Independence stands out as a mark of O Tama Carey's childhood. "We fended for ourselves a lot. I didn't get meals cooked for me every night, and I made my school lunches from a young age," she tells SBS Food.
One of the Sydney Lankan Filling Station chef's first cooking memories was of her baking from a children's cookbook. "I had this Little Monsters cookbook and I remember one of the first things I made was honeycomb. I have no idea why my mum let me make caramel. It's so dangerous. I've asked her about it since and she has no memory of it."
While cooking was a sometimes–solitary pursuit, food also brought Carey and her mum together. "Fresh food was an important part of growing up. Every week our ritual was to go to Adelaide Central Market. We'd buy fresh produce and go to the Greek and Italian grocers."
Although Carey's mum is Sri Lankan, the food culture of Australia with its European and Asian influences is what inspired meals at home. Eggplant melanzane was a typical dinner dish. Sri Lankan food was reserved for special occasions, like the dinner parties Carey and her mum hosted. But it was always served alongside the regular family-repertoire of European food like Greek spanakopitas.
"If she cooked something Sri Lankan, it was always for dinner parties - and I'd be responsible for making little baby spanakopita triangles."
"If she cooked something Sri Lankan, it was always for dinner parties - and I'd be responsible for making baby spanakopita triangles. We'd take frozen spinach, defrost and squeeze it out and chop it up to mix with eggs, heaps of black pepper and beautiful Italian cheeses like ricotta and parmesan. That was wrapped up in two layers of filo pastry with butter brushed between. I used to make piles of them."
As a professional chef, Carey spent years cooking the cuisines of other countries before arriving at Sri Lankan food.
"Sri Lankan food is the food of my heritage, but I didn't grow up eating it every day, and I wasn't immersed in that culture as a child," she says.
"For me coming back to Sri Lankan food is more of a pragmatic decision. Yes, I love this food, but I've cooked many other things which I've also loved. I cook it because I don’t think we're exposed to it here. I don't think there's enough Sri Lankan food around."
Although Carey says that some believe she isn't "authentic enough" in her take on fiery, sour prawn curry and hoppers or a wide array of sambol and pickles, the roots of the dishes are authentic.
"I stayed with my nan in Sri Lanka years ago in an attempt to get her to give up all the family recipes. She was an amazing cook and notorious for not sharing the full recipe. With a bit of wrangling, I could convince her to tell me how to make things, but then I'd turn my back and she'd add something secret."
Her nan's lamprais or Dutch Burgher curry packets are on the menu at Lankan Filling Station. "Hers were highly sought after and very labour intensive."
"We make her version with rice cooked in ghee and stock. For the curry, it's always pork, chicken and beef. The Burghers are Catholic, so they don't have any meat restrictions. We add eggplant sambol, shrimp paste and lime pickle. That gets packaged up in a banana leaf, wrapped in foil and heated in the oven."
Although there's something special about recreating a dish that reflects her Sri Lankan heritage, at home, Carey often returns to making the familiar spanakopita triangles.
"It's something I still love, one of my go-to dishes at home. It reminds me of those times with my mum. She was very bossy, but it was always fun.
"We'd be together in the kitchen, there was chaos, too much food, and I'd be making my little triangles."
Makes – 38 small triangles
This recipe is very forgiving in terms of ingredients and amounts. It can be adjusted to use almost any type of green leaves or herbs. I am rather fond of adding a bit of cavolo nero as I think it gives a nice texture to the mix. I usually add some chopped fresh parsley to the mix at the end and I am also partial to a good handful of dill.
- 500 g blanched, refreshed and squeezed spinach, roughly chopped (or any other green leaves)
- 200 g fresh ricotta
- 50 g parmesan
- 2 eggs
- Zest of 1 lemon
- A little freshly grated nutmeg
- Salt flakes and black pepper to season
- 100 g butter
- 72 sheets of filo
1. Make sure whatever greens you are using are nicely cooked and squeezed dry.
2. Add the greens into a bowl with both the cheeses, eggs and lemon zest. Add a little fresh nutmeg, season with salt and a very generous amount of black pepper. If you are adding herbs, add here. Mix well to combine.
3. Gently melt your butter and prepare yourself with a pastry brush.
4. Lay a sheet of filo out lengthways in front of you, brush liberally with butter and lay another sheet over the top.
5. Carefully cut each filo sheet from top to bottom into 6 even strips. Use a spoon to take about 20 g of the filling for each strip and place it on the bottom of each one. Gently brush the rest of the strip with a little more butter so it will stick as you fold.
6. Using nimble fingers take the bottom left-hand corner of a strip and fold it up and across to the other side so you can see that you have formed a triangle shape. Then take the bottom right corner and fold it up and over to keep your triangle shape. Repeat with each strip until you have a nice little triangle.
7. Place each triangle on a lined baking tray.
8. Once you have completer all your triangles bake them in a pre-heated oven at 160°C for 30 minutes or until golden.
9. They are ready to eat immediately but are also still delicious at room temperature. They can be made a day ahead and re-warmed and they also freeze well, cooked or not. And they work very well served with tzatziki.
Photographs by O Tama Carey.