Calder At Large

Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: Tastes of home

By Peter Calder

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7 Siri - Taste of Sri Lanka
Address: 580 Sandringham Rd Sandringham
Ph:(09) 849 6294

I shouldn't have taken the Irishman. But the Irishman should have told me before we sat down that he doesn't like chilli.

"I don't mind a little bit," he said, but he went pale when I told the man taking our orders (who is also the owner and the chef; it's that kind of place) that I wanted "Kiwi hot". (He reminded me of that wonderful skit in the British comedy show Goodness Gracious Me in which the Indian man ordering food in an English restaurant asks the waiter for "something very bland but not completely tasteless".)

The owner came graciously to the rescue by promising "I will make you something you will like." This is what is called service; you don't see much of it these days.

I rang the owner, Nandasiri Alwis, the next day because I was curious about the restaurant's name, which is a bit of a mouthful. It turns out that it is a tribute to his father, who died when Nandasiri was just a boy. Dad gave all seven of his sons names that end in "siri", which means "prosperous" in his native Sinhalese.

If Nandasiri and his wife Ramani have fulfilled those wishes for prosperity, it has been hard-won. An economics teacher at home, he had to seek another profession when he arrived here in 1998 because his English wasn't up to the demands of the classroom. He made snacks and staples such as kottu roti (a curry of meat, egg and vegetables cut up on the hot plate as they cook) from premises in Mangere and Mt Roskill and in night markets. He also did outdoor catering (his menu has a bulk order section) before setting up shop in the Little India that is Sandringham.

The menu here, in which only the seafood dishes top $15, has plenty of street-food cred. In pride of place at the top of the list of mains is lumprice (also spelled lampreis; the name comes from the Dutch for "lump of rice") which is one of the classics of Sri Lankan cooking. Rice boiled in stock is topped with generous spoonfuls of several curries and baked in a banana leaf.

It would not be too much to say that this has become my new favourite dish and I expect to be dropping in for lunch whenever I am nearby. The combination of tastes and textures makes it a real adventure for the mouth. If you are careful about deploying your fork, it's half a dozen meals in one and for a moderate appetite it would be more than enough for dinner.

Our group of three started with a masala dosa, that wonderful potato-stuffed pancake that is a must in any South Indian place. The Alwis version is silky-soft, rather than crisp, and both the filling and the accompanying sambar (dal soup) were, to the Irishman's obvious relief, more fragrant than fiery. Nandasiri explained that Sri Lankan food tends to use curry leaves and lemon grass rather than the chilli- and cayenne-heavy curry powders used in Indian cuisine.

We couldn't go past a magnificent biryani which was crammed with flavour and served with moru (a sort of coconut yoghurt) and a mint-infused sambal. There are lamb, chicken and vego versions and you can get it made with idiyappam, which are hand-made rice noodles, rather than rice. And we made very short work indeed of an exquisite and delicate squid curry.

As for pudding, I really enjoyed the wattalapam, a sort of coconut custard made with jaggery (unrefined sugar). As to my companions' choices, I will say only that it is not a good idea to order a dessert with an English name.

It's worth mentioning that the place is unlicensed though there is a wide selection of luridly coloured Sri Lankan soft drinks to choose from.

The restaurant's decor is worth a review in itself. They've erected a little thatched roof over the counter to add to the street-eats impression and the couple wear straw hats on top of hygienic hairnets - a tribute to the fieldworkers and fishermen of home.

And home is what the place is all about, really. Nandasiri says he cooks what he remembers his mother cooking, particularly that lumprice. "She always put a packet of that in my bag when I was going to school," he says. That's what I call a sales pitch.

- Herald on Sunday

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