In the days before visiting Cynthia Shanmugalingam’s new restaurant in London’s Borough Market, my house is filled with the scent of her dishes. Not just the days, the weeks and months too. Since I got my hands on her debut cookbook, Rambutan, I’ve been cooking from its pages non-stop. I’ve made her coconut dal with kale and her burnt aubergine sambol with coconut milk, which she calls the Sri Lankan version of baba ganoush. Her red chicken curry is on cook-and-repeat, as is her burnt cabbage varai. I’ve yet to tackle her desserts, which include watalappan (steamed custard) tart, but give me time.

Shanmugalingam grew up in Coventry and has been cooking Sri Lankan food at pop-ups since 2019. Her recipes are winners because she insists on a couple of steps. One is making your own spice mix. Another is tempering – the “last-second play” of adding whole spices and aromatics cooked in oil to a dish to reignite its flavours. Also essential are fresh curry leaves, which are not always easy to find but give an unmistakable zesty, aromatic kick to dishes.

The interior of Rambutan restaurant in Borough Market
The interior of Rambutan restaurant in Borough Market © Carol Sachs
Dishes including coconut dal, sambol and sticky chicken pongal rice
Dishes including coconut dal, sambol and sticky chicken pongal rice © Carol Sachs

She hoped to open a restaurant three years ago but pivoted during the pandemic to writing a book first. “Rambutan is the story of an immigrant kid in England trying to cook her way out of the profound sense of loss about the place her parents called home,” she notes in the introduction. Now the restaurant, also called Rambutan, comes freighted with similar personal and cultural significance. Shanmugalingam takes pride in being, she believes, the first Sri Lankan Tamil woman to open a restaurant in central London. On the menu are dishes such as sticky chicken pongal rice that pay homage to the Tamil north of the island, her ancestral home. She has also collaborated with Sri Lankan creatives on the design, which reflects a Sri Lankan colour palette and is inspired by the style of female architect Minnette de Silva.

I have to say a lot of these motifs barely register when I visit on opening night. The concrete floors, wooden benches and high ceilings strike me simply as markers of modern cool. The kitchen is right by the entrance; you’re immersed in the action straight away. There’s a large seating area towards the back and more tables downstairs, but the best seats are surely at the counter where you get to feast on the theatre of clay-stove and charcoal-grill cooking at the “aduppu” – the traditional hearth modelled on Sri Lankan village kitchens.

Ravana cake
Ravana cake © Alex Lau
The restaurant’s interior reflects Sri Lankan aesthetics and is inspired by Minnette de Silva
The restaurant’s interior reflects Sri Lankan aesthetics and is inspired by Minnette de Silva © Carol Sachs

The menu is divided into snacks and “short eats”, vegetable dishes, meat and fish, dal, rice and rotis. The dishes come hot and fast, and each competes for your attention. Among the starters, the apple and kohlrabi acharu is as crunchy and tart as you’d expect from a pickle, with a dusting of mustard and chilli powder that calls you sharply and thrillingly to attention. The beef and marrow rolls are packed with cumin and coriander-spiced filling you can properly luxuriate in. The gundu dosas – fried dumplings made from fermented urad dal and rice batter and studded with mustard seeds – are hot little nuggets of comfort. Among the mains, the dal is sublime, generously tempered with coconut and lemongrass in a haze of smoky spices. The pineapple in the red pineapple curry is charred and fleshy, its gravy almost blood-red and tense with heat. The pork dry curry is cubes of meat encased in thick, grainy paste that smoulders with spicy flavour. 

I hoped to see Jaffna crab curry, a star recipe from the book that I’m a little daunted by. Shanmugalingam assures me a restaurant-friendly version is in the works. And dessert? None was available at the time of my visit, but soft serve has now arrived: jaggery and cashew with cardamom or tamarind and ginger. If I needed an excuse to go back, those would be it. As a follow-up to the book, the restaurant is that rare thing: a sequel that lives up to the original. 


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