Five minutes with Thuli Weerasena

Thuli Weerasena, also known as Pol Boy on Instagram, is the curator of a new Sri Lankan cookbook, made in collaboration with Sri Lankan chefs and cooks around the UK and Australia. The new downloadable book, Resilience: Recipes from the Sri Lankan Diaspora, is available for purchase here, with 100% of proceeds going to Community Meal Share, a collective that delivers cooked meals to vulnerable people and aspires to bridge the inequality gap in Sri Lanka during the country’s ongoing economic crisis. The cookbook has been designed by Sri Lankan designer Seth De Silva.

We caught up with Thuli to find out about his first memories of food, who he’d invite to his dream dinner party and to get to know a little more about the book…

Five minutes with Thuli Weerasena

What’s your very first memory of food?

My first memory of food is tucking into a bucket of KFC and coke hidden under the table at my dad’s house in Sri Lanka. My dad was stationed in a different town for work and my mum didn’t allow us to eat junk food at our house. So whenever I went to visit him, I would get a sneaky treat.

What’s the first dish you properly learnt to cook?

The gateway to cooking for me was cracking open packets of instant noodles and chucking in a bunch of stuff and seeing what worked. In terms of actually learning a recipe, it would probably be recreating Jamie Oliver’s Christmas roast potatoes. He gets a bit of stick these days but growing up I used to watch a lot of shows and his roast potatoes recipe is still a classic for me.

Your cookbook Resilience: Recipes from the Sri Lankan Diaspora features recipes from chefs, cooks, and restaurants and aims to raise funds for vulnerable communities in Sri Lanka to support them during the country’s ongoing economic crisis. Tell us a bit more about it?

The cookbook is a direct response to the unprecedented economic crisis Sri Lanka has been experiencing for almost a year. A perfect storm, resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and a morally bankrupt and incompetent government’s actions, has meant that everything that could go wrong with the economy has gone wrong.

Recipes, whether passed down through word of mouth or written down, have been a source of resilience for diasporic communities. When adjusting to a foreign land, the ability to eat and cook food that reminds you of home can be a crucial lifeline. Right now, it is the people on the island of Sri Lanka who are in need of a lifeline.

One hundred per cent of the profit made from sales of the cookbook will go to Community Meal Share Trust. Community Meal Share is a collective that aspires to bridge the gap between the privileged and underprivileged in Sri Lanka. They currently deliver warm, cooked meals to vulnerable communities to support them during the ongoing economic crisis.

Resilience: Recipes from the Sri Lankan Diaspora, design by Seth De Silva

How has the experience of working on the book? How did you find the contributors?

When the crisis broke out, I reached out to all the Sri Lankan restaurants, chefs, and food bloggers that I knew and a bunch of them jumped at the chance to do something to help. As Sri Lankans living abroad, we felt compelled to show solidarity with the people living on the island.

The cookbook aims to harness the spirit of resilience through the recipes held on to by the diaspora to generate funds for ordinary Sri Lankans who have shown resilience against all odds during the crisis. I’m really pleased with how the book has turned out. A fellow British-Sri Lankan, Seth de Silva, created some beautiful original artwork and we have some fantastic recipes in the book from the likes of MasterChef Australia contestant Dee Williams and standout London restaurants Kolamba and Paradise.

What’s the one dish you couldn’t live without?

Fried rice. I always have rice in the fridge and will make some variation of fried rice for dinner when I’m short on time. I’m of the opinion that you can add anything to fried rice and it will be delicious. I once made it with leftover takeaway shawarma and it cured my hangover.

What ingredient would you take to a desert island with you?

Lao Gan Ma crispy chilli oil. A drizzle of that can turn the blandest of foods into something exciting.

You can have a one-off dinner party on your island… who would you invite?

Nigella Lawson and Munya Chawawa. Munya would have to be dressed up like Nigella when he does his impression of her.

There have been Sri Lankan restaurants in London’s suburbs for many years, but there are now more and more to be found in central London. Do you feel excited by the growing Sri Lankan food scene in London?

Definitely. What I’m loving the most is the diversity of the restaurants in terms of what’s on the menu. Kolamba’s food tastes exactly like what you find at a Sri Lankan family function, Paradise has some interesting creative twists, and I can’t wait to visit Cynthia Shanmugalingam’s new spot Rambutan having cooked some of the recipes from her cookbook.

Beetroot curry

What will you be working on next?

Probably putting on some pop ups and working on a range of Sri Lankan condiments.

What is the best food experience you’ve had in the UK? Something that you think everyone should try before they die…

Singburi in Leytonstone. It’s one of the few places I’ve been to where the flavour of the food has stuck in my memory. It’s all killer, no filler. Spicy and zingy Thai done to an exceptional standard. As a Brummie boy, I also need to big up a mixy (mixed grill) from a desi pub. These pubs are run by South Asian landlords and fairly nondescript from the outside. Step inside and you’ll find a menu stacked with Punjabi and Indo-Chinese crowd pleasers. The Hen & Chickens, Ivy Bush, and Merrymaid are the gold standard for mixed grills in the city.

Do you have any aspirations and dreams you’ve yet to fulfill?

I’d love to open a food and drink establishment of my own one day. Whether that be a restaurant, bar, or pub. I have a lot to learn but I will take the plunge at some point!

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