Credit: Photographed remotely by Earl Carter

Mussels in a tamarind broth

O Tama Carey is the owner of Lankan Filling Station. Her first cookbook is Lanka Food. She is a food editor of The Saturday Paper.

Credit: Photographed remotely by Earl Carter

Having a few mussel dishes up your sleeve is a very handy thing. They are relatively cheap and easy to source, you can cook them faster than it takes to decide on takeaway and they play agreeably with so many flavours. Go buttery with lots of garlic, maybe some vermouth, and pretend you’re French; use olive oil, anchovies and tomato and suddenly you’re Italian; or try ginger and black bean and head to China. Serve with some crusty bread, steamed rice or toasty roti and you’re all set for an easy midweek dinner.

Simple, delicious and swift also happens to be very useful if you find yourself having to cook staff meals as we do in restaurants. This is where things can get a little curious in terms of disparity between what customers eat as opposed to the staff.

Kitchens tend to be busy with little spare time for extra creativity and often all that’s at your disposal is a medley of scraps and leftovers that get tossed together to become a generic pasta dish.

The practice of overlooking the staff meal does happily seem to be disappearing, along with other questionable kitchen habits such as angry chefs yelling, throwing pans, or beating a baguette on the bench very close to you to make a point. Nowadays most restaurants make more of a point of working a meal into the routine.

At Lankan Filling Station, we tried very hard from the beginning to make this an important part of the day. We have a weekly staff meal schedule so people can plan, and few rules on what they can order for it. It is so important, as we all need to eat and it seems silly that what we do for others, and what we love to do, can’t be managed properly for ourselves.

Apart from fuelling us, staff meals can be an excellent sneaky training ground for new ideas and potential dishes. And so, we come to this recipe.

I wanted to put a rassam – a thin, often slightly sour South Indian soup that’s usually eaten as an accompaniment – on the brunch menu. I have eaten many in my time but had never cooked one. Luckily for me, one of my chefs is Indian and produced a very fine version that went on the menu with a thosai, a fermented chickpea pancake.

Then, my head chef decided it would be delicious as a broth for mussels, so, again, it was tested, served at the staff meal, and deemed appropriate for a special. I then brazenly borrowed the idea for this column.

All three versions were a little different, but at some stage they will merge into one official recipe. And so, ideas are shared, built upon and thus enjoyed, all of which keeps our staff fed and the ideas rotating, and gives you at home a new dish to try.


Serves 2-4

Time: 20 minutes preparation + cooking

  • 100g French green lentils
  • 40g tamarind pulp, soaked in 70ml boiling water, pushed through a strainer
  • 1 bunch coriander, leaves picked and washed, stems and roots washed and finely cut
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • equal amount ginger, peeled and chopped
  • salt
  • 50g ghee
  • 2 tsp coriander seeds
  • ½ tsp mustard seeds
  • ½ tsp cumin seeds
  • 3 sprigs picked curry leaves
  • 1 tsp chilli powder
  • ½ tsp turmeric powder
  • 150g cherry tomatoes, cut down the middle
  • white pepper and salt flakes
  • 300ml water
  • 1kg mussels
  1. Place the lentils into a saucepan, generously cover with cold water, bring to the boil and simmer for two minutes. Strain and set aside.
  2. Prepare your tamarind and set aside.
  3. Using a mortar and pestle make a paste with the coriander stems and roots, garlic and ginger. Use a little salt to help with this. Set aside.
  4. Place a wide-based saucepan large enough to hold the mussels over a medium heat and add in the ghee. Allow it to warm before adding the spice seeds. Stir and cook until they start to toast and sizzle (about a minute), and then add the curry leaves and fry them off (another 30 seconds or so). Add the chilli powder and turmeric.
  5. Add the coriander paste and let this cook, stirring for another minute before adding the tomatoes. Season well. Give the tomatoes a few moments in the pan before adding the tamarind, lentils, and another 300 millilitres of water. Bring this mix to the boil and then turn the heat down to very low and allow it to gently cook for 10 minutes.
  6. At this stage, have a taste and season a little more if needed. The flavour should be sour with a richness from the ghee, and I like it to be quite peppery. Add your mussels, give everything a good stir, raise the heat to medium and place a lid on your saucepan. The mussels should cook fairly quickly. You’ll know they’re done once they have all mostly popped open (about three minutes).
  7. Serve into a bowl, or straight from the pot if you desire, and garnish with the coriander leaves.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 9, 2022 as "Staff of life".

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