By Gretchen McKay


The tasty but often overlooked food of Sri Lanka

Categories : Uncategorized

Mary Anne Mohanraj missed a lot of things when she went off to college, but the thing she was most homesick for was her mother’s cooking.

When her parents immigrated to Connecticut from Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 1973, they brought with them their fiery curries, coconut sambols and countless rice dishes.

Many of the recipes were adapted to accommodate American ingredients. Her mother, Jacintha, for instance, used ketchup instead of tomatoes because coconut milk was hard to find. But even adulterated, the foods offered a comforting and familiar taste of their Tamil culture.

Ms. Mohanraj remembers sitting in her dorm room at the University of Chicago, so desperately hungry for her mother’s beef and potato curry, that she begged for the recipe over the phone. Once in hand, “I made it over and over again,” she recalls, because that was the only way she could get to eat one. 

Back in the 1990s, Sri Lankan restaurants were nonexistent even in ethnically diverse cities like Chicago because the small number of Sri Lankans who started arriving in the United States in the mid-1950s tended to be professionals. “There weren’t a lot of cooks coming in to set up restaurants,” Ms. Mohanraj notes.  Also, the doctors and lawyers who made a new home here usually pushed their kids to go to college.

Even today, Sri Lankan food is hard to come by outside of New York City and parts of New Jersey, making the food unfamiliar to most. That’s a shame, because as Ms. Mohanraj’s new cookbook, “A Feast of Serendib: Recipes From Sri Lanka (Mascot Books; $40), makes clear, the cuisine’s distinctive curries, sambols, hoppers (a type of pancake) and vinegar-based pickles are as vivid as they are flavorful. 

Colonized first by the Portuguese and then the Dutch and British, Sri Lanka has been a multiethnic society for more than 1,000 years. The food reflects those influences, with dishes like frikkadels (a type of Dutch meatball), Portuguese “love cake” (made with nuts and spices) and brandy-infused British fruit cake on the menu.

Sri Lankan food sometimes is described as a mix between Southern Indian and Thai flavors. Yet Ms. Mohanraj stresses it’s definitely not what most Americans are used to eating when they go out for Indian food. While the two nations  shares many of the same ingredients, Sri Lankan food is usually hotter than the creamy curries and butter masalas that are a staple of Northern Indian cooking. That’s because Sri Lankan curry powder — dark roasted to make it more intense and complex — is usually loaded with chili pepper. (Ms. Mohanraj’s recipe includes two teaspoons of cayenne, in addition to coriander, cumin, fennel and fenugreek seeds.)

Instead of dairy, coconut  is the foundation, along with chilies, lots of vegetables and leafy greens. Given the island nation’s location on the Indian Ocean, seafood also plays an important role in the cuisine. Crab curry is a specialty, along with ambulthiyal, a type of sour fish curry. 

Sri Lankan food also makes frequent use of fresh curry leaves, an ingredient that can be hard to track down if you don’t have easy access to an Indian market. Native to subtropical Asia, the plant (actually a small tropical tree) is virtually unknown at local nurseries. Even if you lay hands on a seedling, it can be finicky and difficult to grow, according to my editor, who has babied a plant in a pot for years. Thankfully, she came to my rescue with two stems last week when I didn’t have time to run to the store.

An important note here: Curry leaves are not to be confused with the bold spice mix known as curry. Their flavors are as disparate as their colors — leaves are green while the powder is yellow or yellowish-red. Neither is a substitute for the other. In fact, if you can’t get your hands on fresh or dried curry leaves (readily available on Amazon), it’s best to leave them out of the recipe all together, Ms. Mohanraj says.

(Thankfully, there also are several terrific Indian groceries in and around the city, where a bag with dozen or more leaves will set you back as little as a dollar. Buy several at a time and freeze what you don’t use; they’ll keep for up to two months.)

Learning an unfamiliar cuisine can be overwhelming, so when Ms. Mohanraj started writing the cookbook in 2015, she opted for  a “hand holdy” format geared to home cooks like herself. Nothing’s too fancy, most ingredients are easily sourced and the recipes are easy to follow, with many including italicized notes offering substitutions, helpful cooking hints or playful family remembrances.

Many of the 100-plus recipes are family favorites that she started gathering more than 20 years ago as a college student to put into a book as a Christmas present for her mother. Others came from friends or were discovered during years of meticulous research and testing in her home kitchen. 

“I didn’t want to have just the things my family makes, but core recipes are from within the Sri Lankan community,” she says. They include everything from salads, condiments and drinks to desserts, egg and meat dishes, and nearly two dozen curries. 

The book itself was a form of therapy. While she grew up eating rice and curry, her husband and two children had more American tastes. So the foods she learned to make by watching her mother only appeared on the menu once a week. Then in 2014, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After she made it through recovery, she found herself obsessively cooking the foods of her homeland. 

“I realized I had this huge anxiety that my kids weren’t eating Sri Lankan food,” she says, “and I was worried they would lose that connection.”

Food, after all, is an expression of cultural identity, the great connector of people and places. 

And for everyone else?

Ms. Mohanraj hopes the cookbook won’t just offer a taste of some of the tastiest food on the planet but also teach those who aren’t familiar with her homeland a bit about its history and traditions.

