Asylum seekers share Sri Lankan food culture at Tamil Feasts dinners at Ceres in Melbourne

A shared platter from Tamil Feasts is served up at CERES' restaurant in Melbourne.
A shared platter from Tamil Feasts is served up at CERES' restaurant in Melbourne. Photo: Melisa Tan

Fifteen thousand people can't be wrong. That's how many folks have bowled up to Tamil Feasts in the past two years for authentic Sri Lankan food cooked by four Sri Lankan fellas, part of a social enterprise that supports recently settled asylum seekers through food and culture. 

One week, expect a four-course "eat with your hands" bonanza of crisp onion bhaji, slow-cooked lamb, coconut silverbeet curry, and garlicky turmeric dhal with loads of flavour. The next, it's chilli coconut crab, beetroot curry (see the recipe below), rainbow chard dhal and technicolour rice.

All of it's delicious, served in Ceres' low-lit, big-windowed restaurant at long communal tables dotted with fresh flowers. 

More than 15,000 people have enjoyed traditional Sri Lankan food at Tamil Feasts.
More than 15,000 people have enjoyed traditional Sri Lankan food at Tamil Feasts. Photo: Aim Aris

It's a huge hit with, well, everybody, from young inner-north hipsters and semi-retirees to  solo diners. "Last week we had a Tamil person every single night," says Louisiana-born coordinator Dori Ellington.

She met "the guys", as she calls them, when she started visiting the Broadmeadows detention centre a few years back. "The East Tamil guys are known as 'long-termers'," says Ellington.

"They'd been there five years, so they had the 'privilege', for want of a better word, to do their own cooking.

Nirmathan Murugamoorthy (Nirma) is one of the four chefs behind Tamil Feasts.
Nirmathan Murugamoorthy (Nirma) is one of the four chefs behind Tamil Feasts. Photo: Tyra Ebbersten

"Every time I'd walk in, they'd say, 'Try this bhaji', 'Try this curry'. 

"I was inspired by their resilience and hospitality. "Why would they even want to welcome me? Some white girl."

From these visits, her friendship grew with four Tamils seeking asylum from Sri Lanka's bitter civil war. 

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The guys are Sriharan Ganesh (Sri), a passionate poet, writer and photojournalist, Nigethan Sithirasegaram (Nige), a fisherman, and "crab specialist", who left his wife and newborn son in search of a haven (his son is now 11  but he can't bring them over yet due to ever-changing visa restrictions), Nirmathan Murugamoorthy (Nirma), who was studying marketing at university, and Niroshan Vithyasekar (Niro), a mechanic in Sri Lanka and proud boat person.

"The first thing I really bonded over the guys with was MasterChef," says Ellington, "Nigethan was obsessed with it, and so obsessed with Gary Mehigan." 

Recently they had the opportunity to meet Mehigan (they are working on a project together; watch this space) and Mehigan is due for dinner at Tamil Feasts this Thursday, which is causing great excitement among the team.

"As soon as we saw Gary, Nigethan threw his camera at me to start taking photos," says Ellington, "Instantly they hugged, then started bantering about food, and the perfect way to make curry, and when the spices are meant to pop. 

"To see him [Nigethan] talking with his idol was unreal."

Together, Ellington and the Tamil crew have created something special, and it's gaining momentum, from one-off spreads to dinners three times a week.

"A cafe is the next step for Tamil Feasts," says Ellington.  "We've taken small and sustainable steps to grow and I know the guys are ready. If we had our own space, we'd love to employ more people seeking asylum."

With Ellington leading the way, it's only a matter of time.

"I believe food is worth celebrating, and I love using it to create social change."

She's run community fruit and veg markets, taught cooking to "marginalised members of society", and her genuine passion for the Tamil project and respect for the asylum seekers is infectious.

"Dori and the Tamil Feasts are really important," says Murugamoorthy, obviously proud of what they've achieved.

"She's really awesome. She's so kind. Our language is Tamil. We are Tamil. The name Tamil Feasts is great. Then we can recognise who we are."

Tamil Feasts Wed-Fri, 7pm; adults $30, children $20; Ceres, corner Roberts and Stewart streets, Brunswick East, tamilfeasts.ceres.org.au

This is refugee week, see refugeeweek.org.au for other events.​

Nigethan's beetroot curry

This recipe has been passed down by many generations. It's a  popular dish in Sri Lanka, loved by Tamil, Singhalese and Muslim people. This is Nigethan's version.

1kg beetroot

1 large brown onions

1 green chilli

2 tbsp sunflower oil

50g mild curry powder (Nigethan makes his own from a mix of coriander, cumin, and fennel seeds, cardamom, cinnamon and curry leaves, but he says any Sri Lankan roasted curry powder is good)

100ml coconut milk (Nigethan uses TCC Premium Coconut Milk)

1 tsp yellow mustard seeds

1 tsp cumin seeds

5 fresh curry leaves

salt, to season

lemon, to serve

1. Chop the beetroot into one-centimetre cubes, and finely slice the onion and chilli. Using a tablespoon of oil, fry the beetroot, two-thirds of the onion and the chilli together for 20 minutes on a medium-high heat until the onion is translucent.

2. After 20 minutes, add the curry powder and cook for another five minutes. Add the coconut milk and cook for another 10 to 15 minutes. Don't let the beetroot get too soft.

3. In a separate pan, using one tablespoon of oil, fry the remaining onion, the mustard seeds, cumin and curry leaves until the spices become aromatic. Add  to the beetroot mix in the original saucepan, and cook for a further five minutes to deepen the flavours.

4. Season with salt to taste and add a squeeze of lemon (or tamarind, if you prefer: soak two tablespoons of tamarind for five minutes, then squeeze it to release the juices).

5. Serve with steamed basmati rice and a crisp, green salad. 

Serves 4-6