Saturday, 04 February 2023
London’s first hopper pop up

London’s first hopper pop up Featured

Ever heard of a hopper? Since Druid Street Market launched this summer, we’ve been spending Saturdays in Southwark rolling up our sleeves to get down and dirty with one of Weligama’s splendid street snacks.

Ex Ducksoup chef Emily Dobbs launched Weligama earlier this year. Since then, the pop-up has been gifting London with a whole new street food experience. Inspired by her favourite cuisine, Emily creates savoury pancakes laden with spices, sambals and a runny egg. We’re suckers for any food you can eat with your hands, and the state of our faces/clothes after tucking in to one of these babies generally comes down to how much we’ve been craving one that week. After swooping in on Emily’s Druid Street stall, we pinned her down from her one-woman Weligama show to ask her a few questions about why London is going poppers for hoppers.

Why Sri Lankan food?download

I grew up going to Sri Lanka and have always loved the food. I never understood why it wasn’t available in London or why no one seemed interested in exploring the cuisine. In London, Indian food has a stigma for being greasy and heavy. This is simply not true with Sri Lankan food, which is very healthy, light and fresh tasting. I want to modernize Sri Lankan food and redefine what it is. I’ve had the idea for a very long time and its so exciting finally to share it.

What excites you about the process?

I love fermentation, pickling, new flavours and even taking photos of the hoppers gets me excited. I love finding the balance between savoury, sweet, sour and bitter. As well as contrast in textures, temperature and colours. I love hot with cold. Sweet with salty. Smooth with crunchy.

Eating a weligama hopper is supposed to be a new and exciting experience! ‘A flavour bomb’!

Where do you get your ideas?

I’ve explored all over Sri Lanka and London to get ideas. From South Harrow, Southall, to East Ham and Tooting. And I’ve read every Sri Lankan cookbook that has been translated.

download 1To anyone who doesn’t know what a Sri Lankan Hopper is, can you explain it?

It’s a fermented pancake made out of rice flour and coconut milk. I use red rice flour because I prefer the flavour and texture but white rice is traditional. An egg is then cooked and steamed in the hopper batter and served with various ‘sambals’ made out of fresh coconut and spices. Lunu miris is also typically served as an extra seasoning, which is Sinhalese for ‘salt chilli’.

What’s the background of the hopper in Sri Lanka? When/how are they traditionally eaten?

They are traditionally called ‘appa or appam’ and typically eaten for breakfast or snack. They are notoriously difficult to make…! And messy to eat. My advice is to roll up your sleeves and dig in. Then have a second or third.

When did you have your first hopper experience?

I’ve only eaten Hoppers a couple of times in Sri Lanka. It was reading Peter Kuruvita’s cookbook that inspired me to cook hoppers. It took me many months and numerous failed attempts to achieve the perfect hopper batter. They are not easy! Which might explain why they haven’t been done before in London.

What’s your personal favorite flavour on the Weligama menu?

I love to eat hoppers quite simply with mustard oil, black pepper, lime juice and coriander. Lemon pickle is also a winner.

What three words sum up Sri Lankan cuisine?

Maldive fish, pandan & coconut

Tell us about your career as a chef, what made you want to start your own thing up?

My first cooking job was actually on a ranch in Wyoming! However, London is booming with fantastic restaurants and I’m so lucky to have worked in a few of the best. I learnt flavour at The Dock Kitchen, simplicity at Ducksoup and presentation from Skye Gyngell at Spring.

I really love working in kitchens and being part of a team but would always question why things were done a certain way and how things could be improved rather than just being told what to do. Which got me in trouble a few times! I really love experimenting. It’s so exciting to be able to do exactly what I want to do. Then when I get things wrong it is just my problem and no one else’s!

What’s the best thing about working at Druid Street?

download 2The other traders and meeting people who are excited to try their first egg hopper!

What is exciting you about the London food scene at the moment?

More people are supporting local markets, small producers and suppliers. I pride myself on using Clarence court eggs and butter culture handcrafted butter! Everyone is so supportive, kind and interested.

Where do you like to eat in London?

I love exploring and finding new places but a few of my favourites are Lyle’s, Som Aaa, Koya bar, Towpath café, Rochelle Canteen, Morito & Ducksoup.

What’s next for Weligama?

First I need to find a team as it is currently just me! Maybe a restaurant and book in a few years time, too. I am really looking forward to the year ahead and am enjoying trading at Druid St. I would like to serve different things besides hoppers but what you’re cooking on the street with only two hands it’s limited!

Words by Meg Abbott

Photos by Issy Croker