Andy Mossack reviews Jaffna House, London’s oldest Sri Lankan restaurant.
London’s Tooting Broadway may not be the most glamourous setting in the world, but the warm welcome you’ll receive at Jaffna House will more than compensate.
For over thirty years, this family-owned restaurant has served authentic Sri Lankan fare to its adoring locals, attaining almost legendary status in the process. I have to admit, being a north London lad who rarely travels south of the river, I had no idea Tooting was such a South Asian foodie hot spot. Even more reason to recognise Jaffna House’s achievements in the face of such fierce competition.
From the outside, this unassuming café belies the quality of the fare on offer, while the gallery of Sri Lankan art adorning the ochre-walled interior and a lonely tropical aquarium suggests you could be in a family dining room in a beach house outside Colombo.
To the uninitiated, Sri Lankan cuisine might be mistaken for Indian food, but as soon as you read the menu and spot unfamiliar dishes such as hoppers, devilled potatoes and puttu on the menu, you know you’re in for something quite different. Just how different was a mission I intended to find out. As our waiter was poised for our order, I set out my challenge. “We’d love you to give us a selection of some of your most authentic dishes so we can get a real taste of Sri Lanka please.” His eyes lit up with joy as he ran to the kitchen with the good news.
And it wasn’t long before the procession of food began.
A duo of mutton rolls (£1.50 each), minced lamb samosas (£3.50 a pair) chicken 65 (£7.45) and devilled potatoes (£5.25) were triumphantly delivered to our table. “Your starters sir. Everything here is handmade in our kitchen.”
The mutton rolls were delicious tubes of minced mutton encased in delicate breadcrumbs and deep-fried, the lamb samosas were no strangers to me but were clearly hand-made and delightfully crispy with a hint of a kick. The chicken 65 was tender chunks of tandoori chicken sprinkled with a sauce that was so hot (perhaps 65 degrees?) it made our eyes water, but we kept going back for more, nonetheless. Our devilled potatoes were perhaps our favourite – I mean, who can resist spicy fried onions layered over chunks of potato? Our waiter returned with a wry smile. “How was the chicken 65? Hot enough for you?” He knew. The state of our watery eyes was a giveaway.
So far so brilliant then. And for a rainy Wednesday evening, Jaffna House was doing pretty good business. I chanced a glance across at our neighbours, silently hoping we might get what they were devouring.
And suddenly, we did, as hoppers materialised. Strung and otherwise. The five nests of string hoppers (£4.50) were made from steamed rice flour pressed into thin strings not dissimilar to vermicelli. They were accompanied by a small jug of Sothy, a traditional broth made from coconut milk and turmeric flavoured with fenugreek seeds, cinnamon sticks, curry leaves, ginger, and garlic. “You pour it over the hoppers” I was reliably informed. It was utterly delicious.
Our two plain hoppers (£5.25) turned out to be bowl-shaped rice flour crepes that cried out to be filled with something. They came with two sambal pastes, a red one made from chillies, and the other a katta made from ground onion. I filled my one with a delicious masoor dal curry (£5.95) made from split red lentils before wrapping it. My dining companion used an equally impressive aubergine curry (£6.95) to fill his hopper.
Our food procession was in the home straight now as our waiter presented us with our final main, a Jaffna House special no less. A triumph of a lamb curry (£8.95), together with a generous bowl of fried pilau rice with prawn, egg, and onions (£7.25).
This was a meal fit for a king (apparently, they have kings in Sri Lanka) and although a few dishes could clearly be compared with Indian dishes, the majority of this feast was undeniably different. There were more coconut flavours for me here, and plenty of variety too, with both vegetarian and non-vegetarian catered for equally.
Even though our feast was plentiful, I still didn’t get to taste kothu, which is like a roti, or the sushi-like puttu. They will just have to wait for next time. At least it’s a good reason for a second helping of this quite lovely local slice of Sri Lankan very affordable heaven.
Suddenly, Tooting Broadway has never looked better.
All pictures (C) Andy Mossack and Jaffna House.
Tell me more about Jaffna House Sri Lankan Restaurant
Jaffna House Sri Lankan Restaurant, 90 Tooting High St, Tooting, London, SW17 0RN Tel :020 8672 7786
Every Friday, Jaffna House offers a Thali set meal of twelve items for £9.95 (vegetarian), £10.95 (chicken) or £11.45 (mutton).