Food & Culture

Suren Jayemanne: “I'd be so excited to [do] that gig just to have an excuse to have fried chicken”

The Sydney-based comedian on food allergies, Mum’s sambal prawns and being upstaged by "hot breakdancers".

By Yvonne C Lam
Comedian Suren Jayemanne. Photo: Emma Holland
You grew up in Melbourne, and your parents have Sri Lankan heritage. What are some of your earliest memories of food growing up?
I grew up with really intense food allergies. I was allergic to eggs, shellfish, all nuts, sesame, and dairy and wheat would give me pretty bad eczema. Eating out, I would usually just have a well-done steak because it was the easiest thing to prepare for an allergy boy, and I hated steak for the longest time because it would be burnt and gristly and no good.
But at home it was a different story. My most treasured food memories from childhood was Mum's cooking. Her lamb curry, and her dhal and eggplant were very special to me.
In my early 20s I discovered I could eat a whole lot of food I'd previously been allergic to. I'd bring food to the specialist, and he'd cut it up real small and put it on my lip, and just watch me for twenty minutes. Then he'd say, "Ok that's fine. Here, have a little more." [...] I think it was fun for him. I assume he was a doctor. He might not even have been a doctor. Just a guy who said, "Bring me some nuts and I'll feed them to you."
[After that test], the first recipe I got from Mum was her sambal prawns. That's her showpiece dish, and now it's mine as well.
You're an accountant turned comedian (and a quick Google search throws up your accountant profile on LinkedIn). What drove your decision to become a full-time comic?
I might have to go back to accounting at some point, so it's good that [LinkedIn] profile is still alive [laughs]. I was still working as an accountant for the first seven years I was doing gigs. [By 2018] I wanted to go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and I was getting more and more gig opportunities. Being a comedian wasn't financially viable yet but it was time-commitment viable, so I thought, "Now I really need to take the plunge."
How did your family react?
They always saw it as a hobby, and not something I'd try to turn into a career. But it helps having done stuff on the ABC. That adds a bit of credibility for Mum and Dad. I have two older brothers – one is a lawyer, the other has a PhD. I think they relaxed a little bit and were like, "Whatever. We can have one failed son, that's fine."
In lockdown you started producing your own cooking videos complete with your own The Cook and the Chef theme song. Why did you decide to make these videos?
Stand-up wasn't happening, and there wasn't a lot of stimulus so cooking was an organic thing. Those first few videos are really lo-fi - even in the first three videos you can see how much I've learnt about editing software. It goes from real basic to all of a sudden, I've made my own green screen and I'm pretending I'm on Masterchef.
I felt weird about what recipe I'd cook. Can you film just any recipe, or do you have to have some authorship or ownership of the recipe? In stand-up you'd never tell anyone else's joke. It'd be frowned upon to steal material. I didn't really grow up in a community of Tamils or Sri Lankans – I grew up in a very white environment. So was I being culturally appropriative? It was a bit of a mind trip, but that's more my anxieties than anything substantive, I think.

Do you eat before or after a gig?
A lot of comedians refuse to eat before a gig because of nerves, but I'd never had a routine around that. If there's a gig in an area where there's food I like, I'll be more excited about the food. I used to play at Happy Endings Comedy Club in Kings Cross that was around the corner from [fried chicken eatery] Thirsty Bird. I'd be so excited to get booked at that gig just to have an excuse to have fried chicken.
I love doing gigs around Haymarket, Central and Thai Town; I love Boon Café. For out-of-town gigs, I love going to Chinese diners and their menus with 1000 items. I couldn't eat a lot of that '90s classic Chinese Australian food growing up because of my allergies, and I find the whole experience fascinating.
You've performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival twice, in 2018 and 2019. What was the food like there?
It was pretty hit and miss.The Scots are not known for their food. Everything is deep-fried; haggis, Mars Bars. I love a big Scottish/English breakfast, but that's more so because when you're at a festival there's a lot of drinking and late nights. I ended up buying a rice cooker for the Airbnb [to cook my own meals]. I returned to the same Airbnb the next year, and I was so excited because the rice cooker was still there.
There's a big Indian Muslim population in Edinburgh, and right in the centre of the old town is this giant mosque, and connected to the mosque is The Mosque Kitchen, and it's about eight quid for really good Indian food. But around the area of the mosque there's about five other restaurants trying to cash in on the name, like The Other Mosque Kitchen and The New Mosque Kitchen.
What's the strangest gig you've done?
It was for a Christmas party in 2020 for a company that runs early learning centres. It was on a boat, at Darling Harbour, with predominantly 20- to 25-year-old female staff, with free-flowing sparkling and cocktails. They were letting off steam after a really difficult year as essential workers. The first act were these hot breakdancers, and the audience went wild because these ripped dudes were dancing, then they started stripping, and I thought - I have to do comedy after this? I did 20 minutes of jokes to silence, then I sat upstairs on the deck in the corner waiting for the boat to dock.
What's the most common misconception about comedians?
That we have very fun and crazy lives. I think a lot of comedians are very serious off stage, and people expect them to always be "on". After a gig people come up to you to talk, and comedians will get really nervous and anxious. It's weird because the power dynamic has shifted. It's like, "Oh you wanna have a conversation with me? I haven't prepared anything!"
Are comedians good cooks?
A lot of comedians are really into food, but not all comedians can cook, because you're out doing gigs at night. Having said that, [comedian] Ivan Aristeguieta is a fantastic cook, and he does really good cooking content on Instagram.
Suren Jayemanne is performing at the Sydney Comedy Festival, 23–25 April at the Enmore Theatre, Newtown, NSW.
surenjayemanne.com
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