Bringing a Taste of Sri Lanka to Sheffield

The UK’s street food industry is bigger than ever, now estimated to be worth well over £1bn. In Sheffield we’ve seen the likes of the Cutlery Works, Kommune and Peddler Market popping up and championing local, independent food and drink entrepreneurs. We spoke exclusively to the man behind Sheffield’s latest pop up food stall, Don Wijesooriya. While not strictly street food, his dishes wouldn’t look out of place at a festival or market and he’s determined to give authentic South Sri Lankan food the recognition it deserves.

How did the pop up come about?

After spending 4 years at university, I learnt many valuable things, the most important of which being that I didn’t want to become an engineer. Cooking was a form of therapy for me, a relief from the chaos of university. And once people started tasting my food; they kept asking for more, asking me to try new things, giving me suggestions. That was when I started exploring the possibility of becoming a chef even after spending 4 years doing something completely unrelated. Fast forward to the beginning of my final year at uni, one of my closest friends asked me what my plan would be once I had graduated with an engineering degree. Most would’ve expected me to respond to that with “apply for a few graduate jobs” or “take a bit of a post uni gap year”. But instead I answered; “become a chef, simple”. Fast forward again to a few weeks ago when said friend was showing me around his new office and out of the blue asks me if I’d be interested in doing a pop-up food event at his friend’s coffee shop. My immediate reaction was “Woah, this is too real, am I even capable of this?”. But at the same time, I was overwhelmed with excitement and ideas, so the obvious response was “yea sure, sounds great!”. Two weeks later, the first pop up was live and I was standing behind a bar serving people some of my childhood favourites; in particular, coconut milk rice with aubergine moju. With Sri Lankan food being so uncommon, it was great to see how well it was received; initial doubt and confusion turned to awe and fascination which was exactly what I wanted to see.

What can we expect from your pop up stall?

My family and I are originally from the south of Sri Lanka. As with most cultures, food plays a significant role in Sri Lankan culture, and like most families around the world, each family has their own take on certain dishes that have been passed down each generation. My family’s recipes are exactly that. In my experience, Sheffield doesn’t have many good options when it comes to genuine southern Sri Lankan cuisine, so I’m hoping to be able to change that. The very few restaurants that do serve Sri Lankan cuisine tend to focus on North Sri Lankan and South Indian dishes, as Indian food tends to have wider appeal, which is understandable, it’s amazing! However, this merging of Sri Lankan and Indian food fails to distinguish between the regional variations. Sri Lankan dishes indulge heavily in coconut milk for a subtle sweetness and added richness, whereas South Indian dishes use dairy to bring sour notes.

What dishes are you currently serving? Will you be expanding your selection in the future?

Since this is a pretty new venture, the first pop up offered fairly traditional Sri Lankan food, although I’m sure the other Sri Lankans out there might disagree. It was traditional in the sense of individual dishes, however the way in which I served them was far from traditional, in fact, according to my family, it was “very wrong”. Having grown up surrounded by a variety of cultures, I was able to grasp what people are most likely to gravitate towards when it came to foreign food. One of my favourite unconventional dishes to make is my version of kiribath, which is traditionally a breakfast food served with a chutney called lunumiris. By making the rice lighter and creamier, and serving it with a potato curry and aubergine moju, I was able to make it into an amazing lunch option. In the future, I’d like to introduce a more modern take on Sri Lankan cuisine, incorporating more weird combinations and wacky flavours. It’ll be interesting to see and hear what other Sri Lankans think of my food. And for the non-Sri Lankans, it’s an honour to give you a taste of my culture.

What’s the next step for you?

The dream would be to have my own restaurant someday, however until then, I’m excited to continue working at Whaletown Coffee Company and, if the opportunity arises, other events that host pop up food stalls. I’m unable to describe how grateful I am to everyone at Whaletown and Box Bakery for giving me this unbelievable opportunity and letting me take over their kitchen.

You can next find Don at Whaletown Coffee Company in Crookes on Monday 21st September from 11-3pm. You can follow him, Whaletown Coffee Company and Box Bakery on Instagram @don___wij, @whaletowncoffeeco and @boxsheffield, to stay updated with when and where you can find him next.

Louisa Merrick-White

Image: Don Wijesooriya

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