Flavours of Jaffna: Aliyaa Island Restaurant and Bar to host food festival in homage of northern Sri Lankan cuisine

Her son’s friends always loved Parvathy Kanthasamy’s food, so much so that her son decided to open up a restaurant based on her recipes. — Pictures by Ahmad Zamzahuri
Her son’s friends always loved Parvathy Kanthasamy’s food, so much so that her son decided to open up a restaurant based on her recipes. — Pictures by Ahmad Zamzahuri

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PETALING JAYA, Feb 3 — Cooking is something that comes naturally to Parvathy Kanthasamy.

Ever since she was a little girl growing up in the food haven city of Jaffna on the northern tip of Sri Lanka, Parvathy has spent most of her life around all things food. 

From picking fresh herbs and vegetables around the wetlands and gardens near her home to catching prawns at the nearby lagoon, she felt at home cooking and handling food from a young age.

Fast forward a few decades and now Parvathy is the inspiration behind the Aliyaa Island Restaurant and Bar in Bukit Damansara, as her son Abedan Kanthasamy opened the establishment with a menu filled with his mother’s recipes.

Aliyaa, in Sinhala, translates to “elephant” and is representative of their home country. 

Abedan now lives in Malaysia, and Parvathy resides in Canada. 

Parvathy explained that there was always a ‘high demand’ for her food whenever she came down to KL, as many would fall in love with her authentic Sri Lankan dishes.
Parvathy explained that there was always a ‘high demand’ for her food whenever she came down to KL, as many would fall in love with her authentic Sri Lankan dishes.

“Every time I visited Kuala Lumpur, my son would ask me to cook some dishes for his friends,” Parvathy told Malay Mail in an interview. 

“All of them used to say that they loved my cooking and they couldn’t wait for the next time I came back to KL. So we decided to open a restaurant that serves authentic Sri Lankan food.”

To celebrate Abedan’s mother and her authentic Northern Sri Lankan recipes, Aliyaa is set to host a three-day Jaffna Food Festival to showcase the wonderful variety of Jaffna cuisine, featuring over 50 of Parvathy’s dishes.

One of those dishes is the Jaffna Style Sri Lankan Mud Crab Curry, a speciality of Parvathy’s, that uses fleshy crabs flown in from Sri Lanka, paired with spicy gravy and red rice idiyappam (string hoppers). 

The Jaffna style Sri Lankan mud crab curry is a definite must-try when visiting Aliyaa. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
The Jaffna style Sri Lankan mud crab curry is a definite must-try when visiting Aliyaa. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

“This is one of the best dishes on the menu and everyone always seem to enjoy trying it,” said Parvathy. 

“But I don’t think it is 100 per cent similar to a real Jaffna dish or like the one my mother used to cook because I like to experiment and adapt my cooking, adding a few ingredients that aren’t traditionally used in Sri Lanka.”

She added that having lived in many different countries including Australia, Canada and America, she has picked up a few things and incorporated them into her own national dishes to bring out the best flavours in her food. 

Parvathy lived in Jaffna until she was 18, before moving to Colombo to further her studies and get married.

She then moved to Australia to do her PhD in Tamil culture and language, and has worked as a lecturer at the University of Toronto and York University in Canada, as well as Stanford University in California. 

“I started watching and learning to cook from my mother. We used to cook mostly organic and vegetarian meals for over 30 to 40 people who worked for us,” said Parvathy, who grew up on a plantation.

“But I improvised and adapted other styles of cooking in my recipes, like using different herbs when cooking chicken or fish, which isn’t normally done in South Indian or Sri Lankan cooking.”

Parvathy using the traditional Sri Lankan grinding stone to make a sambal paste. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
Parvathy using the traditional Sri Lankan grinding stone to make a sambal paste. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

She added that because she has lived in Western countries for a large part of her life, she has learnt to add thyme when cooking chicken and rosemary for fish which gives the meat a nice flavour, as well as using other herbs like coriander and mint leaves when cooking. 

“Sri Lankans don’t use much mint leaves or coriander but I like to add them in my cooking. It not only gives a nice flavour, but it also has good medicinal values too,” said Parvathy. 

“All the dishes that we make and that will be available during the Jaffna Food Festival have high medicinal properties, because we use many good herbs and spices like turmeric, cumin and coriander.”

Despite the slight improvisations to the authentic Jaffna recipes, Parvathy’s food is still Sri Lankan in its core, as she uses many northern and southern Sri Lankan influences in her recipes.

“I can cook many different things and I always try to experiment with different styles of Sri Lankan cooking too because there are still so many dishes made by people from the islands in Sri Lanka that people have never heard of,” said Parvathy. 

“For example, I learnt how to cook bitter gourd from a lady in the western part of Sri Lanka. She adds mango to it which gives it a really nice taste.”

Parvathy said it is always important to use natural ingredients when cooking as it gives more flavour to the food. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
Parvathy said it is always important to use natural ingredients when cooking as it gives more flavour to the food. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

When asked what her favourite dish was, Parvathy said that there are just “too many” good dishes to choose from.

“I have many favourites, it’s difficult to just pick one. We never eat just one dish, it’s always rice complemented with many curries and dishes,” said Parvathy.

“Personally, bitter gourd and Thai eggplant are some of my favourites. But, if you’ve never had Jaffna food before, you must try our fish dishes.”

“The way we cook our fish in the north is very different. We put less coconut in it so you can really taste the meat of the fish in every bite.”

Aliyaa’s “Jaffna Food Festival — A Culinary Journey to Yalpanam”, will be held on February 17 to 19, at the Aliyaa Island Restaurant and Bar in Bukit Damansara, Kuala Lumpur. 

The three-day food festival, which incorporates a buffet style, will have over 50 authentic Sri Lankan dishes available including Pathiya fish curry, Mud Crab curry, and a variety of Jaffna styled sambals and vegetarian dishes. 

The restaurant will host three separate sessions on each day of the festival, with each session costing RM 148++ per person. 

The first session will be a lunch session hosted from 12pm to 2.30pm, followed by two evening and dinner sessions from 6pm to 8pm and 8.30pm to 10.30pm.

For more information about Aliyaa Island Restaurant and Bar’s Jaffna Food Festival, surf over to https://aliyaa.com/.

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