Homebush was once the hub for Sydney's Sri Lankan community, the place to go for specialty ingredients or takeaway in decades past.
Little Sri Lanka has since moved 20km west following a wave of migrants and asylum seekers that have settled in the neighbouring suburbs of Toongabbie and Pendle Hill.
"When I came to Australia eight years ago, Toongabbie wasn't as Sri Lankan as it is now," says Umakanthan Yogalingam, chef and owner of Toongabbie's XDream Takeaway.
This is a very old Australian suburb, where VB is proudly declared 'beer of the week' in the Toongabbie Hotel. But across from the Toonie are now Sri Lankan barbers doing sharp cuts, stores selling spices and cheap mobile rates to Asia, and a whole street of Sri Lankan food.
Step off the train, and the air actually smells spicy.
The distinctive clanging of kottu roti being made is ever-present on the streets of Sri Lanka, and also on Toongabbie's Aurelia Street and Pendle Way in Pendle Hill. Metal blades are used to chop roti on a hotplate, which is then mixed with vegetables, egg, meat and curry sauce.
The eateries here – mostly takeaways, with a few seats – represent food from across the different ethnic groups of Sri Lanka. Tamil food is by far the most heavily represented, but there are also a few places making the Sinhalese cooking of Sri Lanka's majority ethnic group, Burgher specialities from the descendants of European colonisers, and Malaysian-influenced dishes, too. Most of these places serve a broad range of food, but locals go to each for different things.
Plain hopper served with red chilli sambal. Photo: Steven Siewert
Join the queue at this Tamil eatery for the best hoppers in Sydney. These bowl-shaped crepes made from a batter of fermented rice flour and coconut milk are notoriously difficult to perfect, but XDream's are exquisite. Owner and chef Umakanthan Yogalingam is a fine jeweller by trade from Batticaloa in Sri Lanka's east, but he got a job in a kitchen when he arrived in Australia. XDream pumps out hundreds of hoppers a day, crisp and delicate on top, and slightly spongy in the centre. Choose from the plain variety, or one with a soft-cooked egg in the centre, and be sure to ask for the side of lunu miris (chilli sambal).
For dessert there is a version topped with a dollop of thick coconut cream and drizzled in jaggery (Sri Lanka's rich dark palm sugar). Yogalingam says he has frequent requests from the Sri Lankan community to cater for hopper parties in homes, but right now he can't keep up with the demand. His hoppers are only served after 4pm, but they do a number of other excellent dishes from 10am, including string hoppers (lacy rice-noodle nests), a fiery fish curry, and kottu roti. Yogalingam's brother has also branched into jewellery a few doors up, at XDream Jewellery.
14-16 Aurelia Street, Toongabbie, 0412 799 420
Dish Dining and Events' $9.50 rice and curry meal is a steal. Photo: Steven Siewert
Dish Dining and Events
The food here is Sinhalese home cooking, and even the fussiest Sri Lankan mothers approve of Dish's curries. Owner Manjula Fernando once ran the kitchen of the Blacktown Bowling Club, and fans of his weekly Sri Lankan buffets have followed him to Dish, which he opened in 2014.
Point and order at the counter for a three-vegetable, one-meat plate ($9.50) to eat in the attached restaurant. The chicken, lamb, polos (jackfruit), and beetroot curries are all exceptional, as is the peppered pork with yellow rice. For dessert, the watalappan, a coconut milk custard sweetened with jaggery, is textbook perfect. Visit on the first Saturday of the month for their game kama lunch, a village-style rice and curry buffet with live music.
7-8 Portico Parade, Toongabbie, (02) 8897 2623, dishevents.com.au
Jaffna crab curry is served at Amma's on weekends. Photo: Steven Siewert
Amma's Modern Kitchen
Toongabbie's growing Sri Lankan community presented a business opportunity for Amy Ramachandren, who already had a restaurant in Homebush specialising in the Malaysian Tamil food she grew up eating. Ramachandren paired with Sivathevan Vallipuram, her Sri Lankan Tamil business partner, to open Amma's in Toongabbie.
Their kitchen produces Tamil dishes from both Sri Lanka and Malaysia, so while her fish head curry is renowned among the Malaysian community, Sri Lankans come instead for the Jaffna crab curry special on weekends, said to be one of the best in Sydney. On weekends they also make odiyal kool, a seafood soup from Sri Lanka's north, and lamprais, a dish borrowed from Sri Lanka's Dutch Burgher community, consisting of rice cooked in stock, curry and various other elements wrapped in a banana leaf.
But a word of warning: "Sri Lankan Tamils eat much spicier food than our Malaysian customers, we want them to enjoy the meal so we warn them prior to the order," says Ramachandren.
18-20 Aurelia Street, Toongabbie, (02) 9896 5185, ammaskitchen.com.au
Jaffna dosa with chutneys at Mathura. Photo: Steven Siewert
Mathura is always busy, a takeaway with a few tables inside and two spilling out onto the pavement. Regulars come for the dosa (or thosai), served with a colourful splat of chutneys – try the Jaffna-style dosa, a Tamil specialty from northern Sri Lanka that is spongy rather than crisp, and slightly sour.
Other favourites include Mathura's range of short eats (savoury fried snacks) washed down with sweet milky tea. On the counter you'll find puttu (also pittu), a very dense cylinder made from rice flour and coconut and a whole range of curries. The moringa or 'drumstick' curry showcases an ancient Tamil ingredient that has found recent fame as a superfood. Use your teeth to squeeze out the flesh from the fibrous drumstick pod.
10 Aurelia Street, Toongabbie, (02) 9636 6676
You won't find any seafood at Sydney Marina in Pendle Hill. Photo: Steven Siewert
Sydney Marina Dining & Takeaway
Despite the name, this former fish and chip shop – once Pendle Hill Seafood – doesn't sell any fresh seafood. The signage remains, but new management run it as a Sri Lankan takeaway. The display counter is filled with curries, and the hot plate used for grilling fish now cooks flaky roti and spongy thosai. There are also hoppers, and a range of excellent short eats where the Chiko rolls ought to be – the mutton rolls are particularly good.
126 Pendle Way, Pendle Hill, (02) 8628 0366
Street art in Toongabbie, Sydney's Little Sri Lanka. Photo: Steven Siewert
Beyond Little Sri Lanka
There are many other, equally great Sri Lankan eats in neighbouring Pendle Hill along Pendle Way. Homebush West retains some of its Sri Lankan flavour and Rams is one of the original Sri Lankan takeaways. Seven Hills has IndoLankan Food Bar, while Pennant Hills is home to Blue Elephant. For excellent Sri Lankan food closer to the city, chef O Tama Carey has just popped up at the Carriageworks Farmers Market with Lankan Filling Station.