Before Syd Suntha cooked at Seattle’s pioneering food truck, Skillet, in its early days, he worked in the music industry; the rhythmic sound of him banging square blades that both cut and move around the food on the flattop of his new food cart, Kottu, bridges his two careers. “Dubstep teppanyaki,” he jokes, alluding to the Japanese tabletop cooking he loved as a kid. Like the Sri Lankan street food he serves at his cart, teppanyaki involves cooking dishes a la minute on a flattop grill directly in front of the customer, which injects a little theater into selling food.
But instead of shrimp flips, egg art, and onion volcanos, Suntha simultaneously chops and cooks flaky flatbread with curry, vegetables, and spices into kottu roti. The dish — something like fried rice made with bits of bread rather than grains of rice — combines the richness of long-cooked cuts of meat with the high-heat flavor of the flattop and the curry leaf, cardamom, and mustard seed flavors of Sri Lanka.
Seattle diners might recognize Suntha’s friendly smile from when he served them drinks at Rupee Bar or handed them food from any number of food trucks he worked at over the last 12 years, including his own. In 2020, though, he lost his stake in his own business, an event quickly followed by getting divorced, losing his house, and being stuck in quarantine, “drinking way too much.”
Suntha needed a life change. He sobered up, stopped smoking, and mended his relationship with his family — which inspired him to open a food cart that draws on the cuisine of his heritage. Even though his parents make “the best food [he’s] ever eaten,” he had never cooked Sri Lankan food before. “Since culinary school, I’ve mostly cooked American fine dining or American street food,” he says. So learning to cook family dishes became an avenue to reconnect with his parents.
Suntha was immediately drawn to kottu roti, served from late-night stands on the South Asian island, so he named his cart, which launched in March, after the dish. Even though he stopped drinking, he didn’t lose his party instincts. “I love the drunk food aspect of it,” Suntha says. He also loved the food’s nostalgic resemblance to the teppanyaki at the restaurant he went to for childhood birthdays.
Suntha grew up in St. Louis, where his first job was at Chick-Fil-A, before he moved into the music industry. He learned to cook on tour, which eventually led him to enroll in culinary school. When Suntha moved to the Seattle area, he took a job at a high-end restaurant in Bellevue but soon realized he preferred the fast pace of his food truck side-gig. “It’s like a punk-rock band versus U2,” he says. “The food was so goddamn 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 Suntha is most excited about is that he cooks it in a few minutes with the customer right in front of him. “I really love the idea of talking to people,” he says. “We’re going to have a conversation whether you want to or not.”
After spending time in quarantine and going through a dark period that made him wary of even his established friendships, he says he forgot what it was like to speak to people face-to-face. But now, he embraces interaction. “It’s fascinating, just meeting people.”
Kottu’s menu features a rotation of three or four versions of the dish each night, with options like mango chicken, lamb, beef, saag, and jackfruit kottu roti — each mixed on the flattop and chopped with vegetables, the flaky flatbread, and spices, similar to the late-night post-drinking versions Suntha remembers from Sri Lanka. (“And a shit-ton of condiments,” he adds.) Suntha plans to stock Ballyhoo hot sauces (a company he founded) but also wants to collaborate with other chefs on creative toppings for people to dress their dishes with. He’ll also serve a drink or two and hopes to add a flat-top dessert at some point — he has been playing with spins on gulab jamun that use pandan syrup or a boozy baba au rhum mash-up, as well as a dessert kottu made with sweeter bread.
He promises that one thing people can count on is that it won’t be typical or plain. “The cart menu will constantly change based on new techniques I learn, whatever is in season, and whatever sounds delicious.”
Kottu, the cart, is the combination of two stories, Suntha says: “One is me getting out my shit and being in the happiest place I’ve ever been in my life.” The other is about kottu roti, the dish he serves, a resourceful way to use up leftover bread by mixing it with curry. “It’s everything in one nice little bowl,” says Suntha.
Kottu serves at events and pop-up locations around the city, with updates posted on the website.