Meet the self-taught Leeds chef Madame Kumar serving recipes passed down through generations

For Nivetha Tilakkumar, cooking is an expression of love.
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The homestyle chef and food blogger, better known by her alias Madame Kumar, has run cooking classes, pop-ups and deliveries in Leeds - with a focus on traditional Sri Lankan flavours.

Nivetha hopes to preserve recipes that have been passed down through generations of Tamil women in her family.

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The 25-year-old told the Yorkshire Evening Post: “One dish that my mum would always cook for Saturday lunch is kanji - red rice that’s cooked down, with coconut milk and then lime pickle stirred through it.

Nivetha Tilakkumar, or Madame Kumar, serves traditional Sri Lankan and Tamil cuisine passed down through generationsNivetha Tilakkumar, or Madame Kumar, serves traditional Sri Lankan and Tamil cuisine passed down through generations
Nivetha Tilakkumar, or Madame Kumar, serves traditional Sri Lankan and Tamil cuisine passed down through generations

“It has a real significance for Tamil people in Sri Lanka, it was a dish that people often ate during the war when there were rations.

“It’s so good - and it’s even better with my gran’s freshly-made lime pickle. She’ll make it in a huge tub and send it over from Sri Lanka.”

Nivetha dabbled in the kitchen while she was growing up in London, but it was only after moving to Leeds for university that her culinary career began to blossom.

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She developed a recipe for her mum’s parappu, the Sri Lankan name for dal, and began watching YouTube tutorials to perfect her skills.

Nivetha making coconut sambol (Photo: Steve Riding)Nivetha making coconut sambol (Photo: Steve Riding)
Nivetha making coconut sambol (Photo: Steve Riding)

But there was always something missing in her food. It wasn’t until she started cooking for her friends that she realised what that was.

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Nivetha said: “I was following all the right steps, but if you’re not sharing food with people, the feeling and the love isn’t there.

“It was when I started cooking with, and for, other people that it really blossomed.

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Food is a love language. A lot of Asian women express their affection through food and I’ve really inherited that.”

When Nivetha moved to France for her third year of university, her friends begged her to start an Instagram page to share pictures of her food.

Madame Kumar was born and after moving back to Leeds, Nivetha launched a home delivery service after graduating and now runs pop-up kitchens at restaurants across the city.

She will cook at Wharf Chambers on August 24 and September 21, before running a pop-up event at Eat Your Greens on September 27.

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Nivetha said: “When people come to my pop-up to eat, I want them to feel like they’re stepping into my kitchen and my home.”

“I owe Leeds a lot for where I’ve got to with my food career,” she added.

“I love the street food scene in Leeds; people like Delice D'Ivoire, who cooks food from the Ivory Coast, or Manjit’s Kitchen.

“And there are pockets of communities all over Leeds that have really great food – like Harehills.”

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Nivetha isn’t sure where her food career will go, she juggles a full-time job, but she’d love to host supper clubs and more pop-up events, feeding hungry bellies across the city.

She added: “I don’t speak Tamil and I can’t read or write that well, so I know that I’m losing my language.

“So I want to preserve the food at least. Food is universal, you can share that with so many people.

“You’re not only preserving it for yourself, you can pass that on to others.”