ThatzKoththu: Sri Lankan Street-Food Served in Hoboken by a Local Resident

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For Thatz Somasundaram, a Hoboken resident + project manager by day and food enthusiast by night, koththu belongs to the street. The name, meaning chopped in Tamil, captures the way the dish is made. Chop some crunchy vegetables and flaky roti bread, maybe add one or two meats, fire up the griddle, and let the show begin. The cooking is an exciting commotion of vigorous chopping, stirring, and mixing. Nostalgic for its sound, smell, and taste, and with a ton of free time at hand during the lockdown, Thatz, a Sri Lankan American, has brought much-missed koththu to Hoboken through his culinary experience ThatzKoththu. Read on to learn more about the mastermind behind ThatzKoththu, a Sri Lankan street-food cuisine, served up in Hoboken.

The Backstory

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The memory traces back to his teenage years in Sri Lanka. It is the go-to food for young people hanging out late at night, factory workers before and after graveyard shifts, and policemen taking quick breaks while on duty. Thatz fondly recalls how he was always enlivened at the scene of a fleet of koththu carts descending onto a quiet neighborhood at night. 

Soon afterward, the streets would ring with the clack of metal spatulas hitting the sizzling griddles. His parents forbade him from eating street food, but he would ask friends to buy koththu and bring it to him secretly. 

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Fast forward to the year 2020. By then, Thatz had built a life in the US, working a management job at a large company. Staying homebound as the entire world went into quarantine, like many of us, he suddenly found himself with a huge amount of free time. He cooked a lot of koththu, first for his family, then for a small group of friends, or his “corona bubble”, as he called it semi-jokingly. But instead of sticking to the most “authentic” flavors ingrained in his childhood memory, Thatz went rogue. A Sri Lankan koththu with Genovese pesto? That sounds great! 

ThatzKoththu

“I like trying new food when I travel to different countries. So I thought, why not try some of these [new flavors] on koththu?” After all, it is a versatile dish by origin. Cooks in Sri Lanka sometimes conjure up recipes by throwing onto the griddle whatever leftover ingredients they have at hand. Thatz and his wife, Nandhini, teamed up. 

Searching the canon of world cuisine, they came up with ideas for potential recipes — koththu with Sichuan peppercorn, Korean gochujang, or even Thanksgiving cranberry and turkey — and invited his “corona bubble” friends to taste test them. 

“They are our guinea pigs!” Thatz and Nandhini laughed heartily recounting the summer months trying all kinds of koththu recipes with friends. Cooking for a small group also provided a great opportunity to practice the logistics of their future business, then only an idea. Gradually they learned how to manage the ingredients, prepare them in batches, and arrange each step efficiently. 

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“I could tell his level of happiness was different,” Nandhini told Hoboken Girl. “His day job requires a lot of logical thinking. But cooking is about being creative. It’s like, he is working different parts of his brain!” After some trial and error, and a lot of fun, Thatz and his friends nailed down a few successful recipes, now fixtures on ThatzKoththu’s menu. 

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For a more “traditional” taste, there’s the “Kuzhambu”, named after a Sri Lankan stew with tamarind and coconut. For more “worldly” versions, there’s koththu tossed with pesto, and koththu with heady Ethopian berbere {spice blend, typically made of chili, garlic, cinnamon, and the secret weapon, fenugreek, to add depth}. Thatz said he is experimenting with new recipes and aims to have ten to fifteen items rotating regularly.

The Menu

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So it seems a natural move to turn this hobby into a business. “I’ve been dreaming about running a koththu eatery for at least ten years,” Thatz said, and now he finally has everything ready. But he and Nandhini are also aware of the perils of scaling up too quickly, so they decided to first test the water with the “ghost kitchen” model. 

To some extent, the pandemic helped. Eaters are more receptive to takeout and delivery. And spare capacity comes up more easily at local restaurants. They struck a deal with Pilsener Haus Biergarten, renting out its kitchen space when it is not in use, and started to organize cooking events periodically. {Currently about once every two or three weeks, with menus and schedule posted on social media about two weeks in advance.}

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“We are still watching the market,” Nandhini explained of the decision to keep it slow, “but when the weather warms up and the pandemic situation improves, we definitely want to bring everyone in to get the full experience. It’s about the commotion and the noise!” Thatz could envision eaters sharing long communal tables and trying out different flavors. 

In fact, Hoboken and Hudson County in general, with a large group of cosmopolitan young eaters and a sizable South Asian community, is their “ideal place” to evangelize Sri Lankan food, so vibrant and diverse — yet so-little-known in America. Yet, there is no plan to go brick and mortar. “Koththu is street food. I can’t imagine eating it at a nice sit-down restaurant,” Thatz jokes.

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We were able to try some of ThatzKothuthu’s koththu in its most recent event. The Kuzhambu is a burst of flavors, the richness from the coconut mixing pleasantly with more piquant spices. With each bite, you get a different blend of texture — the chew of the roti, the crunchiness of the vegetables, and the meatiness of the chicken {tofu also available}. 

ThatzKoththu

The texture and flavor are even more vibrant with the pesto version, which uses crunchier veggies with stronger flavors. The milky paneer cheese renders a round smoothness to the dish, and the pesto adds a refreshing brightness to the pleasantly spicy taste profile. 

The dish originated in the Tamil regions of Sri Lanka. Then it was adopted by the Sinhalese. It was a small thing the two feuding camps shared in common during the country’s long, brutal civil war. 

Now, in this small Hoboken kitchen amid a world-wide lockdown, it has unexpectedly taken a new form when two Sri Lankan Americans dreamed of all the flavors sampled during their world travels. Maybe that’s what’s great about street food, always being re-invented, always having the power to heal and connect.

Follow ThatzKoththu on Instagram for the latest updates and food inspo.

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Yiwei was born and raised in China. She has lived extensively in Beijing and Hong Kong, before finally settling down in New York. She moved to Hoboken after a few years in Westchester and immediately felt at home here. Two years ago, she left her job at an investment bank to travel the world and explore her interests, and has since then taken on a few freelancing gigs in career coaching, college admission consulting, and writing. When she is not wandering wildly in the streets of Europe, Asia, or Latin America, she can be found sipping an espresso in one of Hoboken's coffee shops or trying out restaurants in Hoboken and Jersey City area.