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Cynthia Shanmugalingam Thinks Fish Curry Is ‘One of Life’s Great Pleasures’

But when the cookbook author and restaurant owner is in a rush, a quick prawn curry will do

Cynthia Shanmugalingam gazes lovingly at a giant bowl of prawn curry. Illustration. Daniela Jordan-Villaveces

We all could use a little dinner inspiration — even Ali Slagle, who dreams of dinner. In “Dinner Is Served,” she asks colleagues about one night when they somehow transformed ingredients into dinner with all this life going on.

This month’s installment: These days, Cynthia Shanmugalingam is promoting her debut cookbook Rambutan—one of Eater’s favorites this season—while also opening a restaurant with the same name in London. And then she comes home and makes herself dinner—it makes her “feel like an adult.”

My days at the moment are really long and tiring because I’m in the middle of a building site trying to get the restaurant [Rambutan] open. It’s a lot of “go” energy all day where I am talking to the builders, figuring out the finishes, speaking to a shipping guy in Sri Lanka about sending chairs over and what all the complications are in doing it. I’m talking to my friend Liam, who is helping me with the drinks, about what cocktails we need in the bar and what bar kit we need, and what I want the drinks to say. I interviewed three people today. It feels kind of relentless. I looked at spreadsheets for a long time, so at the end of the day I’m really tired. I don’t want to do anything, actually. I don’t really want to socialize. I think it’s just because I’m working so hard.

But I also had a recipe to write tonight and some laundry and whatever. So anyways, what I cooked today is prawn curry because prawn curry is absurdly quick to cook. Sri Lankans eat a lot of prawns and seafood. Growing up as a kid we had prawn or fish curry maybe four nights a week and then chicken once or twice and then vegetarian maybe the other day and maybe once or twice in a fortnight we would have meat like lamb. But most of the time we had seafood.

Fish curry is one of life’s great pleasures. But prawns I think are this weird thing because I didn’t actually used to like prawns. I thought they looked weird, kind of like bugs, and my parents were like “What, you’re so ungrateful! Why don’t you eat them? You’re lucky to be able to eat them!” and we’d fight about it and I’d be like “No, don’t make me!” So I only kind of came to them late when I was like 16 or 17 and I was like, oh… they were right and that’s embarrassing. But that meant that they feel adult and like my own thing.

In Sri Lanka, we eat prawn curry with bread. We call it White Bloomers in England. It’s a simple loaf of white bread. Not sourdough, not anything with a heavy crumb. Like a pillowy soft white bread. Bread and prawn curry are wonderful together. We would eat it for breakfast actually or for dinner. Dinner and breakfast are kind of the same for us because they’re both small, light meals whereas lunch is supposed to be your proper big meal of the day.

So I had some tamarind in the fridge and tamarind and prawns have a magical romance happening. There’s acidity in the tamarind and with the sweetness of the prawns, it really works together brilliantly. [The curry is] just so quick. It’s like maybe 15 minutes or something. [It starts with] onions and curry leaves in coconut oil. You smell that and you feel like dinner is coming and it’s all coming together. And then you add Sri Lankan curry powder. I already had some that I made maybe a month or two ago and so it’s not at its prime but it’s still delicious. It’s made with roasted chiles and other spices so it’s got kind of a smoky flavor. And then coconut milk. Cook all of that and when it’s ready and done, you add the prawns really near the end. You only need to let them cook for a few minutes because prawns cook so quickly.

I also like to make a little finishing oil from the heads. It doesn’t take very long to do, just stir-fry the heads and shells with some Sri Lankan curry powder in coconut or vegetable oil over high heat until the shells are pink, not even 10 minutes. Strain through a sieve to remove the solids. It makes the prawn curry really full of prawny flavor. It’s just a delicious time. It feels good to cook for myself and to feel like an adult, like I’m doing something ordinary that isn’t working at the end of the day.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

Ali Slagle is a recipe developer, stylist, and — most important of all — home cook. She’s a frequent contributor to the New York Times and Washington Post, and her cookbook is called I Dream of Dinner (so You Don’t Have To): Low-Effort, High-Reward Recipes.
Daniela Jordan-Villaveces is a creative director and illustrator. She was born in Bogotá and raised between Colombia, Holland, and the U.S. She currently lives in sunny Los Angeles with her husband, their son, Lou, two kittens, and a pup.