LIFE ABROAD – Part 46:Apé kema in London
Posted on September 26th, 2013

Dr. Tilak Fernando

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Sri Lankan gastronomy is one of the most multifarious among Asian food with its unique taste; varieties of dishes are cooked with an array of spices which give a combination of different flavours. The exquisiteness of Sri Lankan cookery is that it can be prepared to suit any palate, either to be too hot with chili powder or mild with curry power, or even it can be prepared completely in a bland fashion to suit those who are accustomed to ‘boiled vegetables’ or fish and chips!

The remarkable factor is that even a ‘foreign tongue’ after getting used to hot spicy food would never want to taste anything insipid without that titillating attribute in the palate!

Spices

Sri Lankan food preparation is usually a blend of spices such as corriander, turmeric, cumin, fennel, curry leaves, rampe (bay leaves!), green chilies, garlic, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves which naturally give a healthy option as well as a great ayurvedic value. ‘Maldive fish’ (a dried form of fish) crushed into tiny pieces gives a distinct flavour. These very factors attribute to make the difference between Indian and Sri Lankan curries. Sri Lanka has long been renowned for its spices. Since ancient times, traders from all over the world who came to Sri Lanka brought their native cuisines to the island, resulting in a rich diversity of cooking styles and techniques.

History

What makes Sri Lankan gastronomy different from other Asian cookery is that Sri Lankans use spices liberally in their dishes and do not follow an exact recipe as such. This makes every chef’s curry taste slightly different from another! Furthermore, traditional Sri Lankan cooking tends to vary from region to region according to their diverse ethnic and religious groups practices and customs. Eating out in Asian restaurants has become a vogue in the UK where Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants seem to dominate the market, especially on week-ends. Tourists who visit Sri Lanka increasingly get used to Sri Lankan cuisine and become ‘addicted’ to spicy food.

The history of Sri Lankan restaurants in London go back to few decades even before ‘Ceylon’ achieved her independence from the British. The first restaurant run by a Sri Lankan in the UK was named ‘Ceylon Restaurant’ by a Sinhalese called Peter Warnasuriya, an employee of the world-famous Scottish grocer, tea merchant and a yachtsman, Sir Thomas Lipton who brought him to London with two other Sri Lankans for employment.

Sir Thomas Lipton

A stroke of good fortunate helped Peter Warnasuriya to inherit ‚£700 from Sir Lipton’s Will, part of which he invested in the ‘Ceylon’ Restaurant in the West End of London in 1930s. However with the First World War affecting London, Warnasuriya too felt the heat and had to abandon his business.

Nearly three decades after the closure of the Ceylon Restaurant, the second Sri Lankan Restaurant was opened by another Sri Lankan named Charles Silva in Child Street, Earls Court, London SW in 1960.

Being the only Sri Lankan restaurant in London at that time, the Ceylon Restaurant became popular as a rendezvous for a handful of Sri Lankans living in London to entertain friends and guests in a homely atmosphere.

Hospitality

Charles Silva loved to see the faces of his countrymen coming through the main entrance of his restaurant and one could not avoid observing his broad smile written all over his face which was self evident.

Equally Sri Lankan customers enjoyed his hospitality more than the food; and in the rush Silva could be seen rushing up and down with much enthusiasm and excitement to surprise his Sri Lankan customers by placing a bottle of wine on the table saying, “this is on the house”!

It may have been a diplomatic ploy or a business tactic, yet such a genial atmosphere made his fellow countrymen a feeling of warmth and a sense of obligation to patronise the restaurant over and over again.

Finally as the time ticked over, his age too took better of him. He found it extremely difficult to execute operational functions exactly the way he wanted to maintain which he had done quite successfully over the years.

Seemingly the taste and aroma of authentic Sri Lankan food deviated from Sri Lankan to Indian cuisine with chefs, waiters, the owners and the lot becoming Indian, thus causing a natural death to the second Sri Lankan restaurant in London.

Upali Kariyawasam a professional chef with many qualifications and letters behind his name was another popular name in the annals of Sri Lankan restaurant operation in London. During 1970s he ran two restaurants from Central London and later one from Fulham Broadway in South London offering typically authentic Sri Lankan cuisine.

