THE AROMA from her mother Deema’s legendary cooking pervaded Deepthi de Silva-Williams’s childhood. And now, after her mum’s death, it has become a way of keeping her memory alive.
Now Deepthi and her husband Matthew are filling not only their own Edinburgh home with the delicious smell of her Sri Lankan curries, but they are also adding a little spice to the lives of others.
After much experimentation, the couple have launched a blend of 12 spices, all packaged up as Deema’s Sri Lankan Curry Spices. They sell the concoction online and in a growing number of delis for anyone who fancies giving their meat, fish, prawns or vegetables the south Asian home-cooked curry treatment. “She died three years ago and I wondered what I could do to keep her memory going,” says Deepthi.
“My mum always loved cooking and was extremely good at it. One of the things that she wanted to do in her life was sell her spices and cook for a living, but she never got that off the ground. So I thought I would make her spice mix and see if anyone else liked it.
“It keeps her with me because cooking was something she was always doing, and I’ve used her name, Deema, so it keeps her alive to me. I did it for a selfish reason really.”
Deepthi grew up in Singapore, where her parents had migrated from their native Sri Lanka after their marriage. Already a good cook, Deema was influenced by the dishes she found in her new home and introduced her children to a world of flavours. “There are four nationalities in Singapore – Indian, Malay, Chinese and people like us, who don’t belong to any category,” says Deepthi. “My mum experimented and adapted the food and recipes she found there.”
Deema was a fusion cook before the term even existed. Meals were a heady mix of the Indian flatbread she spiced up a bit, “fancy cakes”, curries and the fish pies Deepthi and her brother christened “fish pie à la carpet” – because their mother was always dashing around and occasionally dropped one.
While her mother may have been an amazing cook, young Deepthi concentrated more on enjoying the results of her culinary skills rather than noting the recipes, so recreating her mother’s spice mix required much patient experimentation and testing. “She was a great cook, but a terrible keeper of records and I never learned cooking from her. It was just Mum’s cooking. It was only when I left Singapore that I realised what I was missing,” she says.
With her mother’s death, Deepthi’s memories of childhood resurfaced, many of them filled with the sights and sounds of family meals. But most of all, she could recall the evocative smells – especially the black pepper, cardamom, chilli, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, curry, fenugreek, lemon grass, mustard and turmeric mix that was her mother’s trademark. “It was all about remembering happy times,” she says.
“It has been a journey trying to recreate the dishes. The spice mix is her own recipe, but it was never written down. I tried lots of different versions, then one day I was cooking with the original and Matthew walked into the house and said, ‘Oh my God, that smells just like Deema’s kitchen.’ I knew that was it.”
With sons Luke, 11, and Dominic, 15, happy to do the testing, Matthew contributes the ‘people skills’ to sell the product. “He’s brilliant at it,” says his wife. “Thanks to him we’re in Relish, Henderson’s and Tattie Shaws, all in Edinburgh, and we would love to have our spices in a supermarket if someone gave us the opportunity,” she says.
“We never thought it would be so popular. It was just a bit of fun. My mum would find it hilarious I was cooking at all, and funny that I was trying to do her recipes, because cooking was never my forte,” says Deepthi.
So what dishes would Deema create with the family spice mix? “Nothing. She would say hers was better and use her own.”
Deema’s Sri Lankan Curry Spices, £3 for 25g, (deemaspice.blogspot.com); Henderson’s, Relish, Tattie Shaws, all Edinburgh