Spice of Life: Sri Lankan cooking with Tooting Mama

Spice of Life: Sri Lankan cooking with Tooting Mama

We talk to food writer and photographer Ranji Thangiah, aka Tooting Mama, about her recipes, and the best places for Sri Lankan dining in London…

Ranji Thangiah talks with passion about the dishes her parents would cook for her as a child. Growing up in London, she would enjoy the recipes from their native Sri Lanka, which set her taste buds tingling with spices and fragrant coconut.

“Dad loved making searingly hot curries but full of flavour. He’d dry roast the spices until dark and intense and the dishes always had a lot of chilli included. We’d sit there and sweat but they were so delicious you couldn’t stop eating them.

“Mum’s dishes were milder such as a really good aubergine curry or mallung – vegetables stir-fried with coconut, mustard seeds, cumin, and onion cooked until it is caramelised, and with coconut and lime stirred in at the end.”

As her parents got older, and cooked much less, she worried that she could lose their recipes forever and lose her connection with her Sri Lankan heritage. She set about recording their dishes, resulting in a whole new chapter in her life as she developed her skills in food photography and recipe creation.

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She was no stranger to writing though, having created the Tooting Mama blog several years ago when she adopted her two children, who were five and three at the time. “Your life changes overnight: writing became therapeutic and a way to process what was going on around me.”

As the children became older, they weren’t so keen on being featured in the blog and Ranji wanted another outlet for her writing. It coincided with a move to France for a couple of years, which really piqued her interest in cooking.

“I was surrounded by all of these incredible ingredients, markets and great restaurants. When we came back to Tooting, I made that shift and started to think about writing about my food and heritage, and when my dad passed away in 2020 it became more of a compulsion.”

Her recipes include the traditional, as well as a modern take on Sri Lankan using authentic ingredients in new ways such as her mango cheesecake with cardamom, and curry leaves fried in butter – the latter makes the perfect simple accompaniment to white fish.

She’s also picked up on some rather unusual pairings, such as chicken liver cooked in yoghurt and curry leaves, inspired by an old cookbook her parents had by Ismail Merchant, of Merchant Ivory fame. “He loved cooking and would make dishes on set for the actors. He brought out this cookbook, with all these anecdotes in it. It has some very interesting ideas in it.”

Traditional Sri Lankan dishes include street food snack kottu (chopped fried roti mixed with various ingredients), vadai (lentil fritters), parippu (dhal curry), sour fish curry and the famous pancakes, hoppers.

Store cupboard essentials comprise of widely available ingredients such as cumin seeds, coriander seeds, cinnamon sticks, black pepper, nutmeg, chilli, cardamom, cloves and coconut milk. Slightly harder to source ingredients include fresh curry leaves, lemongrass, fresh tamarind and Maldive fish – a dried flavouring that you add in small amounts to give an Umami flavour rather like you’d use fish sauce.

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Living in Tooting, it is easy to source Sri Lankan ingredients with big grocery stores on the doorstep such as Sharon’s, and Elaka Food City.

Tooting’s selection of Sri Lankan restaurants is renowned – Ranji recommends Apollo Banana Leaf, Jaffna House, Kottu and hot new opening Muvs All-Day, which combines the two worlds of the founders, resulting in ‘modern British + chilled Sri Lankan’.

In Central London, her favourite high-end options include Kolomba, Paradise Soho and Rambutan in Borough Market. Ranji has particular praise for Rambutan, founded by Cynthia Shanmugalingam. “Cynthia has written a beautiful book, which talks about her childhood, the impact of the conflict in Sri Lanka, as well as featuring recipes. It is an amazing read. She’s also a female restaurateur, which is not easy, and has created an amazing space with great food.”

For those unfamiliar with Sri Lankan food, Ranji says: “It’s a misconception it is very hot. Sri Lankan food has its own identity and flavours. There is a lot of fish and seafood used, with coconut the base for many curries, as well as a range of meat dishes, and dishes for vegans and vegetarians. There’s also plenty of easy recipes to get you started.”

We can think of no better place to start than her website:

Ranji also has a mailing list to sign up to, with a free food guide.

Try Ranji’s devilled prawns and mallung! Recipes here.