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Emily Dobbs: My Sri Lankan egg hoppers 'are going to be as big as eggs Benedict'

Can't afford to jet off for some winter sun? A Sri Lankan curry should hit the spot instead, says Co Cork-trained chef and food writer Emily Dobbs, who offers Abi Jackson a flavour of 'sunshine distilled'

Sri Lankan food fan Emily Dobbs made her first curry while working on a ranch in Wyoming, when her gran would email her recipes
Abi Jackson

TOO often, the cuisines of south Asia are lumped into one pot and blandly labelled 'curry'. The nuances between Keralan and Nepalese, Bangladeshi and Pakistani food are largely ignored – especially if your only contact with them is via your local takeaway.

Until recently, Sri Lankan food was similarly neglected, but chef Emily Dobbs is single-handedly trying to raise its profile. With an interest in fresh, seasonal dishes, she wants to "remove the stigma that curries have to be greasy, oily and a takeaway food".

"I often have a curry with scrambled eggs and salad; they can be really light and really colourful," she enthuses.

The 29-year-old Londoner's debut cookbook, Weligama is like sunshine distilled. The pages are filled with coconutty curries, zingy salads, hot and sour sambals and her egg hoppers – lacy crepe bowls hollowed out with a soft boiled egg perched in the middle ("they look really cool, and they're really delicious").

Emily made her name whipping up hoppers, selling them from her one-man market stall in south London. "Egg hoppers will become as recognisable as eggs Benedict," she says, adamant.

She reckons that so far, the flavours of Sri Lanka – think turmeric, cinnamon and tamarind – have been prevented from travelling further because of the country's recent civil war, but that's set to change.

"People ask me why I cook Sri Lankan food, and it's because I like it," explains Emily, who started visiting her uncle in the country as a child. "The first time I ever tried avocado, it was in a sweet Sri Lankan dessert. We ate with our hands, and ate things like shark curry – everything was so exotic and exciting."

However, don't pick up Weligama expecting traditional recipes that have been handed down through the generations. "You wouldn't get food like this in Sri Lanka – I take classic Sri Lankan recipes and British recipes and modernise them."

By 'modernise', she means lightening and brightening dishes, and, where possible, swapping ingredients for ones you can actually find in the UK – for instance, you can't get "beetroot the size of my head" in Britain, nor "this amazing buffalo curd yoghurt" that Emily loves, which is kept in clay terracotta pots and left out all day in the sun: "It's just really satisfying to eat."

Emily, who trained at Irish chef Darina Allen's Ballymaloe Cookery School in Co Cork, began cooking in her early 20s, after studying for an art degree in Manchester. To tackle artists' block, she went travelling and wound up cooking to support herself. She made her first curry while working with a "hillbilly" on a ranch in Wyoming.

"He would just let me cook anything," she remembers. "Thursday was my night and I'd cook curries. My granny, who's 86 and once lived in Delhi, she'd email me recipes." The recipe for the first curry she attempted, her grandmother's peas and cheese dish, is in Weligama.

:: Weligama: Recipes From Sri Lanka by Emily Dobbs, photography by Issy Croker, is published by Seven Dials, priced £25. Below are two recipes from the book for you to try.

GOTU KOLA

(Serves 2 as a side dish)

30g flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

15g mint, finely chopped

50g freshly grated coconut

Juice of 1 lime

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced

A handful of cherry tomatoes, chopped

2 anchovies, finely chopped

Optional:

1 green chilli, deseeded and thinly sliced

1 spring onion, finely chopped

1 celery stick, thinly sliced

Handful of pomegranate seeds

Put the parsley and mint in a bowl. In another bowl, add the coconut and season with the lime juice and some salt and black pepper. Stir well and add to the herbs along with the onion and tomatoes.

Add the anchovies (these are a must if you aren't vegetarian) and any of the optional ingredients you like. If you are serving with a spicy curry, avoid the green chilli and serve as a refreshing salad, seasoned well with lime juice and salt.

SPICED ROAST CHICKEN WITH BROWN SUGAR, LIMES AND COCONUT MILK

(Serves 4)

2kg free-range chicken

1/2 quantity chilli butter, melted

800ml coconut milk

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the chilli butter:

250g salted butter, softened

4 red bird's-eye chillies, deseeded and finely chopped

1tsp chilli powder

2tsp turmeric

1tsp smoked paprika

15g garlic, peeled (optional)

For the marinade:

500g natural yoghurt or curd

50g fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped

50g garlic, peeled

1tbsp chilli powder

1tbsp turmeric

1tbsp freshly ground black pepper

For the brown sugar limes:

4 limes

2tbsp coconut oil, melted

2tbsp brown sugar or grated jiggery

To serve:

Chopped fresh herbs

Pomegranate seeds

Make the marinade - whizz everything in a blender, or grate the ginger and garlic into a bowl and combine with the yoghurt and spices using a wooden spoon. And make the chilli butter - also whizz everything in a blender (save half in the fridge for another time).

Next, spatchcock the chicken. Turn it over onto its back with its head facing towards you. Cut down each side of the chicken along the spine with strong kitchen scissors, then turn the chicken over and press down hard on the breast with both hands until you have flattened the chicken. Alternatively, you could ask your butcher to do this. Cover the chicken with the marinade, inside and out. Leave overnight in the fridge or for at least a couple of hours.

Preheat the oven to 200°C/fan 180°C/gas 6 and find a roasting tin that allows the chicken to fit snugly inside. Fit the bird in the roasting tin with the coconut milk and cook on the middle shelf for 45-50 minutes. A large 2kg chicken should cook perfectly during this time. For a slightly smaller bird, check if cooked after 45 minutes by pulling gently on a leg and seeing whether the juices run clear, basting the chicken juices and coconut milk over the chicken every 10 minutes or so.

Meanwhile, cut the limes in half and put in a bowl. Mix in the oil and sugar and place skin side down on a baking tray with most of the sugar on the flesh. Place on the top shelf of the oven in the last 20 minutes of cooking.

Put the chicken juices and coconut milk that remain in the tin through a sieve and season to taste with more salt or brown sugar if necessary. Transfer the chicken to a warm serving plate and leave to rest for at least 20 and up to 40 minutes uncovered, then serve it with the sieved sauce, the brown sugar limes, some chopped fresh herbs and pomegranate seeds (and any optional sides you fancy).

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