Cynthia Shanmugalingam wants London diners to know something about Sri Lankan Tamil cooking. Not just that its repertoire of heady, sour, rich curries is indebted to the geography and old traditions of the island’s north and east, home to her parents both growing up and now. Not just that that repertoire’s past, present, and future is equally indebted to the experience of the Sri Lankan diaspora, also including her parents, who brought her up in Coventry before moving back to the island. Instead, she wants London to know that it is all these things at once: a constantly evolving, changing thing, not lying in state in a mausoleum.
It’s this commitment to several things being true at once that drives her to open a “diaspora dream” of a restaurant in Borough Market this autumn. Rambutan, a restaurant she says could only come to life in the city, will open at 10 Stoney Street, taking over from the Konditor bakery space adjacent to Monmouth Coffee, Bao, and Elliots.
She says that Sri Lankan Tamil cooking and Borough Market are a natural match, both as historic as they are contemporary. “Borough Market is where tourists often come with an idea of what British food is, and I want to show that Sri Lankan Tamil cooking from the diaspora is part of that story.” The region’s cooking, while a staple in Sri Lankan diaspora restaurants around London in Rayner’s Lane, Harrow, Wembley, Tooting, and East Ham, is yet to get the uncompromising shine of limelight in the newer crop of central London openings. Shanmugalingam knows it’s time to change that.
Rambutan, with 60 covers over two floors, will celebrate the fruited, rich curries of the region, with a cashew nut curry; green mango curry; and black coconut pineapple curry starring alongside a turmeric and tamarind mackerel curry cooked in a clay pot. Orienting the menu towards vegetarian curries is not just to represent a cuisine, but also to create space for a small, carefully selected range of meat and fish curries, working with renowned farms and butchers like Gothelney and Philip Warren.
This is one part of Shanmugalingam’s dexterous, exciting approach to what it means to be cooking in a diaspora. Another is that while rice will be an heritage variety specially imported from Sri Lanka, plantain — the ash variety of which grows in Jaffna, and is used in another celebrated curry — will instead be a West African varietal, because it’s the one most commonly found in London and from which she has developed her recipe, with the support of a former flatmate from who she learned to first fry, then curry it. Similarly, a brioche dough for malu buns gets its pillowy softness from tangzhong, a Taiwanese technique. “This restaurant couldn’t exist in Sri Lanka,” she says. “It’s deeply inspired by London’s immigrant communities, far beyond something like, roast potatoes with curry leaves. I find that quite a sad idea of what a modern London restaurant looks like. British food isn’t just English food.”
Rambutan’s design adopts a similarly productive tension between past and present. Shanmugalingam describes it as “proudly post-colonial,” taking substantial inspiration from the legendary Minnette de Silva, who was one of the island’s foremost mid-century architects and instrumental in changing the built vernacular of Colombo after Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948. Her influence will shape the dining room and a small bar, stocked with natural wines and cocktails built on Sri Lankan staples like lemongrass, pandan, and Ceylon tea.
In the run-up to opening, Shanmugalingam will partner with soft serve stars Soft and Swirly for an eight-week pop-up outside the site, putting out the likes of mango; jaggery; watermelon and hibiscus; and buffalo curd swirls. Rambutan Ice, which will run Tuesday — Sunday, 11 a.m. — 6 p.m., will then see Soft and Swirly founders Sam Lowry and Farah Kezou run the dessert program at Rambutan when it opens.
Shanmugalingam is also on the cusp of launching a cookbook, also called Rambutan. While the remit is island-wide, it’s just as rooted in not just the Tamil tradition, but also the thought behind this restaurant: a desire to expand not just the understanding of what Sri Lankan diaspora cooking is in 2022, but to expand the diaspora cooking itself.
“Creativity is our birthright. Sri Lanka was colonised so many times, wars were fought over its riches, and it’s never been an inward looking place. We should be able to tell our own story, and the food is always more interesting when we do.”