Weligama: Recipes From Sri Lanka is a mess.
It feels like an uneasy retrofit – like Emily Dobbs originally wrote it to cash in on the clean eating fad. More than a few legacy, hangover sentences suggest she had to pull-back from the ‘free-from’ cliff at the last minute when that particular bubble burst: an early chapter emphasises many of her recipes’ gluten- and dairy-free credentials; she is at pains to insist that this stuff isn’t as bad for you as it looks – that curry “can be quick to make, light and fresh”, especially when it features rabbit (their legs are “great”, “as they aren’t covered in fat”). Chapter Five is titled “SWEET” and starts “Sweet things in Sri Lanka tend to be very sugary” – after the previous four chapters, you will not bat an eyelid as Dobbs continues “I try to make mine a little less so by always using natural sweetener”. There’s plenty to suggest the book was originally going to be entirely vegetarian, or possibly even vegan – certainly, this would explain why six of the nine photographs taken of Dobbs feature her communing soulfully with pieces of fruit, including one especially memorable one where she takes for her seat a deeply ergonomic stack of pineapples.
It's conceptually all at sea when it comes to the recipes, too – a jarring Western-tourist-meets-Eastern-native culture shock. Things reach a nadir with Dobbs’ Cashew Ajo Blanco, which substitutes out every single ingredient of the classic Spanish assembly (cashews for almonds, rice vinegar for sherry, coconut milk for olive oil, papaya for grapes); it’s an arrestingly odd combination that distracts you from the fact that what you’re reading is essentially a modernised version of one of history’s most famous thought experiments. This is just the most egregious in a series of (probably) well-meaning but (definitely) odd attempts to contextualise Sri Lankan food through Western alternatives: acharu, we are told, is used “a bit like we would use piccalilli” (so… not at all?); manioc is mashed to make “Sri Lankan colcannon” (in 2017 I’m more familiar with manioc than fucking colcannon, tbh, love). The patronising implication is that this sort of reassurance is necessary, because – as Dobbs points out in a recipe for green banana curry – some of this more authentically Sri Lankan stuff can be “a bit weird”. But relax: “weird is good”!
“Weird is good” seems to be the dominant philosophy of cookbooks like this. They earn their place on coffee tables for their glossy photos, their instantly familiar tableaux denoting “foreign” (present and correct here: dude on a fishing pole; dude with a cool moustache; dudes with bikes; dudes on a beach pulling on a rope; an old woman’s clasped wrinkled hands; a tuk tuk; a hand-painted sign). Within their covers, non-European food is othered as a source of everything our lives are not: where we are grimly monotone, Sri Lankans – or Mexicans, or Filipinos, or whoever – are (ugh) colourful. This sort of lazy shorthand is everywhere, from a tweet by Wahaca founder Thomasina Miers (“In this cold, grey and murky weather I’m fantasising about the colour and vibrancy of Mexico”, where presumably they don’t have winter), to the blurbs on this book (“VIBRANT. FRESH. LIGHT. DELICIOUS”), to the words within it, in particular Dobbs’ central complaint – the realisation that set her off on this project in the first place – that “food in London lacked the vibrancy, colour and freshness of Sri Lankan cooking”.
This, of course, means that this food comes with a whole lot of other baggage, too. The book is chock-full of lazily Orientalist thinking that dignifies practically every dish with layers of yogic meaning and profundity: in Sri Lanka, rice is not just a staple, it is “soulful”. In Sri Lanka, grinding freshly toasted spices is “a meditation”; in Sri Lanka, as you’re grinding those spices, remember “to breathe in the intensely exotic, somewhat mystical aroma” – especially that of cinnamon (“dark and mysterious”). Dobbs is drawn to details like this; magpie-like, she plunders the best bits of the country she takes as her subject: cooking over open fire is “a medieval idea” that Dobbs claims to “love”; of tenderising meat with papaya Dobbs asserts “I’m not sure it makes a difference but I think the idea is cool”. It’s the same spirit that informs the numerous retreats and eco-lodges name-checked throughout the book (many of them, in a tawdry twist, belonging to Dobbs’ own associates, like her “wonderful friend Hen” who runs “a sweet boutique villa near Galle”). It’s the same spirit, too, that informs a fetishisation of Asian supermarkets and the specialist shops of Chinatown over Western alternatives. Of the mango, banana and papaya to be used in a crumble, Dobbs instructs: “please buy it from an Asian grocery or in Chinatown if you can. It will taste 100 per cent better, look nicer, and it will be cheaper too”. There’s a lot to unpick in that: it isn’t racist, for sure. But there’s still something off about it, a weird slippery implication of cultural absolutism that sits on your brain like a scab. Emily Dobbs is white, in case you were wondering.
Maybe it’s just the obliviousness that nags – because in the final analysis, perhaps all that needs to be said is that this book is oblivious AF. Obliviously written, for sure: you cannot have given much thought to your readers when you describe something flavoured with lime as “lime-y”, or something flavoured with cloves as “clove-y”, or something flavoured with cardamom as “cardamom-y”. But a broader sort of oblivious, too: the sort of oblivious that allows Dobbs to state “I am a creative” with a straight face, or to confidently declare “if you haven’t tried Grant Harrington’s cultured butter then you should”, or to name-check one of her strongest influences in a sentence like this: “Rose Gray, one of the co-founders of the restaurant [The River Café], was friendly with my uncle and grandmother, having cooked at the Galle Literary Festival”.
It is absolutely right and proper that Gray, the eminence grise behind The River Café, should feature; that Dobbs herself should have dreamt of opening nothing less than “a Sri Lankan River Café”. As River Cafe co-founder Ruth Rogers’ recent car-crash interview in The Guardian suggests, theirs are projects utterly uninterested in self-scrutiny – epitomes and icons of a very specific sort of cluelessly well-meaning, punishingly middle class amateur gastro-buffoonery. Gray, and Rogers, and Dobbs all fetishise exquisite exotic produce for its mysticism and potent hidden promise, the virtue conferred on it by its sheer unspoilt otherness. Overseas is still a playground for these people – somewhere rich for exploitation, in which landscapes and foodstuffs essentially play the same role as glossy tropical butterflies did for heedless Victorian lepidopterists. Like I say, it isn’t racist – not overtly so, not even in a way you can really pin down under the point of a word like “problematic”.
But that doesn’t make this way of thinking, or the cookbooks that arise from it, any more worthy of your time.