“It’s about sharing culture,” she says. “I hope people will love it and bring something new into their lives.”

Pol Sambol (Coconut Relish)

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Sambol, a traditional Sri Lankan dish made with coconut and onion, brings balance and excitement to a plate by adding sweetness, heat and bit of a tang. It can be used as a condiment or topping for a rice bowl. 

1 cup desiccated unsweetened coconut

3 tablespoons hot milk

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cayenne

2 teaspoons paprika

2 to 3 tablespoons lime juice or to taste

1 medium onion, minced fine

Reconstitute coconut in a large bowl with the hot milk, using your fingers to squeeze the milk through the coconut. Add salt, cayenne, paprika, lime juice and onion. Mix thoroughly with your hand, rubbing ingredients together until well blended.

Serves 8.

— “A Feast of Serendib” by Mary Anne Mohanraj (Mascot Books; March 2020)

Beef and Potato Curry

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This curry was a favorite dish when Mary Anne Mohanraj was growing up in Chicago. It’s on the spicy side, but you can always water it down by adding less curry powder. 

You can find fresh curry leaves at Indian markets like Manpasand Spice Corner in Greentree, where a bag with two springs costs $1. 

3 to 5 medium onions, chopped

2 tablespoons ginger, chopped finely

4 to 5 garlic cloves, sliced

3 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon black mustard seeds

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 to 2 tablespoons cayenne 

⅓ cup ketchup

¼ cup Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon Sri Lankan curry powder (recipe follows)

1 teaspoon salt 

3 cinnamon sticks

3 cardamom pods

3 cloves

3 pounds beef stew meat, cubed into 1-inch pieces

1 dozen curry leaves

½ cup milk

3 medium russet potatoes, cut into large chunks

2 to 3 tablespoons lime juice

Kale sambol (recipe follows)

In large pot, saute onions, ginger and garlic in oil on medium-high with mustard seeds and cumin seeds until onions are golden but not brown, stirring as needed. Add cayenne and cook 1 minute, stirring. Immediately stir in ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, curry powder, salt, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and curry leaves. 

Add beef and stir on high for a minute or two, browning the meat. Add milk, stirring. Cover, turn down to medium and let cook half an hour, stirring occasionally,

Add potatoes, stir well and cover again. Cook until potatoes are cooked through, adding water if needed to maintain a nice thick sauce, stirring occasionally. Add lime juice; stir until well blended. 

Serve hot with rice or bread with kale sambol on the side.  

Serves 6.

— “A Feast of Serendib” by Mary Anne Mohanraj (Mascot Books; March 2020) 

Sri Lankan Curry Powder

Yellow curry powder is not the same as Sri Lankan curry, which is dark roasted. This recipe makes enough powder for many meals. 

1 cup coriander seeds

½ cup cumin seeds

1 tablespoon fennel seeds

1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds

2-inch piece of cinnamon stick

1 teaspoon whole cloves

1 teaspoon cardamom seeds

2 tablespoon dried curry leaves

2 teaspoons cayenne

In dry pan over medium heat, roast separately the coriander, cumin, fennel and fenugreek, stirring constantly until each one become fairly brown. Put into blender container (you can also use a coffee or spice grinder) together with cinnamon stick broken in pieces, cloves, cardamom and curry leaves.

Blend at high speed until finely powdered. Sieve into a bowl, discarding any large pieces and combine with cayenne. Store in an airtight jar.

Kale Sambol

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Even people who think they hate kale will love this fresh and tasty sambol. It keeps in the fridge for a week; simply freshen it up with a little lime juice as needed. You could also make it with beet or mustard greens or chard.

1 bunch kale, leaves stripped off and stem discarded

1 medium onion, minced

1 cup shredded unsweetened coconut

1 to 2 cups cherry tomatoes

Juice of 2 small limes (about 2 to 3 tablespoons)

1 to 2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon fine salt

Pulse kale in food processor until completely shredded into small bits. Add onion, coconut, tomatoes, lime juice, sugar and salt. Mix thoroughly.

Kottu Roti (Chopped Roti Stir-Fry)

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This simple stir-fry is a popular street food in Sri Lanka. As a variation, you can add half a chopped cabbage along with the carrots and beans, and reduce the amount of roti, for a more vegetal approach. 

1 red onion, chopped

3 green chilies, chopped

1 stalk curry leaves (about 12 leaves)

2 to 3 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 eggs, beaten with 1 teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper

1 cup green beans, chopped small

1 carrot, coarsely grated

1 leek, thinly sliced (green and white parts), rinsed thoroughly

4 rotis (or similar flatbreads), chopped coarsely

1 cup leftover curry, with at least ½ cup of sauce

In large pan, saute onion, green chilies and curry leaves in oil until lightly browned, about 5 minutes.

Add eggs and fry, breaking up eggs. Add green beans, carrot and leeks, and saute until cooked through, about 5 more minutes.

Add rotis and mix thoroughly. Add curry and mix thoroughly. Serve hot.

Serves 4.

— “A Feast of Serendib” by Mary Anne Mohanraj (Mascot Books, March 2020, $40)