Sasha Dayal of Barceilan in Valencia

Barceilan’s Sasha Dayal – On Life, Sri Lankan Food and Flying with Curry Powder

If you haven’t heard, Spain has been recently blessed with its first Sri Lankan restaurant.  Sri Lankan born, ex-Londoner Sasha Dayal Fernando opened Barceilan in Valencia just a few months ago, and news is spreading fast as curry lovers rejoice, finally having a place to call home.  We sat down with Sasha to find out more about his new project, and also learned a little about his philosophy on life, getting curry through customs and why a bottle of Jack Daniels sits behind his bar, in memory of his late friend Lemmy from Motorhead.

Were you born in Sri Lanka?
Yes, but we moved to England when I was only 6 months old.   My father did send me back to Sri Lanka to attend school for a few years, from age 13 to 16, so that I could gain an understanding of the country.

Did your family eat Sri Lankan food when you were growing up in England?
We had Sri Lankan food every Sunday. During the week it was school dinners, which were traditionally English fare, and then at night whatever my mother would cook…salads, pastas…very healthy since my mom is a vegan.   We had Sri Lankan food every Sunday…which at times is actually very similar to British food because of the colonization. I remember my grandparents telling me that they used to eat roast beef every Sunday, probably with mustard sauce and sticky toffee pudding.   There’s also Dutch food, like Lumprais, rice wrapped in a banana leaf and baked, and served with a curry, Portuguese influenced stews near the coasts, and the Chinese influence, the Indian influence…it’s a mystery! But yes, we got very used to eating all these very different kinds of food at young age.

It’s not a well-known cuisine, is it?
No, it’s not, in fact, when you see it in a hotel, it’s mind blowing! And one of the wonderful things about it, is that it’s very healthy for you. The ingredients they use, like turmeric, wood apple, for example…people in Sri Lanka like to party a lot, they drink a lot, they smoke a lot, yet they live to be a hundred. I think it’s the undiscovered diet.  The only thing they die of is partying too much!

We’ve heard that you’re a big proponent of the health benefits of Sri Lankan food. Can you explain? Well, with Indian food they use a lot of butter, or ghee. With Sri Lankan food we use a few tablespoons of Coconut oil, which now they’ve proven is great for you, and we use the coconut milk.   Coconut cleans you out of toxins, as do a lot of the spices that are used. We even drink coconut water as a hangover cure.   The west is now discovering all this. My grandparents smoked and drank until they were 102. But they ate red rice, fish and vegetables cooked with coconut milk.

Sri Lankan cuisine at Valencia's Barceilan

A spread of Sri Lankan cuisine at Barceilan

Can you get some of the more exotic ingredients that you need here? 
Yes, I do have a supplier, a guy that supplies a Thai restaurant, that I can use to get most of my ingredients, but whenever I go to London I do still bring back a big bag of curry.  I always get stopped at customs.  They ask,”what is this?”  I tell them “smell it, it’s curry powder”…and they reply, “oh yes, go…weirdo!”

When did you open Barceilan? 
We opened, oddly enough, June 6, 2016…666! My mom made me go to church about 10 times that week.

How has the public responded to Barceilan so far?
It’s really funny. My girlfriend is from Valencia and she warned me not to do anything too spicy because Valencians don’t eat spicy food, AT ALL…that they want sort of the normal Spanish fare. So I opened up doing burgers and tapas. But then a couple people started to ask me if I made anything spicy.  So I started making a chicken curry on a Friday, or a pork curry…and then I started to see more people coming on Friday. Then little by little I started to see some of the Brits that live around here coming in for a curry and a beer.   I’m putting together a full Sri Lankan’s still coming along. It will have a few tapas which are Sri Lankan as well, but they call them ‘bites’.

Is Sri Lankan food spicy?
Its spicy but it depends on where you are..if you get it in Colombo, the capital, its just medium spicy. If you get it near Jaffna (north, near India), it’s blow your head off spicy.

What level of spicy are you doing here at Barceilan?
On a Friday night the curry will be medium. But if someone requests it spicy, I can adjust it and make it spicier.

So your average Valencian will be okay then?
Yes, they’re okay. You know that’s what I’m trying to do…in a diplomatic way, is to try and encourage people to try something different. That’s what I’m trying to bring here. I think Spain is ready for a revolution…I see a lot of the younger people trying new things. Sometimes, I’ll even give some of the locals, who are here just having a drink, some food for free just to encourage them to try it.

Chicken Biryani at Barceilan in Valencia

Chicken Biryani at Barceilan.

How did you end up in Spain?
I was living in London, and I was running a chain of pizza restaurants, but I was going through a divorce. I had hit rock bottom. I was in my car driving with my suitcase and my dog in the backseat, when a friend in Madrid called and asked what I was doing. When I told him I was looking for a new place to live and a new job, he said ‘why don’t you come to Madrid for the weekend, I’ve got a job for you”.   By the end of the weekend I said ‘Sign me up’. That was my first experience here.  I went back to England in 2006, for a job, and there I met my present girlfriend, Teresa.  She was from Valencia, and I told her I wanted to go back to Spain, but she wasn’t ready…until 4 years later, when I think the lifestyle in London just got to be too much for her. When you’re in London, it’s kind of like you’re a rat on the get up at 4am, you go to work, you have no life. I think of it as the New York of Europe. I work a lot here as well, but at least I can sit on my terrace during the day and have a coffee in the sun.

It’s one thing to move to Spain for a job, but another to take on your own restaurant. Did you have any concerns?
I’m always the guy who says bring it on. If it’s hard I’ll be there standing at the front of the queue, trying to do something no one else will do. Too many people say, “well this is what I’m doing and this is where I’m going” and stick to their route. Not me. I say “it’s all going well” but then I’ll change it all.  Our life is so limited.  It’s a very spiritual thing for me. You just don’t know. I remember seeing the selfies that some of the people took of themselves on the Malaysian Airlines flight before they took off.   They had no idea what was about to happen to them.   I thought, we’re blessed for living this for a little longer…let’s go for it.  Just go for it because you never know.

You spent the majority of your career working some pretty high profile jobs at the Hilton and the Hard Rock Café.  Do you miss anything from that old life? 
Not really. I’m always focused on the present. What ever happened has brought you to here, and it’s all about now. Today is tomorrow, so let’s live for that. I think I always had an inner voice saying “you’re going to be cooking in a kitchen in Spain” and I’m doing that.  You know, you have to find your center. You spend your whole life searching, looking for the end of the rainbow…eventually you have to find it. I haven’t found it yet, but I’m nearly there.

What is it that you want people to know about Barceilan?
We have no protocol. Come as you are. We only have one saying…”No Armas y no politicos.” It’s not like the Hilton where you have to worry about eating your croissant the wrong way…just come in, tell us what you want, and we’ll do it for you.

This wasn’t supposed to be part of the interview…but can you explain the bottle of Jack Daniels behind the bar?  
I met a lot of famous people while I worked at the Hard Rock.  Lemmy from Motorhead used to come in a lot, and I’d have a drink or two with him.  He told me that when I eventually owned my own restaurant I’d better keep a bottle of Jack Daniels for him.  So there it is.

More on Barceilan here.




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