Emily Dobbs and Weligama...
Having introduced it to the streets of London, Emily Dobbs’ offering of hoppers at Weligama is far from boring. The striking juxtaposition of colours and textures embodies the fare offered at Weligama where Emily has been reinventing the traditional Sri Lankan hopper with a delightful infusion of her personal touch. Already, Weligama has attracted everyone from discerning food connoisseurs to the purists - that Emily has successfully won over.
With previous experience in establishments such as Dock Kitchen, Ducksoup, Petersham Nurseries & Spring, Emily is no newcomer to the competitive culinary world. Neither is she a stranger to Sri Lankan cuisine. “My uncle is a hotelier and he owns Taprobane Island and the Dutch House in Galle. I used to come as a child and stay in these places. And at that time no one was going to Sri Lanka and all my friends were holidaying in Greece and Spain and they thought Sri Lanka was very exotic. And I’d come here and there wouldn't be tourists for 2 weeks. You wouldn’t see anyone,” she explained, adding that Sri Lankan food is still a relatively new concept to the British.
We recently caught up with the lovely Emily Dobbs who seemed surprisingly at home on a gloriously hot day in sunny Colombo, where she spoke of her pop-up Weligama, of exploring Sri Lanka and what the future holds for her.
First things first - why hoppers?
It was more the sri Lankan food that I've always loved - like all the colours, different textures. I love having a sweet curry with a quite rich curry and a fresh mallung. I just love all the combinations. So I started cooking at home and I just thought hoppers were a cool thing that no one did and no one knew. And I’ve always been very experimental and I just thought it would be a challenge just to try something like that. It all started from there really.
How did you come up with the name "Weligama"?
When I was thinking of names, I liked the idea of calling it after a place and Colombo or Galle didn’t sound very pretty. And Taprobane Island - I thought that was my uncle's thing. Weligama to me is very special because it's is where Taprobane is. And it's just a very friendly, welcoming name, and just sounded really nice and warm. And I also wanted it to sound slick and modern because if it was too complicated that would sort of put people off. I’m really happy with the way it's turned out. The name has always been sort of the thing that came first. And everything else fell into place.
What prompted you to forge ahead with your pop-up eatery "Weligama"? Has it always been a dream of yours?
I always - from a really young age wanted to be successful and I’ve had the drive. I’ve actually had this idea from a really long time and it's incredible now because it was more of a little project I had in mind. Weligama to me is my whole life. I spend all day in the kitchen developing recipes and eating new things. At first I was worried because some Sri Lankans are quite purists. Like they come to my shop and they’re like I just want an appa with the egg done like this or done like that. It's my take on Sri Lankan food - I don’t want people to think “oh it’s not real Sri Lankan”. Like you can't get Maldive fish that easily in the UK so sometimes I use anchovies instead, and adapt it to the Western way of cooking. But it very much has that Sri Lankan feel.
Was it difficult introducing hoppers to British people?
In the beginning I used to have to have a sign explaining what it was. But now people are beginning to understand what a hopper is, and have kinda gotten the idea. British people are scared of using their hands though - they find it funny. People are kinda set in their ways - the British and the Sri Lankans.
Weligama served up food at the Galle Literary Festival and at CFW recently. How was that experience?
That went really well. I mean all these things kinda scare you. I’ve never done this kinda thing before and it felt like a big responsibility. But actually I loved doing it and it was a challenge to make that many hoppers and everyone loved it. They were coming up for more and I think they liked the new way of eating different types of food and it went really well.
Which hopper would you say is a fan favourite?
I don't know. I mean I experiment so it’s always changing - what I put in them. But the classic one I do is with pol sambol, seeni sambol, roasted peanuts and kiri hodi. And you roll them like a wrap and it’s got everything in one. And I try and make them really pretty.
What do you love about Sri Lankan food?
The colours and the different textures. The abundant use of vegetables. Everything's really fresh. You don't refrigerate. You cook and eat it the same day so food tastes really fresh. And I love spicy food, so I enjoy the food cooked here. I also love all the pickles. It’s really cool that you pickle fruits like wood apple and ambarella and all those things. Everything tastes so much better out here. Like the papayas I have them every morning. They’re so juicy and massive. And passion fruit. I never realized there were so many different colours. And I love the smell of curry leaves especially when they are tempered in the oil. That's my favourite smell and that really brings me back to Sri Lanka when I'm in London.
You enjoy cooking whenever you visit Sri Lanka. Did you encounter any curiosities in the Sri Lankan way of cooking?
When cooking in Sri Lanka I didn’t realize they don't have lemons here. So I made pol sambol the other day and I was in the kitchen with some Sri Lankans and it needed some citrus and we didn’t have any vinegar or lime. So I made the sambol with orange juice and and paprika and chilli and they're all Spanish flavours and I know they all work, and the Sri Lankans were horrified. But they tried it and they were like “Miss I’ve gone to heaven”. It felt good to teach them something. We learn from each other. I mean they're very good doing all that prep beforehand. Like a curry in 5 minutes because they're so good at prepping. Where as I’m not so fast.
You have been exploring Sri Lanka more so lately. How has that been?
I’ve been going around and eating different food. Asking questions, taking photos. I get in a tuk tuk and I say give me the nitty gritty local markets. Not the touristy stuff. I was exploring Galle one morning and I hadn’t tried kiribath yet, so I walked into town and I went to the vegetable market and I said “where do the locals all have breakfast?” And they pointed me to a little shop and I had this amazing breakfast. That's why I love getting involved with locals.
You’ve just been offered a book deal. Tell us a little bit about it.
It’s very exciting and there are lots of big plans with where it’s gonna go. The book will focus on Sri Lankan cuisine and will also be a travel book because people always ask me ‘Where shall I go?’ ‘What shall I do?’ ‘What should I eat in Sri Lanka?’ I think it will be a bit of everything. But mostly just recipes. My photographer’s coming out next week. So we’re going to do some location shoots. It’s quite nerve racking. It’s crazy to think that this is happening.
Any plans of branching out?
I’d love to open a restaurant eventually and Weligama needs a team because it’s just me. I have some girls who help me out back in the UK. To go further I need a business partner. But I’d really love to make Weligama a franchise - you know, Weligama in Sri Lanka. It could be like the new McDonalds! They do a double whopper, and I’d love to try something like that, but with hoppers. It’s a fun idea to play with.
What's next for you?
The book would be my focus. I just take every opportunity to see what happens really. I’ve learnt a lot while I’ve been out here especially with the unusual vegetables. I thought it’s funny because you're just constantly learning as a chef. I mean there’s so much food. And I went to the Good Market in Colombo today and I tried some indonesian food and now I want to explore Indonesia! I’m also hoping to sell my seeni sambol in supermarkets. That would be really cool.
By Rihaab Mowlana
Photographs of Emily Dobbs by Samantha Perera
Photographs of Weligama hoppers courtesy Weligama on Facebook