The family bringing Sri Lankan food to East London
(Founder of Kottu Lanka Mahen Perera, left. Shanti Perera, right)
Sri Lankan food has been tipped as this year’s top food trend and the BBC’s Good Food Guide has praised market stall Kottu Lanka as one to try.
It’s run by Mahen Perera and his Uncle Shanti. Two years ago, Mahen was on holiday in Sri Lanka with some friends from the UK – when he saw how blown-away they were by the flavours being served there, the seed of an idea began to grow.
He said; “When we got home to London, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. One evening I started sketching a logo and it looked cool, so I showed it to a company and asked them to polish it. The logo was created before anything else.
“Then I made a website and at that point I decided to make some recipes. I spent four months cooking – making Kottu by hand, then my family came over to taste it. For a few seconds there was silence -then they hit me with a barrage of criticism. Later, my mum came and helped me try this and that and, once we’d perfected it, some friends and family from Sri Lanka came over to try it. I was so worried – but they said it was the most amazing Kottu they’d ever tasted.”
Mahen, 41, who works in finance in the city, went out and bought griddles, a gazebo and a van. He set up his first market stalls at St Katherine’s dock and Tower Bridge Market.
He added: “We cooked the night before from 10pm till 4.30am and I was too nervous to sleep. My uncle, my friend and I set up our stall and we looked around us at the other stalls there -they set up so quickly – but it took us two hours! By 11am we hadn’t sold anything. We started giving out samples and as soon as people started trying it, we started selling.”
Cooking up a storm: Shanti Perera
Mahen said: “I’ve learned that the touristy markets aren’t good places for us to sell – we sell best at markets with a strong local crowd.”
Dishes include Kottu Roti, an authentic Sri Lankan street food dish which is made of fresh veg fried in coconut oil, eggs, shredded roti chopped together on a hotplate using a traditional Kottu knife and served with either chicken, vegetarian, mutton or seafood curry.
Local Buyers Club members save £1 off any meal at Kottu Lanka. (Click here for info)
Mahen added: “We’re in the business of flavours – there’s no ghee; we use lots of coconut and different spices (we import our own spice mix) and curry leaves. We make our own sauce and it’s definitely the star performer - we make it with habanero chilli, garlic and spices. ”
Kottu Lanka became a regular at Kerb – trading at St Katherine’s Docks as well as at Victoria Park Market.
“Being highlighted by the BBC’s Good Food is amazing – it’s an indication that what we’re doing is hitting the right spot! And to think it all started with a dream and a pencil drawing!” added Mahen.
They’re currently speaking with investors and hoping to set up more permanent restaurant premises around Liverpool Street.
Mahen, who recently became a father for the first time, added: “Running our own business is very satisfying but at times it’s soul-destroying. There’s nothing more disheartening than being told by a market manager that the weather is too risky to trade, when you’ve spent all night cooking and all morning setting up!
“But the highs of being on the market are wonderful – speaking to customers, seeing how much they enjoy the food and watching people try the food who’ve never had those flavours before. Our friends and family are proud that we’re bringing Sri Lankan food to the people of London.
“It has given us the opportunity to do more in the community – people come to us and ask them to cook for their charity or functions.”
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