Transcript / LoLT: Rambutan Restaurant London and Two New Books — 22 March 2024

Transcript / LoLT: Rambutan Restaurant London and Two New Books — 22 March 2024

Friday, 22 March, 2024

This is a transcription of ‘LoLT: Rambutan Restaurant London and Two New Books — 22 March 2024’

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David: What would you do if you had an extra hour in your day? — Would you crack open that book you’ve been meaning to read? Would you go for a run? Would you spend a little more time with your favorite people?

David: A lot of us spend our lives wishing we had more time. Who doesn’t? I know I hear that clock ticking. But time for what? How do you decide to use the hours we have? What do you squeeze into your day, and why?

David: The best way to get to the bottom of that is by figuring out what’s important to you, and then prioritize. Therapy can help you find what matters to you, so you can do more of it.

David: If you’re thinking of starting therapy, give BetterHelp a try. It’s entirely online. It’s designed to be convenient, and to work around your schedule. You fill out a questionnaire, you get matched with a therapist, and off you go.

David: Learn to make time for what makes you happy, with BetterHelp. Visit BetterHelp dot come slash StrongSense today to get 10% off your first month. That’s BetterHelp H-E-L-P dot com slash StrongSense.


[cheerful music]

Melissa: Coming up, Coming up, a new fairytale novel from one of my favorite authors.

David: A retelling of an American classic.

Melissa: Plus, our distraction of the week. I’m Mel.

David: I’m Dave. This is the library of lost time.

Melissa: One of the first books I read specifically for Strong Sense of Place was The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht. It’s set in an unnamed Balkan country that’s probably Serbia. The heroine Natalia is a young doctor, and she’s only beginning to deal with the horrors of the 1990s civil wars when her much-adored grandfather dies. In grief and in celebration, she retells the stories her grandfather told her. There are elements of folklore and fairy tales — it’s all very sad and beautiful. It seduces you into the world of a magical tiger, his wife, a bear-man, and other quirky characters, including a man described as deathless. I love it so much. I could go read it again right now. Warning: Goodreads is less impressed. Ignore Goodreads.

Melissa: Téa Obreht has a new book out this week! It’s called ‘The Morningside,’ and it’s got a few elements I cannot resist in a novel. It’s narrated in the first person. By a somewhat precocious girl. And most of the action takes place in a once-glamorous, now sort-of rundown apartment building. That’s located on an island city that once might have been New York. I mean —

Melissa: I’ve only read the prologue and a bit of the first chapter, and I want to ditch all my grownup commitments to keep reading. Like ‘The Tiger’s Wife,’ it combines the shimmer and sparkle of an adult fairy tale with science fiction and magical realism.

Melissa: In an interview, the author said she was inspired by two things to write this story. Her grandparents grew up in Yugoslavia, where, until the wars of the 1990s, different religions and ethnicities lived together pretty well. Her grandfather was Roman Catholic. Her grandmother was Muslim — and it was no big deal to anyone. Then, their country fell apart, and they lost the security of having a home.

Melissa: Fast forward to the Covid lockdowns. Téa was living in New York City, and a luxury tower was being built right outside her window. She said she thought, ‘building a building… what an act of faith in your institutions and the fact that the things that bring order and financial stability will continue as they are.’ Those ideas collided — her grandparents’ displacement and the new building — and she wondered what it would be like if people lived in a fancy tower like that, but 80 years from now.

Melissa: The New York Times said The Morningside has ‘elegant, effortless world-building’ and ‘immensely satisfying twists.’ The website LitHub published an excerpt that I’ll link to in show notes so you can give it a go. That’s ‘The Morningside’ by Téa Obreht.

David: I read Mark Twain’s ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ for the first time as an adult. I’m not the first to say it’s a good book. There are parts of that story where I felt like I was floating down the Mississippi on a raft. Like I had an out-of-body experience. I could hear the water. The story of Huck, a racist kid with an abusive father, and his friendship with Jim, an escaped slave, is moving and compelling. And it has some things to say about race relations in the US, even now.

David: A new book retells part of that story from the slave’s point of view. That book is called, ‘James’ and it’s by Percival Everett.

David: You might know Everett from the book, ‘The Trees,’ which was shortlisted for the Booker a couple of years ago. But ‘James’ is his 24th novel. One of his books was the basis for the movie ‘American Fiction,’ which won an Oscar this year.

David: For a good chunk of the story, ‘James’ runs parallel to Twain’s book, but we see the action from his perspective. And he’s an intelligent man. One of the book’s conceits is that Jim speaks English perfectly well, but produces the language he says in ‘Huck Finn’ to make white people comfortable.

David: Like its parallel book, ‘James’ is a thrilling adventure. Huck and Jim are on the run down the Mississippi, facing floods, storms, violence, scam artists, and unexpected treasures. There’s humor and excitement at every turn. Kirkus praised it, saying, quote ‘One of the noblest characters in American literature gets a novel worthy of him.’ Ann Patchett said, ‘I found myself cheering both the writer — and his hero.’

