Placing Sri Lanka on the food map
By Chenelle Fernando
Photos Indika Handuwala
He is the proud recipient of a number of accolades such as gold and silver medals at all-island food competitions in Sri Lanka and is privileged to have been positioned at leading hotels and resorts in Sri Lanka prior to his move to Australia.
Interestingly, he garnered the opportunity to work for Kerry Packer on a private yacht for six years. This, he pointed out, provided him with the opportunity to travel to a number of exuberant locations around the world.
Today, Chef Manjula Fernando is the owner of two restaurants located in Sydney, Australia – Dish Dining and Events in Toongabbie and Dish Street Food in Glebe – where he serves up authentic Sri Lankan dishes to its patrons.
Australians are quite conscious about what they consume and vegan culture is quite popular there. Does this in any way hinder your method of preparing food?
Yes, they are particular about what’s in their food. But recently, we noticed that Sri Lankan cuisine has blossomed and people have started talking about it. Initially, they didn’t even know the difference between Indian and Sri Lankan cuisine, they used to think it was the same.
Now, you get a crowd that has travelled to Sri Lanka and have an idea of what Sri Lankan cuisine is; that it is contrastingly different to Indian food and that the spices we use are also so different. Not only has this triggered an eye for Sri Lankan cuisine, but also encouraged travel to Sri Lanka.
We serve up many vegan and vegetarian options that mostly comprise vegetables, to cater to their need. We give them a lot of options along with string hoppers, rotti, hoppers, and even vegetable-based dishes.
Since you are based in Sydney, are your customers mostly Sri Lankan or do you see a blend?
I own two restaurants; one in Toongabbie and one in Glebe. I receive a lot of Sri Lankans at the restaurant in Toongabbie, mainly due to the high Sri Lankan population in that area. Glebe, on the other hand, is in the city, and around 90% of the customers there are Australians.
Do you pay special consideration in terms of spices and methods of preparation for the purpose of catering to their needs?
It does depend on the kind of spices we use, because some people can’t consume spices. However, we get Sri Lankan as well as Australians at our restaurants.
So we use the same amount of spices at the restaurant in Glebe, where we receive more Australian customers in comparison to Toongabbie, and we haven’t got any complaints so far. We offer authentic Sri Lankan food in our restaurants and I try and refrain from fusing Sri Lankan with other kinds of cuisines, except maybe in certain dessert options we offer at our restaurant.
My main theme is authentic Sri Lankan street food. I want to keep the food just as it is, and if there is a fusion, it would take away its authenticity.
Sydney has numerous Sri Lankan food spots. What intrigued you to open up your own restaurant there?
Sydney does have a lot of places that offer Sri Lankan food, but they all offer Sri Lankan fusion cuisine to cater to non-Sri Lankans. However, I wanted to offer 100% authentic Sri Lankan food to offer them the entire experience. The restaurant in Glebe is located at an upmarket area and this is exactly what we offer here, but we pay closer attention to detail, such as when plating.
You have been in the restaurant industry for quite some time now. Not only have you had the privilege of working for forerunners in the food industry right here in Sri Lanka, but also Australia. Do you see a drastic difference between the two food scenes?
You can’t really compare Australia with Sri Lanka because they are two different countries altogether. You get nice places in Sri Lanka and Australia that operate at various different standards. With the increase in tourist arrivals in Sri Lanka, you see so many good spots open up around Colombo and it has definitely developed to a better level since of late.
In Australia, however, they have many rules and regulations pertaining to things like health, hygiene, and size requirements. For instance, ingredients are required to be stored at a certain temperature and we are required to adhere to these regulations.
What else have you got lined up to take you closer to your culinary dreams?
As a chef, my dream was to open up a restaurant one day – which I have done.
Apart from that, I manage a catering service as well – something I’ve always wanted to do as a chef.
As for getting closer to my future aspirations, I got in touch with Chef Miguel – a celebrity chef in Australia – right before I got back to Sri Lanka and was granted the opportunity to prepare hoppers for around 300 people who haven’t tasted our food. This would be a great opportunity to put Sri Lanka on the food map, which is definitely something we can do as we’ve got all the flavours and everything we need to get there.