Colombo calling: Say hi to the subtle spices of Sri Lanka with chef Dom Fernando
When guests visit us for the first time at Paradise – the restaurant I founded in London’s Soho in 2019 – they’re always surprised by how diverse Sri Lanka’s cuisine is.
The kind of food you’ll find in the markets and restaurants of Colombo, Jaffna or Kandy draws inspiration from all over the world. Our culinary heritage is influenced by South Indian flavours, but we’ve also taken on ideas from Malay, Dutch, Portuguese and Indonesian cultures.
Diners are intrigued to learn about Sri Lanka’s four key taste elements, too: sweet, spicy, tart and fiery. The combination of these flavours is where the magic lies.
You might eat a flakey buttery roti or a thin lacy hopper
When a big group gets together, with eight or so dishes on the table, you might taste anything from the sour tang of a pickle or sweet jaggery (Sri Lankan palm sugar) to the comforting warmth of dahl and super-spicy prawns.
You’ll also have all these different textures, too, whether that’s a flakey, buttery roti or a thin lacy hopper (a type of rice-flour pancake). The knock-on effect of these contrasts together is when you go, “Wow, that tastes amazing.”
All of our dishes at Paradise are rooted in Sri Lankan traditions. We import spices such as cinnamon and ginger directly, because it makes a fundamental difference to the taste and flavour of what we produce. We have a Sri Lankan concept at the heart of each menu idea, which we then reinterpret or modernise using British seasonal, small-batch produce.
Our dishes take a Sri Lankan concept and reinterpret it
For example, we have a crudo dish which brings together lime leaves, coconut milk and the Sri Lankan fruit calamansi (a cross between a lime and lemon) with line-caught Cornish pollock.
Or we’ll take Welsh wagyu bone marrow, which is basically a waste product and infuse it with beef curry sauce. We’ll serve it alongside a dry-aged rump steak from Flock & Herd – a free-range butcher based in Peckham – and marinate it in Ceylon arrack, Sri Lanka’s national spirit (made from coconut-flower sap). The steak is grilled on the barbecue to create this tender, amazingly cooked piece of meat with thick curry sauce.
We also put a lot of emphasis on Sri Lankan ingredients in our cocktail menu, which features a great range of arrack and Sri Lankan rums. Our top three drinks are our chilli mezcal margarita, the ginger arrack sour and a popular off-menu option: a cardamom-infused espresso martini.
I wanted to redefine what Sri Lankan food was for a new audience
Before Paradise began, there were some traditional family-run restaurants in London with an emphasis mainly on South Indian influences, along with brands like Hoppers, which did a great job in starting the Sri Lankan movement here.
But I saw an opportunity to do something more progressive; to push the boundaries and redefine what Sri Lankan food is – and also what it could be in the future.
It’s a journey that began in my childhood. My parents emigrated to Britain from Sri Lanka in the 1970s and I was brought up in a Church of England school in London with predominantly white boys and Western food.
As a child, I was fascinated by the dining experience of restaurants
At that point in my life, I hated rice and curry, but I was lucky enough to eat out in restaurants from a young age, so I became fascinated with service, décor and the overall dining experience.
Then, when I was a teenager, I started visiting family in Sri Lanka for summer holidays. I spent more time in the kitchen with my grandmother, my mother and my auntie, helping them cook and set the table. The older I got, the more I appreciated South Asian flavours. I think my palate probably began to change. I started to smell things in the kitchen, thinking, “Ooh, that’s quite good”.
I developed a feel for Sri Lankan food culture, too. Eating in Sri Lanka is a communal experience. The whole family gets involved in preparing the food and eating together – and we also spend a huge amount of time talking about food.
On visits to Sri Lanka, I’d end up wandering around local markets
As an adult, I stayed connected with Sri Lanka’s food scene when my hotel career led me to Singapore and Dubai. Both are in easy reach of Sri Lanka, so I ended up visiting often, wandering around local markets to snack on egg hoppers or kadala (black chickpeas) with freshly grated coconut and chilli.
It’s all these threads combined that led me to opening Paradise in London. I hadn’t had any specific restaurant experience at the time, so it was a risk. My family probably thought I was off my rocker, but they’re incredibly proud at how it’s turned out. We always end up brainstorming menu ideas now.
Our aim is to recreate the feel of Sri Lankan dining; to transport people to the candlelit terraces of Colombo and Galle, when it’s dark outside and everything is quite intimate and cosy.
We take all our staff to discover the island’s food culture
We want to evoke that casual communal vibe with a great ambiance and quite minimal, contemporary design. There’s no pomp and ceremony; the experience is all about who you’re with and the colour is brought about by the vibrancy of the food and its flavours.
In order to deliver passionately, you have to buy into what you do – which is why we take all our front-of-house staff on trips to Sri Lanka, so they can become familiar with its food culture. I want them to see first-hand the breadth of our cuisine – from local rice stalls to traditional home cooking and coffee plantations, right up to five-star dining – and share that with guests back in London.
If you’re visiting Sri Lanka yourself, I’d say try everything in as many ways as you can. Follow the lead of locals and eat hoppers for breakfast, served with coconut dahl and a mild fish or potato curry.
Make room for snacks, too, or what we call “short eats” in Sri Lanka, which might include anything from Jaffna mutton rolls to patties or coconut roti. And try to get hold of some fresh crab, because it’s the best you’ll ever taste.
If you’re visiting Sri Lanka, try everything you can
In terms of experiences, just chat to Sri Lankan people: they’re approachable and super friendly, you’ll always get a warm welcome. Sri Lanka is also one of those places where it’s really easy to switch off, surrounded by nature, so I’d encourage you to embrace that, too.
Finally, try to visit a local home. Sri Lankan families are very hospitable, they put what they can on the table and they’re proud of it. To see that way of life up close is a humbling experience.
Dom Fernando is founder of Paradise restaurant in London. Join Flash Pack in Sri Lanka for a host of foodie adventures, including an authentic curry masterclass led by a local artist and a sleepover in a converted tea factory.
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Images: courtesy of Dom Fernando x Paradise