Dinushka Gunasekara

Photo: Dinushka Gunasekara

My cultural identity lives on the plate

"Built from the ingredients found in hole-in-the-wall South Asian grocery stores... I find belonging in the recipes blooming down the branches of my family tree."

My family often shares a laugh when I order a Sri Lankan dish in my hybrid English Sinhalese. There’s something about my accent – a culmination of an Aussie upbringing on a backdrop of American TV – that makes my request come out like a hesitant question. While I might look Sri Lankan on the outside, the most ethnic thing about me is my foundation shade and an innate love for gold jewellery.

My brief comedy roast is worth it for the cuisine that will always taste like home. Spicy kottu heaping in a bowl of comforting flavour. Crispy egg hoppers (appa) served with zesty coconut (pol) sambol. Fresh fish buns (malu paan) worth burning the roof of my mouth for that first bite. Lamprais wrapped in banana leaf and infused with cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon. Hearty kanda made daily with gotu kola (pennywort) grown in the backyard. Dhal curry (parippu) trying to make stained turmeric the latest nail trend. 

Like many second generation immigrants, my connection to the homeland is at its strongest on the dining table. My cultural identity is built from the ingredients found in hole-in-the-wall South Asian grocery stores; I find belonging in the recipes blooming down the branches of my family tree. 

When I first moved away from home (over state lines too far for my mum to send pan rolls), my cure for homesickness was a simple chickpea curry using jars of spices I’d filled in my family kitchen and packed carefully in my suitcase. I’d never really cooked before, and followed steps I’d taken screenshots of from the family group chat. In the supermarket, I picked up coconut milk and curry powder based purely on recognising the labels we had at home. I FaceTimed my dad as my curry simmered to check if the colour was right. And I made it again, and again, and again. 

A traditional breakfast. Photo: Dinushka Gunasekara

I’m from Melbourne, where the Sri Lankan food scene is promising, and as I’ve continued to move north, searching the cuisine on UberEats is up there with connecting utilities and updating my address on my list of things to do. Now, living in Rockhampton, I dig up a piece of my roots in a restaurant with debatable opening hours that occasionally serves string hoppers, vadai, and devilled dishes. In every bite, I feel closer to the ethnicity that I never felt fully captured my reality, but will always be an integral part of who I am.

“I’m really fortunate to have my parents here in Melbourne,” said Rosheen Kaul (previously head chef at Etta). “And the way the kitchen smells when my dad is cooking is one of the most beautiful things in the world for me. It’s the distinctive warm aroma of hing hitting shimmering hot mustard oil.

“My family features strong Asian cultures that don’t have a lot of crossover from an outside perspective, but in food culture and practice, they share a lot in common. My dad is from Kashmir and my mum is Singaporean Chinese-Indonesian-Filipino. They met in Singapore where they had my sister and I, and Singapore is famously known for its food culture. It’s our favourite medium to share memories, context, and love.” 

Crispy egg hoppers

Crispy egg hoppers (appa). Photo: Dinushka Gunasekara

Besides sustenance and Instagram fodder, food undoubtedly serves a unique purpose in creating a sense of selfhood. Cultural cuisine is often the most accessible gateway to ethnicity – speaking a universal language that provides connection to lived-in experience while transcending borders. I’ve only been to Sri Lanka a handful of times, but food is the missing link that moves me from the in-between and firmly into a space where I belong. It’s the part of my cultural identity that sneaks up on me – showing up in the kiribath (milk rice) I eat on special occasions or the box of Dilmah that holds a permanent space in my pantry.

For Rosheen, it’s her dad’s rogan josh (lamb curry) that’s her favourite or her mum’s braised ginger chicken that ‘feels like a hug in a bowl’. As for New Delhi-born chef Depinder Chhibber, it’s her mum’s homestyle rajma (kidney bean curry) that takes her back to Sundays growing up in India. 

“For me, food has always been the connection between my two homes in India and Australia,” said the former MasterChef Australia star. “Fortunately for me, I grew up very close to my grandfather who was a massive foodie and as little kids we were exposed to a lot of different types of foods at home, as well as outside. Moving to Australia solidified my love for food and its connection with my family back home, as I started cooking most of these dishes – which were not available in local Indian restaurants – when I missed my family.”

It’s a multi-dimensional craving – one part each of nostalgia, kinship, home, and good food. Satisfying for the stomach and the soul, enjoying the fare of your heritage is filling as much as it is fulfilling. My knowledge of Sri Lanka might be sketchy, but you best believe I can tell a quality plate of kottu from an inauthentic one. Just don’t question my pronunciation.