GOOD cookbooks deliver exactly what is expected and advertised; they are well crafted, with easy to follow directions and well styled photographs. GREAT cookbooks however, go a step further. They are steeped in the heart and soul of their creator; they are the ones that transport you to distant lands, whilst conjuring all manner of deeply seeded food memories in the reader. Author, Jon Lewin, of The Locals Cookbook accomplishes this and so much more in his ode to Sri Lankan culture and cuisine.

 *Jon gifted us a copy of The Locals Cookbook for the purpose of this review*

 

It’s a mammoth of a book, and it’s hot, hot, hot!

We did not expect the sheer size and weight of the book to be as robust as it was. The same Italian printers who produced Jamie Oliver’s Superfood also print The Locals Cookbook, so perhaps that says something about the quality checks it must have gone through?

The book opens with a few notes regarding essential ingredients for Sri Lankan cooking, as well as providing a spice rating scale, with 5 being ‘hot hot hot’. Allergy sufferers and food exclusionists are provided very helpful, colour coded icons (gluten-free, dairy free, and vegetarian). For someone like myself who has to read the fine print of everything I eat, this was a refreshing component.

The Locals Cookbook review | HDYTI

Following this very helpful opening, Jon beckons us into his life with a few personal childhood photos, and of his early adventures in the sun and sea. This is no simple memory book. He artfully weaves his life story into the introduction of his many years of living in Sri Lanka. He shares the story of getting caught in the Tsunami of 2004; water gushing in through the door of his room, exclaiming “My mate Thorney was still in bed, floating around the room.”  In these carefully crafted pages, he describes the fear felt during the tragic event and later the compassion and love that was extended during the aftermath. This is only one of many reasons why this book should find its place in the center of any room, on a coffee table, displayed for all to experience.

We spent ten days last year exploring Sri Lanka, and were blown away by the sincere friendliness, and hospitality of the people we encountered. As we trekked across the country, we tried a variety of different local fares, and each one was always accompanied with a story.

What is powerfully achieved with The Locals Cookbook is how Jon takes you on a journey into the stories and food memories of the Sri Lankan locals he’s befriended, lived with, and worked with. This is not a self-serving account of one chef’s foodie mastery (albeit, he has the credentials to do so). He takes you directly into the homes, shops, and backyards of where the food should be…with the people.

The Locals Cookbook Review | HDYTI

 

The Road to the land of Curries

What is Sri Lankan cuisine without a rich array of aromatic curries? No need to answer that question, because your senses will welcome the wonderfully simple, and sometimes complex variety he offers in the book. He walks you through how to roast, and then grind the ingredients needed to make your very own curry powder in twenty minutes. To some, this might be a feat in itself! He also gives some helpful tips on how to cook rice with flair. It’s simple, useful, and needed, especially since rice is an important staple in Sri Lankan cuisine.

We tested six different curry recipes, which included: Gayani’s Sweet Potato Curry, West Coast Beetroot Curry, Fried Potato Curry, Gayani’s Fish Curry, Seer Fish White Curry, and Anoma’s Prawn Curry. Each one had its own distinct layers of various flavours. We’ve made the sweet potato curry 2 or 3 times in our household, just because we have a penchant for the wonderfully sweet and fibrous vegetable. However, the divine, smooth, richness of the vibrant beetroot curry was a hit with our neighbors, one of whom is a Le Cordon Bleu trained chef! We spent an afternoon making four different dishes, which included two curries, the Fiery Tomato Sambal, and Spiced Chickpeas with Fresh Coconut.

 

“This cookbook’s vibrant photos and recipes bring the exotic tastes of Sri Lanka into your kitchen with spices and flavours that truly awaken the taste buds. The amazing easy-to-prepare dishes represent a new ‘must have’ culinary experience!”    -Annette Chevalier

We hoped to beckon the sense of the Sri Lankan community (which Jon so aptly describes) into the kitchen as we spent several hours laughing, chopping, and stirring. One hilarious moment included our efforts to crack open a whole coconut (having never attempted it before). I went outside into the crisp cold, and sharply hit the coconut against the concrete four times. I lost most of the fragrant water inside of it, but I felt a sense of accomplishment as I pried the two halves open to reveal the succulent flesh. Coconut sorted!

Four of us came together that evening and proudly enjoyed our Sri Lankan feast. As we passed around pans of simmering curries, I wondered if this was what The Locals Cookbook was all about? Creating a sense of community through the sharing and creation of food memories. We ended the night with our eyes and tummies thoroughly delighted!

The Locals Cookbook review | HDYTI

Beetroot Curry, The Locals Cookbook Review | HDYTI

 

Visual storytelling at it’s best

What’s most striking about the The Locals Cookbook is the way Jon uses his gift for visual storytelling to lead the viewer through a delectable journey of textures, colours, and incredibly effective food styling. Pair this with his documentary approach to photographing Sri Lankan life as he experienced it, and you have a book that goes well beyond good recipes. Not to spoil the surprise, but we especially appreciated the section towards the end of the book that included a photo and brief bio of each local contributor.  You’ll want to read The Locals Cookbook cover to cover (it took us two months). Take your time; it’s well worth the effort.

Several cookbooks have attempted to do what The Locals Cookbook does, and have failed miserably. The photos can look staged, with people used like props; as if the author wants to validate their own connection to the environment they sourced the recipes from. However, Jon avoids this cliché with the significant effort he uses to bring the stories of the people to the forefront. The Locals Cookbook feels homegrown, and is a beautiful tribute to the friendships Jon has cultivated.

thelocalscookbook review | HDYTI

If ever there was a cookbook that seamlessly combines effective storytelling, powerful imagery, and delicious recipes all steeped in the voice of Sri Lanka’s people, this is it. We highly recommend The Locals Cookbook without reservation.

HDYTI rating: 5/5 toes

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Co-Founders & Curators at HDYTI

Eulanda & Omo Osagiede are London-based freelance writers and award-winning social influencers who run the popular travel, food, and lifestyle blog HDYTI (Hey! Dip your toes in).