Diners were unfamiliar with Sri Lankan cuisine, and long queues formed. You might wait two hours to enjoy inexpensive dishes, whose spicing was subtly different from the north Indian restaurants for which the city is well known. Five years on and there are now three Hoppers outlets, where you can book tables in advance. The long lines are gone but the popularity and quality remain.
Hoppers’ director, Karan Gokani, didn’t train as a professional chef. He’s a former lawyer and worked for Linklaters before entering the restaurant business. (Hoppers is owned by JKS Restaurants, of which his wife Sunaina Sethi was one of the three founders, with her brothers Karam and Jyotin. Karam is among the U.K.’s most influential chefs, known for restaurants such as Gymkhana.)
But Karan is accomplished in the kitchen. Chef Andrew Wong, who holds a Michelin star at A. Wong, has eaten at his home and describes him as “an amazing cook, a super-talented chef.” Karan grew up in Mumbai in a Gujarati family eating mainly vegetarian dishes, but some of the best food was cooked by a Tamil great uncle. Karan came to love South Indian and Sri Lankan cuisine. (He proposed to Sunaina in Sri Lanka and they married in Kerala.)
Karan has supplied a recipe for home-style Sri Lankan prawn curry, or isso kari. The only ingredient I had difficulty in sourcing was Sri Lankan roasted curry powder. “It’s vastly different from the garam masalas or the typical Madras curry powders you find on supermarket shelves,” he says. So I knew I wasn’t allowed that short cut and found a jar online.
He recommends using prawns with heads and shells on, which you can ask a fishmonger to clean and prep for you. But I bought headless fresh prawns from a supermarket and he says that is OK, but you really need fish stock for depth of flavor. Cooked prawns are an absolute no-no as they will go rubbery without absorbing the spices, Karan says.
If you don’t want prawns, this recipe also works with mackerel, sardines or fillets of bream or bass. The recipe is supposed to serve three to four people. As usual, I just ate it all myself.
600 grams of (21 ounces) raw prawns with skin and head on; or about 350g if without shells
1/4 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp ginger, minced
1 onion, finely chopped
2 very ripe medium tomatoes, diced
250 milliliters (8.5 fluid ounces) coconut milk
100 ml water or fish stock
10-12 curry leaves, ideally fresh
1 cinnamon stick
2 long green chilies, slit (remove seeds if you prefer less spicy, or leave out completely if you prefer milder still)
1.5 tablespoons roasted Sri Lankan curry powder
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp chili flakes
1/4 tsp salt
2 tbsp coconut oil
Finely chopped coriander
Lime, cut into 4
Marinate prawns in a pinch of salt and turmeric for an hour.
Heat the oil in a wok or saucepan over medium heat.
Add the fenugreek seeds and stir until they get a shade or two darker in color, but being careful not to burn them or they will go bitter.
Add the cinnamon stick, onion, garlic & ginger and sweat for about 5 minutes over medium heat till the onions go translucent and soft and the garlic doesn't smell raw anymore. The onions don't need to be browned as some recipes call for. If they begin to catch/stick to the pan at any point, add a splash of water or stock and keep cooking.
Add the tomatoes and cook for 3 minutes until soft and pulpy.
Add the curry leaves and remaining spices and cook for a further 3 minutes adding a splash of stock if they stick or burn.
Add the coconut milk and fish stock and salt and simmer for about 10 minutes. Don't allow the curry to boil as the milk could split. If you'd like the curry thicker, simmer it for a little longer until you are satisfied with the consistency.
Add the chilies and prawns and continue to simmer for 4-6 minutes until the prawns turn pink and are fully cooked through. If you use peeled raw prawns they won't need any more than a couple of minutes, depending on their size. Don't overcook or they will go rubbery and hard.
Check seasoning, garnish with coriander and serve with steamed rice or string hoppers and a wedge of lime to squeeze over.
This story first appeared on Bloomberg.com and has been lightly edited for style. Richard Vines is Chief Food Critic at Bloomberg.