The winding queues outside O Tama Carey’s Sri Lankan hopper stand at Carriageworks Farmers Market have heralded a permanent restaurant, opening in Darlinghurst this April.
The outpost of island cooking in Eveleigh made fans rise early every Saturday morning to sit on the pavement and tuck into porous pancakes of fermented rice flour and coconut milk. Spongy at the bottom (where a pool of spice-laden curry gathers) and crisp at the latticed edges – they’re best torn apart by hand – this Sri Lankan street food staple is both cooling and scorching at once.
Carey’s stand was so successful that in six months, the former Berta head chef sold around 7,280 hoppers to market-goers. Despite its popularity, the plan was always to open a permanent restaurant.
“Carriageworks was the bit in between while we were waiting to find the right home,” she says. “We learnt a whole heap: how to write the menu, testing out different recipes and systems … it was good, we got excellent customers.”
Hoppers will be the main event at the all-day Darlinghurst restaurant, run by Carey and her second cousin Odette Overlunde. There will also be “short eats” or Sri Lankan snacks including crab cutlets and hot-butter cuttlefish (battered turmeric fish, deep fried in the wok with tons of chilli and curry powder). “It’s spicy and hot and delicious,” says Carey. “And a hybrid dish: Chinese but also Sri Lankan.”
Then there’s potato curry with Sri Lankan mustard; a fiery prawn curry soured with tamarind or a dry, black-spiced mutton curry; and sambols including kata sambol (onions, chilli and lime). Chilli fans will find lots to like here. “Some dishes will be seriously hot,” says Carey. “As hot as you can get.”
As for dessert, the popular “love cake” (a sweet and floral Sri Lankan-Dutch cake made with semolina flour, egg yolks and rose water) will be a go-to, as well as ice-cream and sorbets in flavours such as spiced jaggery (a cane sugar popular in Sri Lanka); coconut and curd; and kithul (a dark palm sugar syrup).
Boozy ginger beer, house-blended Sri Lankan teas, coconut water and arrack (a rum-like spirit distilled from coconut palm flowers) will be poured, too.
The casual restaurant will be decorated with trinkets from Sri Lankan travels, while well-used spices will sit proudly on display. Inspired by the “tropical modernist” work of Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, it will have an indoor-outdoor feel with a polished concrete floor, concrete bars, and beautiful 2.7 metres-high steel-framed glass doors.
While Carey sacrificed many Saturday mornings to make hoppers, she will be taking a break from the pans and employing a head chef for the new Darlinghurst venue.
For a country so small, Sri Lanka’s influence in Sydney is growing. A second Dish opened in Glebe recently, and the original Toongabbie venue has a strong and loyal following. “I think what’s happening now is after the civil war, more and more people are visiting Sri Lanka, so it’s on people’s radar a lot more.”
While Carey will leave a bowl-shaped hole at Carriageworks, she says she’s ready for her new adventure. “I loved being in the markets, I love the whole vibe. But I’m ready to do something different, to have a permanent home where I don’t have to move everything in and out.”
And what’s taking over her coveted corner at Carriageworks? “I think someone doing falafel roll thingies,” she says.
Lankan Filling Station will open in April at 58 Riley Street, Darlinghurst.