Let me state at the outset that this is not a review. It is a story of sorts – about friends, food and new beginnings.
I’ve been going to Kamaya de Soysa’s house since I was 13 years old and now, over ten years later, it still retains what is to me an irresistible atmosphere of warmth. Hers was the kind of household that welcomed anybody – from scampering little girls and raucous teenage boys, to adult friends dropping in at a moment’s notice. Her mum would stand smilingly at the door, ask you to come in and whip up something delicious to eat and drink as if she had been expecting you all along. You’d dump your stuff wherever, gasp in pleasant surprise as pets of various shapes and sizes got underfoot and then sink comfortably onto a couch or chair somewhere, and tuck in.
Although a few years ago she probably never thought she would be in the business of culinary arts – in hindsight it seems almost predestined that Kamaya would take this path, considering the house and environment in which she grew up.
Kamaya is someone who spent her childhood searching for passion. During school, most of us had found something we loved to do: for me it was singing, for another it was athletics, for yet another it was art. Never one to commit to something half-heartedly, Kamaya stayed unsure, right through school and even some way through University. Until one day, she visited a friend’s family for the weekend, observed how they threw their passion into cooking and knew unequivocally that she had finally found what she wanted to do.
From that time onwards, Kamaya’s urge to ply any visiting guest with an impressive spread of food and dessert went unmatched – even by her mother from whom she no doubt inherited the trait. As someone who went to University in the same country and state, I was a regular and distressed recipient. Regular because I visited so often. Distressed because that meant the diet I was courageously trying to follow was obviously failing. Whenever I spent the night over in her little flat, I would wake up to hot pancakes with chunks of melting chocolate embedded in the soft batter and a generous dollop of ice-cream on the side. This has since become a tradition with us and even now, whenever I stay with her or her with me, this serves as our decadent breakfast.
Kamaya’s decision to open a shop with her business partner Ramesh Ranasinghe came almost out of the blue. The two of them had begun a catering business about 18 months previously, which ran alongside a daily cookies-and-coffee bike service outside Ladies’ College but were eager and impatient to expand towards what they really wanted: a shop of their own. “We had a month’s notice and we said ok, let’s do it!”, she says, as the three of us chat in the lounge of Quintessence of SpunSugar. The “shop” is really a city house which Kamaya and Ramesh have charmingly managed to keep looking and feeling like a home instead of a store. Sitting in the lounge and breathing in flavours of mint, chocolate and baking dough wafting in from the kitchen, I almost feel as if I am back at Kamaya’s house, waiting to be fed with something unexpected, but delicious.
“I love working with flavours. Mixing and fusing them,” Ramesh tells me, prompting me to ask him where his love of cooking came from. He replies that it is in his blood; in his family – a large one where people were always in and out of the house and where meals were habitually cooked in large quantities to feed whoever might have dropped in. “I must have started helping my family in the kitchen when I was about 7 or 8”. I smile hearing this, and can immediately see where both he and Kamaya get their almost instinctive urge to cook.
While I chat to them, they give me leave to poke around the display refrigerator, which holds their treats. I whip out my camera and start taking photographs of cupcakes topped heavily with rich vanilla, mint and chocolate cream; dark, moist brownies that look as if they are waiting to melt in your mouth, and bowls brimming with home-made chocolates – one with a white and mint mixture, another with pralines and others as well, which make me want to kick myself for putting myself on a month-long no-chocolate diet.
“You can’t go wrong with chocolates” Kamaya says. We’ve been talking about presents, and she gestures past her shoulder to prove her point. Behind her stands a display cabinet which houses bags, boxes, ribbons and quaint baskets of all shapes and sizes. “A box of home-made chocolates, a basket of cupcakes – they make perfect gifts. And we are ready to be creative”. I am barely listening, transfixed by the pralines – my favourite. She pats my shoulder reassuringly. “Come back in a month sweetie”.
The refreshing thing about Ramesh and Kamaya is that they are restless. This may be an unusual word to use, but I feel it is apt. They are never content with sticking to a formula or skimping on creativity to make things easier for themselves. Even when talking about making rice and curry (not on the menu I’m afraid!), Ramesh assures me he never makes it the normal way. “We never want what we make to be standard,” he explains further. “We’ll never sell a regular brownie. It will always be a cream cheese brownie or a dense nut slice”. I try to ignore the rumble in my stomach as he continues. “We make éclairs but they aren’t chocolate – they’ll be butterscotch or almond. With French cream filling of course!” Later, Kamaya rapturously describes what she would do if somebody asked her to make a cake with a 3-D design. I think about instances in restaurants here where I have asked waiters to make a tiny deviation from the menu and been greeted by dumbstruck expressions and emphatic NOs. Here in front of me, I have two people who are actually waiting to test their boundaries; who are actually asking their customers to be creative in their orders. How often do you get that?
Quite apart from the shop, Kamaya and Ramesh also cater small events and take orders for an extensive and ever-changing menu of savoury and sweet foods. I wonder how they find the time to fit it all in, but Ramesh assures me that being busy is precisely what they want, especially where the shop is concerned. “We look forward to a time when people are constantly coming and going,” he says. “We want to stay busy”.
Ramesh hands me a lemon tart, which I delve into immediately. The taste takes me back to the lemon curd sponge cake my grandmother used to make when I was little and I can’t help letting out an involuntary “mmm” of appreciation. Everything about SpunSugar has a touch of home about it – from the food, to the warm hues of the décor, to the friendly enthusiasm of the two young people who run it. “We want to have a relationship with our customers” Kamaya says and Ramesh agrees, adding, “There’s nothing mass-produced here. Everything we do has our personal attention”.
As my final question, I ask what they want to ultimately end up doing with their careers and the two of them let me in on their dream of starting a chain of cafés. “I can write out the menu I’ve envisioned for it right now – it’s all in my head” smiles Kamaya. Ramesh tells me practically though that they still have a long away to go. “It all depends on how all this works out ” he says, gesturing at his surroundings.
If ever there was a recipe for success it should be this: passion, drive and raw talent. Kamaya and Ramesh have all three in the bag and I hope they get to open their café one day. I get up to leave, hug my friends goodbye and wish them good luck. I know I’ll be back in a month for my chocolate.
Quintessence of SpunSugar
Address: 207/21 Dharmapala Mawatha, Colombo 7. (Lane adjoining Commercial Bank)
Hours: Open 10 am – 7 pm, Tuesday – Sunday
Telephone: 0775273713 Ramesh OR 0777481674 Kamaya