My favourite dish: Dom Fernando
Dom Fernando shares his recipe for empanada-style Sri Lankan fish patties with curry aïoli with Tony Naylor
We celebrate the world’s best comfort food by asking chefs and food writers from diverse backgrounds to talk about the dishes they love.
The chef-owner of London's Paradise restaurant talks about blending Sri Lankan cuisine with British produce and his gran's amazing 'short-eats' snacks.
See Dom's empanada-style Sri Lankan fish patties with curry aïoli recipe.
Dom's favourite dish
"Our role is to push the boundaries of Sri-Lankan food," says Dom Fernando, chef-owner at London Paradise. "If you want traditional Sri Lankan there are plenty of good places to have it, but we thrive on creativity. We want to do something progressive."
To that end, his Soho dining room blends high-quality Sri Lankan British ingredients in dishes which, in cooking techniques or plating, go to new places. Barbecued chicken thighs, for example, marinated in lemongrass, ginger, curry leaves and ramps (panda leaves), are served skewered on an ambarella fruit curry with petals of Roscoff onion, glazed with Sri Lankan Lion stout. As Dom puts it: "We don't have to be defined by traditional curry."
Launched late 2019, such innovation has established Paradise as one of Britain's more imaginative dining rooms. Despite the pandemic ("It's been a very challenging two years," says Dom), this small, 35-cover restaurant has wowed critics and diners alike, justifying Dom's decision, over a decade ago, to swap accountancy for a life at InterContinental Hotels, where he honed skills before Paradise.
The hospitality gene, that desire to host and feed people, was in this 39-year-old's DNA partly thanks to an act who took Dom – then a child – out to restaurants ("a massive event which got me into food, restaurant design and the guest experience").
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But it's also because, growing up in Hendon, north-west London, food was central to how his Sri Lankan family bonded: "Food and family, gathering to cook and eat together, is really important in Sri Lankan culture. Ready-meals were never a thing. Getting a Maccy D's or pizza was a serious treat. We at together every day: my parents, my brother, sometimes other relatives too.
"It might take two hours to make food for four to six people that was eaten in an hour and, as a teenager, I couldn't understand why we were cooking all the time. There was a period when I hated curries. At school, I'd flog my curry packed lunch and go to the tuck shop. But at 15, 16, my palate changed, and all I wanted was South Asian food.
"My grandmother, my mother's mother, who lived in Putney, was the family matriarch and, really, my love of food came through her. She was the queen of 'short eats' – Sri Lankan snacks such as croquettes-like fish cutlets or bread rolls with seeni sambol [caramelised onion relish]. My recipe for fish patties, which resemble empanadas, reminds me of my grandmother. If she was visiting, I'd run home from school to see how many she'd made, and how many I could demolish in one sitting.
"Short eats were influenced by [invaders and former colonial rulers], the Dutch, Portuguese and British. They'd start a meal or afternoon tea with something mildly spiced, often encased in breadcrumbs or pastry. But Sri Lankans took it to the next level adding, say, devilled beef or spiced tuna. Today, short eats are everywhere, at dinner parties, sold at roadside shacks, on trains. Sri Lanka's snack game is strong.
"After short eats and homework, I'd help prep the 'rice and curry' for dinner or lay the table. When Sri Lankans talk about eating rice and curry, the term 'curry' applies to about five items on your plate. You have rice; a fish or meat dish; a dhal; simple stir-fried greens like green beans or okra; a white vegetable curry and, on the side, a pickle like mango chutney or a symbol. Sambols are a variety of different condiments that include pol symbol, a fresh combination of grated coconut, chill and lime juice.
"We still have deep roots in Sri Lanka. Mum spends six months of the year there and, pre-pandemic, I was there every few months. Family connections allow us to ship ingredients from Sri Lanka, such as tea (a distant uncle owns the tea company, Dilmah) or ginger and chillies. Through family, we liaise with famers, going directly to the source."
Five key Sri Lankan ingredients
"A staple in Sri Lanka. Curry leaf trees are everywhere in peoples gardens. The leaves release a strong aroma when cooked in hot oil and sauces. We use curry leaves as a crispy garnish too."
"Fishing is a big industry in Sri Lanka and this delicacy, umbalakada or 'Maldive fish', is cured, sun-dried and flaked tuna – similar to Japanese bonito [katsuobushi]. A small sprinkling adds punch to various dishes, such a cashew nut curry and vegetable curries to give them salty umami flavours."
"Also known as gardenia cambogia or black tamarind, this is an under-utilised ingredient in the West. We use it to marinate fish and meat. It tenderises protein, adds sour acidity and also fruitiness to a dish."
"Grown in abundance across Sri Lanka. It requires hours of delicate work to peel and it's expensive, but it tastes amazing – aromatic and slightly earthy. It's used in sweet and savoury dishes, anything from dhal to coconut desserts."
"Also known as pandan across south-east Asia, these leaves add a nutty, botanical fragrance to curries and can be added to sweet items, such as doughnut fillings."