Weligama: Sri Lankan Street Food In London

Ever heard of a hopper? These crêpe-like ‘bowls’ are a popular street food in Sri Lanka, and since Druid Street Market launched this summer, we’ve been spending Saturdays in Southwark rolling up our sleeves to get down and dirty with one of these splendid street snacks.

Ex-Ducksoup chef Emily Dobbs launched Weligama earlier this year and since then, the pop-up has been gifting London with a whole new street food experience. Inspired by Sri Lankan cuisine, Emily creates savoury pancakes laden with spices, sambals and a runny egg. After swooping in on Emily's Druid Street stall, we pinned her down from her one-woman Weligama show to ask her a few questions about why London is going bonkers for hoppers.

CURIOUS PEAR: Why Sri Lankan food?

EMILY DOBBS: I grew up travelling to Sri Lanka and have always loved the food. I never understood why it wasn't available in London or why no one seemed interested in exploring the cuisine. In London, Indian food has a stigma for being greasy and heavy. This is simply not true with Sri Lankan food, which is very healthy, light and fresh tasting. I want to modernise Sri Lankan food and redefine what it is.

CP: To anyone who doesn't know what a Sri Lankan Hopper is, can you explain it?

ED: It's a fermented pancake made out of rice flour and coconut milk. I use red rice flour because I prefer the flavour and texture, but white rice is traditional. An egg is then cooked and steamed in the hopper batter and served with various sambals made out of fresh coconut and spices. Lunu miris is also typically served as an extra seasoning, which is Sinhalese for salt chili.

CP:What's the background of the hopper in Sri Lanka? When and how are they traditionally eaten?

ED: They are traditionally called appa or appam and typically eaten for breakfast or as a snack. They are notoriously difficult to make and messy to eat! My advice is to roll up your sleeves and dig in. Then have a second or third.

CP: When did you have your first hopper experience?

ED: I've only eaten hoppers a couple of times in Sri Lanka. It was Peter Kurvita's cookbook that inspired me to cook hoppers. It took me many months and numerous failed attempts to achieve the perfect hopper batter, which might explain why they haven't been done before in London.

CP: What's your personal favorite flavour on the Weligama menu?

ED: I love to eat hoppers quite simply with mustard oil, black pepper, lime juice and coriander. Lemon pickle is also a winner.

CP: What three words sum up Sri Lankan cuisine?

ED: Maldivian fish, pandan & coconut.

CP: Tell us about your career as a chef, what made you want to start your own thing up?

ED: My first cooking job was actually on a ranch in Wyoming. However, London is booming with fantastic restaurants and I'm so lucky to have worked in a few of the best. I learnt flavour at The Dock Kitchen, simplicity at Ducksoup and presentation from Skye Gyngell at Spring. I really love working in kitchens and being part of a team, but would always question why things were done a certain way and how things could be improved rather than just being told what to do, which got me in trouble a few times! I really love experimenting. It's so exciting to be able to do exactly what I want to do.

CP: What is exciting you about the London food scene at the moment?

ED: More people are supporting local markets, small producers and suppliers. I pride myself on using Clarence Court eggs and Butter Culture handcrafted butter.

CP: Where do you like to eat in London?

ED: A few of my favourites are Lyle's, Som Saa, Koya bar, Towpath café, Rochelle Canteen, Morito and Ducksoup.

CP: What's next for Weligama?

ED: First I need to find a team as it is currently just me! Maybe a restaurant and a book in a few years time, too. I would like to serve different things besides hoppers but what you're cooking on the street with only two hands it's limiting.

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