How we adapt Sri Lankan food for the UK

Brits won't eat with their hands, say co-founder of restaurant group The Coconut Tree
Rashintha Rodrigo
Pic of The Coconut Tree founders

In December 2016, five young Sri Lankans opened The Coconut Tree, an authentic family-run restaurant sharing the delights of Sri Lankan cuisine with the people of Cheltenham. We’ve come a long way since then, still authentic and family-run, but now we have nine restaurant locations across the UK. And we’re still growing!

Our culinary exploration throughout the years has been about finding the perfect balance between staying true to our cultural roots and meeting the diverse tastes of a global audience. When we founded The Coconut Tree, we thought about how to cater to British palates without compromising our Sri Lankan heritage, ensuring our passion could also be a commercial success. In the end, we found a path that works for us. 

We understand that the UK is a melting pot of cultures and preferences and this factored into the direction of our business. For instance, some people may not be used to eating with their hands in the way we Sri Lankans often do, and others may find our intense spices a bit challenging, so we work hard to ensure that everyone is welcome to approach our food in a way that feels best for them. For us, Sri Lankan hospitality is all about bringing people together through the universal language of food.  

As founders, we have a blend of experiences and cultures. Both Sri Lanka and the UK hold a special place in our hearts, and we believe that authenticity lies not in forsaking one for the other, but in finding common ground.  

We're all about both keeping our Sri Lankan heritage alive in our business and also embracing other cultures and their traditions. This is important to us as founders, but also for us to continually capture the attention of potential customers and keep those most loyal returning to us. Variety and new ideas must work in a crowded market. And we achieve this in a number of ways: 

Don’t like it, don’t pay

We understand that for those who are unfamiliar with Sri Lankan cuisine, trying something new can seem like a bit of a risk. Why order a Sri Lankan when you could stick with a safer bet of fish and chips, pizza or Indian curry, after all? For this reason, we wanted to remove any barriers we could to trying new dishes and encourage people to widen their pallets. We decided to take a risk ourselves and run a campaign around the idea that if you tried our food and didn’t like it, you didn’t have to pay. Lucky for us, we tend to find that when that initial barrier is passed, people keep coming back! And Sri Lankan food tends to be a hit. 

Authentic and delicious recipes from back home 

Our food, the foundation of what makes our business special, is inspired by someone close to our hearts - our dear Granny Gertie. It's her time-honoured recipes that form the backbone of our offering, imparting a feeling of warmth and comfort in every bite. Her culinary wisdom and expertise are the driving force behind the creation of our dishes, each one infused with a unique flavour that conjures up the essence of home. 

Charity Fundraising for Sri Lanka’s Meth Mihira 

At The Coconut tree we host a variety of charity fundraising events that help Meth Mihira, a charity back in Sri Lanka that supports and educates children with additional learning needs, provides vital educational resources and support to the thirty children in their care. 

This is one of the ways we ensure we’re giving back to the Sri Lankan community and it’s something our British patrons have really rallied behind. During our Power Out Night and MPower events, 10% of takings across all nine restaurants go to Meth Mihira. It’s a cause incredibly close to our hearts and the events have been well received with a fantastic turnout. 

Iftar - catering to the needs of a range of religions

During Ramadan, we offer a special Iftar menu for our Muslim friends and patrons to break their fast with us. Last year, at our Birmingham location where the Muslim community is the largest, we offered Muslim diners tasty dishes including lamb cutlets, cashew nut curry and Chicken kotthu. This year, we’re focusing on making our Iftar offering even bigger and better!  Offerings like this ensure we’re meeting the needs of the diverse British community that enjoys our Sri Lankan dishes and hospitality.

A twist on the Christmas Menu 

From traditional Sri Lankan twists to classic Christmas favourites, we knew it was important for our business to ensure our Christmas menu had something to delight every palate. Our Ho-Ho-Hoppers, a beetroot version of our legendary bowl-shaped coconut milk pancakes served with cranberry lunu miris, curry leaf sambol, and onions caramelised with a hint of Sri Lankan cinnamon, go down a treat with our diners every year.  

Hybrid Halloween  

We get into the Halloween spirit by crafting our own Sri Lankan-inspired version of this holiday, offering spooky and delectable delights. We also pay homage to the captivating tradition of Raksha masks, which have their roots in Sri Lankan folklore. These intricately crafted masks, each with its own unique story and significance, adorn our restaurant. 

Raksha masks, deeply ingrained in Sri Lankan culture, are an art form in themselves. They are not just decorative pieces but are symbolic of the island's rich history and mythology. 

We’re constantly working on striking a balance between our Sri Lankan heritage and the diverse cultural traditions we have encountered. Our business flourishes because we are able to adapt while still staying true to our roots. Our customers know that they can expect an authentic experience that caters to their preferences and needs. This is a testament to the warm and welcoming nature of Sri Lankan hospitality.

Written by
Rashintha Rodrigo
Written by
December 14, 2023