Sri Lankan gastronomy: In conversation with Koluu

Koluu is arguably Sri Lanka’s best known and most loved chef, and an actor to boot. We begin our conversation by going back to his childhood and looking at what prompted him to take up cooking, and at the time, baking cakes.

We then go on to talk about why Koluu didn’t take school and schooling seriously, in line with other recent guests on the programme including renowned conductor and violinist Lakshman Joseph de Saram and one of the country’s most successful entrepreneurs, Harsha Purasinghe. Koluu is asked why he played truant so often and how this impacted what he later chose to do for a living.

Koluu goes on to talk about how he got around to cooking at the Embassy of Portugal in, of all places, Baghdad, just before the first Gulf War, and how this launched a period in his life that eventually led him to cook for an American heiress in Portugal, and what kind of lifestyle this entailed. In previous interviews, Koluu’s always noted that he regrets giving up Portuguese citizenship – he explains why during our conversation.

After returning to Sri Lanka in the 90’s, Koluu goes into how he started getting involved in the business of setting up and running restaurants, starting with Barefoot with the Sansoni’s. He is asked why he seemingly sets up establishments and only to, after a while, shut them down!

Koluu talks about his experience with the world-renowned Culinary Institute of America in 2012, which was a huge honour to be invited to be part of and cook at. After talking about what he did there, we go on to explore why Koluu believes that the art of Sri Lankan cooking is dying in the country and why, most often, dishes aren’t prepared using the right ingredients. In the course of our conversation, we go into what for Koluu is a quintessentially Sri Lankan dish. He also goes into why most chefs in the country today know “Western” or “Chinese” cooking, but not Sri Lankan.

Importantly, Koluu also goes into why he thinks Sri Lankan cuisine is so different to, for example, Indian cooking. We talk about his new range of spices available in mainstream supermarkets and what drove him to create this. Koluu talks about his time on stage, usually as a drag queen, and how he can’t anymore take to it despite wanting to. This dovetails into a discussion on Koluu’s sexuality, beginning with his mother’s remarkable response when he first came out as gay.

We end our conversation on whether Koluu will open up yet another restaurant or contemplate a return to hands-on cooking at some venue. He looks at the restaurant landscape in Sri Lanka today, and ends by noting how things go so horribly wrong at most times and places, and how things can change for the better.

Koluu from Young Asia Television on Vimeo.