The lack of Sri Lankan participation and patronage thoroughly disappointed him in the midst of a severe competition in the restaurant industry in London which made him to pack up his bags and migrate to ‘Down and Under’ taking his gourmet skills with him for the benefit of the Sri Lankan expatriate community in Melbourne.

Prince of Ceylon was yet another popular eating out place in Hendon, West London where a Pakistan born Sri Lankan Abdul Sattar tried hard to give a quality service to the Sri Lankan community particularly for a long period of time until his demise not so long ago.

Subsequently another Sri Lankan having taken over the reins to run the restaurant smoothly spent a fortune in refurbishing the whole place but had a very short life span due to lack of business. It has now taken over by another Sri Lankan business magnate in London, who is very much in demand for fast food, where Prince of Ceylon has today become a chain of Sam’s Chicken in London,

Lihiniya restaurant owned by Upali and Meepali Jothiratne is situated at the centre of Cricklewood Broadway London West 2 along Edgware Road (A5), one of the oldest Roman roads from London to Ireland via Holyhead.

Lihiniya has become a popular venue to hold meetings of various Sri Lankan organisations, political party conferences and wedding lunches due to its seating capacity to hold a few hundred people at a time with buffet style lunches and dinners.

Sekara is another restaurant in the heart of London Victoria, only a stone’s throw away from Buckingham Palace whose motto is ‘a taste of Sri Lanka in the heart of London’. Sekara Restaurant was set up by its owner after moving from France to London.

Papaya Restaurants operated from two branches, one from Ealing in West London and another from Rayners Lane, Harrow Middlesex.

In February 2005 Time Out magazine named Papaya Restaurant as ‘one of the 50 top curries in London’ and UK Lanka website awarded it with a title: ‘The best Sri Lankan Restaurant in the UK’.

Ceylon Cinnamon Restaurant in Cambridge was also incorporated into the category of ‘vibrant and modern restaurants’ serving scrumptious Sri Lankan cuisine by committing themselves to bringing out the exquisite gastronomy as authentically as possible.

Drawbacks

Over the years several Sri Lankan restaurants have mushroomed right across London under different names and catering for specific needs and tastes for a wider community of Lankans who have decided to live in and around London. Out of these some had a very short life span and for various reasons many have closed down at the same speed they have sprung up.

To be successful in running a restaurant in London is not an easy task amidst competition in a cosmopolitan city such as in London.

On the other hand, many Sri Lankans living in London are quite a different kettle of fish from the community living at home.

As opposed to the majority getting addicted to mainly unhealthy fast junk food for convenience and low cost and getting corpulent, only a few marginal elite crowd among the expatriates in London visit restaurants on a regular basis which naturally makes the Sri Lankan restaurant owners’ life harder for their survival in an environment where Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants are in severe competition.

Sri Lankans are a minute community in London. Recipe for success is a two-way exercise. As much as Sri Lankan restaurant owners struggle to serve in a fierce competitive market there has to be a mutual patronage extended by the expatriate Sri Lankan community living in London for the sake of Sri Lankan restaurant survival.

In this regard Sri Lankan government representatives, during their tour of duty in the UK particularly, have a moral obligation to patronise Sri Lankan restaurants during their official entertainment to patronise Sri Lankan restaurants and display a bit of ‘Apƒ© Kema’ (national feeling) simultaneously, making it a cost effective operation too for the government (which pays them extra as entertainment allowances) rather than seeking expensive up market Indian restaurants in the calibre of Bombay Brasserie or Benares. [email protected]

– See more at: http://www.dailynews.lk/features/ap-kema-london#sthash.wISXe0uH.dpuf

One Response to “LIFE ABROAD – Part 46:Apé kema in London”

  1. Nimal Says:

    Good memories of the restaurant run by Charles Silva to mention a few.My student days in 60s I used to patronize his restaurant,once or twice with late general Kobbakaduwa. I thought it was the only Sri Lankan Restaurant in town other than the posh Veerasamys in Regent Street owned by Sir Oliver.Ate only once as it was pricey,mainly catered to the likes of royalty.
    Due to poor service,unlike the Indian owned,local Sri Lankans were put off and so were the locals.Unless one must have the correct business acumen to attract people to any business in London.Few with the right approach are doing fairly well.One I know sadly empty due to erratic opening times,especially Saturdays,often that place is closed and no one will bother to drive that far to find that restaurant closed.

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