Unwrapping the Art of Sri Lankan Lamprais

The cuisine of Sri Lanka is comprised of layered spices grown on the fertile land of the island, with a copious amount of hot chillies, from seeds brought by Portuguese invaders via South America. While not dissimilar to Indian food, each province brings regional variations, and the food is eclectic, with influences from Indian, Malaysian and Indonesian immigrants, plus colonisers, over the centuries.

One much sought-out delicacy is lamprais — also spelled lamprice, lumprais or lumprice — and originating from the Dutch word “lomprijst” meaning a “parcel of rice” which is similar to the Indonesian snacks lemper and arem arem where glutinous rice is cooked in coconut milk with a centre that’s stuffed with various meat, egg, fish, and vegetable fillings. While comparisons to a sushi roll may be made, the Indonesian snacks are wrapped and then either baked or steamed in a banana leaf.

The many component parts of the lamprais illustrate the migration pattern of Sri Lanka — a dish which actually comes from the small but significant Burgher community which has mixed-race Dutch, Portuguese, and British parentage. These recipes were orally handed down and utilised a mix of ingredients easily sourced on the island like coconuts and fish, which replaced cow’s milk and beef which were amply eaten in Europe.

Chef Ratnayaka presides over his lamprais.

In London, very few chefs serve lamprais, such is the complexity of its many stages of cooking, with each component prepared separately. It is savoury, umami, tangy, sweet, and sour, a parcel of pleasure to be unwrapped. It was thanks to the BBC’s Nihal Arthanayake, who tweeted a photo of chef’s lamprais in 2017, that this writer learnt of the lamprais’s existence in London.

The chef and restaurateur was born in Kandy, in the hills of Sri Lanka, and moved to York in England, where his passion for cooking bloomed. He saw that there was a dearth of this cuisine in the U.K., and decided to train in professional kitchens before moving to Croydon in south London. It was Selsdon that would become the location for his first restaurant Yaalu Yaalu (Friends Friends). Ratnayaka then opened a branch of Yaalu Yaalu in Green Lanes, north London which was thriving until the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020.

Ratnayaka took some time to regroup, closed that restaurant last year and in 2021, opened his latest business, Machan Kitchen in East Croydon. (Machan is a sort of slang for ‘friend’ in Sinhalese). He brings many south Sri Lankan specialties from fried sprats to Isso Vadai (bean fritters with king prawn), which are famously sold at Galle Face Green beach in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Every chef makes it their own way, but traditionally, the core is short grain rice, steamed in a meat broth and cooked in ghee which has been tempered with whole spices and turmeric. This central component is adorned with prawn and aubergine condiments, and a mixed meat curry or fried meat, with a double-cooked turmeric coated egg and a spicy fish cutlet, which in Sri Lanka is a preparation which resembles a croquette.

The best lamprais is where the pilau rice is correctly cooked, and the whole dish is baked to perfection — such is its difficulty that some will serve it only by skipping these key steps, taking away the essence of the dish. Lamprais can, however, be adapted: it can be made as a pure vegan dish, by avoiding ghee, and swapping the meat and prawn sides with a jackfruit or breadfruit curry, before adding a seeni sambol, a caramelised cinnamon and onion condiment, without its typical addition of maasi, dried tuna flakes.

We will now go through each ingredient and stage of the preparation.

Banana leaf

Smoked first, then filled with the rice and curries, artfully wrapped, and then baked in foil, for all the flavours to infuse perfectly.

Savoury yellow rice

The rice is steamed in a rice cooker, with a mix of ghee tempered with turmeric, red or white onions or shallots, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, lemongrass, and rampe, pandan leaves. Ratnayaka doesn’t cook this in meat broth, like some of the Burghers in Sri Lanka do. Getting perfectly separated grains and dewy, golden yellow, scented rice is key to good lamprais.

Spiced roasted chicken or fiery black pork curry

Ratnayaka’s pork curry is famous in Sri Lanka and the “black” part comes from ample use of Sri Lankan black peppercorns and toasted whole spices like cloves, cardamom and cinnamon, plus marinating the meat in Sri Lankan dark-roasted curry powder, which is also black pepper-heavy. Some chefs make this as a mixed meat curry, with pork, beef and chicken or mutton. A squeeze of fresh lime to finish the curry lifts the flavours too. Vegetarians can skip this stage.

Double-cooked egg

A whole egg, boiled, then deep-fried after being coated in salt and turmeric. This is commonly available in Sri Lanka.

Ash plantain

Thick skinned firm cooking bananas that are abundant in Sri Lanka, salted and deep fried till golden brown.

Dried prawn balchan

A dry shrimp condiment, similar to Chinese chilli oil, Ghanaian shito, Burmese balachaung and the Goan prawn balchão. Ratnayaka makes his with tiny piquant dry shrimps, gently fried with onions and crushed dried chilli flakes.

Dry-toasted Sri Lankan cashew nuts

This is often not found in the lamprais served in the island, although cashews are grown there. It proves to be a fantastic addition to the dish by Ratnayaka, especially for the texture.

Fish cutlet

A delightful deep-fried ball of mashed tuna fish, boiled potato, finely diced onions, green chillies, black pepper and cumin, coated in an egg wash then rolled in breadcrumbs and deep fried. This is a Sri Lankan take on the Danish and German frikadeller; Afrikaner frikkadel; and the Indonesian and Malaysian perkedel, which are usually made with beef or pork.

Brinjal moju

Deep-fried caramelised candied aubergine, with a touch of salt.

Machan Kitchen. 48, 50 S End, Croydon, London, CR0 1DP Tel: 44 20 3605 9465. Monday to Friday 12pm till 2.30pm and 5pm till 10.30pm, 12pm till 11pm Weekends.

(Eater London)

– Daily News Sri Lanka

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