Before Syd Suntha cooked in Seattle’s pioneering food truck, Skillet, in his early days, he worked in the music industry; the rhythmic sound of him hitting square blades cutting and moving food across the flat top of his new food cart, Kotu, bridges the gap between his two careers. “Dubstep teppanyaki,” he jokes, alluding to the Japanese table food he loved as a kid. Like the Sri Lankan street food he serves at his cart, teppanyaki involves cooking dishes by the minute on a flat grill directly in front of the customer, which injects a bit of drama into selling the food.
But instead of shrimp, egg, and onion volcano flips, Suntha simultaneously chops and bakes flaky flatbread with curry, vegetables, and spices into kottu roti. The dish – something like fried rice made with chunks of bread rather than grains of rice – combines the richness of long-cooked cuts of meat with the dish’s high-heat flavor and flavors of curry leaf, cardamom and of Sri Lankan mustard seeds.
Seattle diners might recognize Suntha’s friendly smile when he served them drinks at Rupee Bar or handed them food at any number of food trucks he’s worked at over the past 12 years, including his. In 2020, however, he lost his stake in his own business, an event quickly followed by divorce, loss of his home and quarantine, “drinking way too much”.
Suntha needed a life change. He sobered up, quit smoking, and repaired his relationship with his family — which inspired him to open a food cart that’s modeled after his heritage cuisine. Even though his parents make “the best food [he’s] never eaten”, he had never cooked Sri Lankan food before. “Since cooking school, I’ve mostly cooked fine American cuisine or American street food,” he says. Thus, learning to cook family meals became an avenue for reconnecting with one’s parents.
Suntha was immediately drawn to kottu roti, served at late-night stalls on the South Asian island, so he named his cart, which was launched in March, after the dish. Even though he quit drinking, he didn’t lose his party instinct. “I love the drunken food aspect,” says Suntha. He also loved the food’s nostalgic resemblance to the teppanyaki at the restaurant he went to for his childhood birthdays.
Suntha grew up in St. Louis, where her first job was at Chick-Fil-A, before getting into the music industry. He learned to cook on tour, which eventually led him to enroll in a cooking school. When Suntha moved to the Seattle area, he took a job at an upscale restaurant in Bellevue, but soon found he preferred the fast pace of his side gig at the food truck. “It’s like a punk-rock band versus U2,” he says. “The food was so good, and it wasn’t pretentious, and you learned that you don’t have to follow any rules.”
One of the elements of cooking kottu roti that Suntha is most excited about is that he cooks it in minutes with the customer right in front of him. “I really like the idea of talking to people,” he says. “We’re going to have a conversation whether you like it or not.”
After spending time in quarantine and going through a dark time that made him suspicious even of his established friendships, he says he forgot what it was like to talk to people face to face. But now he embraces the interaction. “It’s fascinating, just meeting people.”
Kottu’s menu rotates three or four versions of the dish each night, with options like mango chicken, lamb, beef, saag and jackfruit kottu roti – each tossed on the dish and chopped with vegetables, the flaky flatbread and spices, similar to the late-night post-drink versions Suntha remembers from Sri Lanka. (“And a shitload of condiments,” he adds.) Suntha plans to stock Threshing hot sauces (a company he founded) but also wants to collaborate with other chefs on creative toppings that people can dress their dishes with. He will also serve a drink or two and hopes to add a dessert dish at some point. kottu made with sweeter bread.
He promises that one thing people can count on is that it won’t be typical or simple. “The cart menu will constantly change based on new techniques I learn, whatever is in season, and whatever looks delicious.”
Kottu, the cart, is the combination of two stories, says Suntha: “One is that I get out of my shit and find myself in the happiest place of my life.” The other is about kottu roti, the dish he serves, an ingenious way to use up leftover bread by mixing it with curry. “It’s all in a nice little bowl,” says Suntha.
Kottu serves at pop-up events and locations around the city, with updates posted at the website.