David: It’s just out this week. It’s ‘James’ by Percival Everett.

David: And now our Distraction of the Week. [magical sound effect]

Melissa: We took a trip to London last week, and in between seeing art and bookshops and live theater, we ate some pretty fantastic food. [DAVE] We had afternoon tea at Tea and Tattle with five kinds of sandwiches and scones with raspberry jam AND strawberry jam. And four kinds of cake.

Melissa: We also had a big English fry-up breakfast and a work-a-day lunch in a cute and rowdy greasy-spoon cafe. But my favorite was our dinner at the Sri Lankan restaurant Rambutan.

Melissa: If you listened to our Strong Sense of Place episode about Sri Lanka, you heard me talk about the ‘Rambutan’ cookbook by Cynthia Shanmugalingam. I read it front to back like a novel and learned so much about Sri Lankan culture and history along the way. The book is all bright candy colors and saturated photos that made me wish I had a Sri Lankan grandma to teach me how to make curries and sambols.

Melissa: The book was published in 2022 and last March, the author opened her restaurant in London, right across the street from Borough Market. That place is also AMAZING. It’s an enormous food and produce market that’s been there since the 12th century. Not for nothing, there’s also a very cute eyeglasses shop around the corner that sells handmade eyeglasses frames made of colored acetate or ethically sourced water buffalo horn. I was just on the brink of breaking out my credit card for new frames when it was time for our dinner reservation.

Melissa: First, let’s talk about the restaurant itself. The storefront has a golden yellow Rambutan sign above the door. Inside are big, leafy plants, honey-colored walls, and a handful of blonde wood tables. We sat at a curving bar that overlooks the open cooking area so we could watch the chefs making our food. They had a chill vibe for people grilling meats and cranking out bowls of curry.

Melissa: The menu changes daily, and there are always hot and cold apps inspired by street food — things like fried chicken wings and a dish called acharu, which is fruit that’s lightly pickled with chiles, sugar, and vinegar. There are grilled meets and curries. And a few sambols — those are a cross between a salad and a condiment. Everything comes with rice and roti.

Melissa: We need to talk about the roti. If you’ve never had the pleasure, roti is a flatbread that’s common in India and Sri Lanka. It’s round and soft with visible char marks from the grill. The Rambutan butter roti is pretty special.

Melissa: I took my first bite and thought, this is like a croissant. And I felt so smug when I came home and looked it up in the cookbook. The headnote on the recipe says, ‘These flaky, crispy parathas are kind of like the all-butter croissants of rotis.’

Melissa: We sat directly in front of the lovely chef who was making them. He had a stash of dough balls, coiled up like snail shells and shimmering with butter. Then he gently flattened a ball and cooked it on a griddle. When it had nice brown marks, he took it off the heat and kind of slapped it and smushed it with his palms to break up the interior into very satisfying layers.

Melissa: We also had a roasted pumpkin curry. It might be the best curry I’ve ever had. It’s made with coconut milk, so it leaned more toward Thai than Indian, but it wasn’t really either. The pumpkin was magically tender but also dense, so the texture was kind of like eating meat made out of candy. And we had a pork belly curry.

Melissa: One of the best things on my plate was the parsley sambol. It’s very simple and super fresh — just parsley, red onion, chile peppers, coconut, and lime juice. It had a handful of crispy fried chickpeas on the top, and we ate it like confetti sprinkled on the curries and rice. Amazing.

Melissa: The whole meal was contrasts of sharp flavors — lime, the pickling liquids, chiles, parsley — and then the smooth — coconut milk, butter, fresh coconut. The food was spicy but not searingly hot - just pleasantly prickly.

Melissa: And here’s the best part, my friends. You can eat this food even if you can’t get to London anytime soon. I came home and looked up the recipes in the cookbook. Everything we ate is in there, and none of the technique is hard. It’s mostly just stewing and chopping the right ingredients.

Melissa: In an NPR interview, the author said it’s difficult to make Sri Lankan food if you can’t get curry leaves. So I did a little research. We can get them at our regular old Czech grocery store. They’re also available on Amazon, so even if you don’t live near an Asian market or a Whole Foods type store, you can cook the food in ‘Rambutan.’ And I wholeheartedly encourage you to do that.

Melissa: I’ll put links to some recipes in the show notes, but really, get your hands on the cookbook. It’s beautiful, and the food is fantastic. The book and restaurant are Rambutan by Cynthia Shanmugalingam.

Melissa: Visit for more on the books we talked about today and the fantastic food from Rambutan.

David: Thanks for joining us on the library of last time. Remember to visit your local library and your independent bookstore to lose some time yourself.

Melissa: Stay curious. We’ll talk to you soon.

[cheerful music]


Top image courtesy of Borough Market.

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