely new dishes that were invented by the Hoppers team.

The most famous of these —- and the main reason I head for Hoppers nearly every time I land in London —- is bone marrow varuval It is not really a varuval (which usually refers to a fried and not particularly wet dish) so the name does not fit. But by God is it delicious!

Bone marrow is a delicate substance and the food at Hoppers is characterised by the spices of Southern India and Sri Lanka. But the balance in the dish is perfect: You get the clean but complex and buttery taste of bone marrow with the spices coming in seconds later as a second wave of flavour hits your palate.

Why don’t we have anything like Hoppers in India? Partly it is because we are as wilfully ignorant about Sri Lankan food as we are about Nepali food. Because ours is such a great cuisine, we take the line that everything in our neighbourhood is just a variation of Indian food.

Actually, it is not. Nepal has many distinctive cuisines of its own. So does Sri Lanka because, despite its relatively small size, it is home to many different ethnic groups. The Tamils have a cuisine of their own. And so do the Burghers , a small community with European roots (lamprais is probably their most famous dish) that most Indians have never ever heard of.

I spent several days in Sri Lanka a couple of years ago trying only to eat the local cuisine and I can’t recall a single bad meal. But the reason I like Hoppers is because the food is so distinctive that it reaches beyond Sri Lanka. This is probably because Karan Gokani has the advantage of distance and perspective. He can pick and choose the best Sri Lankan dishes but he can also add dishes from Kerala and Tamil Nadu to the menu.

The JKS group has no plans to open Hoppers in India, apparently. So, if you do go to London try one of the three branches there. If you can’t do that then look for Karan’s Hoppers: The Cookbook. It is beautifully produced, tells wonderful stories, provides the recipes (including the one for bone marrow varuval) and offers an insight into the Hoppers phenomenon.

It does make me wonder though. If Karan, a Bombay boy, can be so imaginative with South Indian dishes and flavours (and, of course, with the food of Sri Lanka) then why has nobody done it as well in India? Could it be that we are just too reverential with our food and too obsessed with authentically recreating old recipes to have fun with the food? The nearest we come to anything like Hoppers in India is O Pedro which offers a relaxed and imaginative take on Goan food.

It’s time to do the same with the cuisines of the South.

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