Dark roasted curry powder, a fine attention to the balance of salty-sour-sweet, wholesome red rice and toasted curry leaves, plenty of coconut milk and chili heat. These are the flavors of Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka was a cross roads in the sea routes of the East. Three waves of colonization—Portuguese, Dutch and British—and the Chinese laborers who came with them, left their culinary imprint on Sri Lankan food. Sri Lankan cooking with its many vegetarian dishes gives testimony to the presence of a multi-ethnic and multi -religious population.
Everyday classics like beef smoore and Jaffna crab curry are joined by luxurious feast dishes, such as nargisi kofta and green mango curry, once served to King Kasyapa in his 5th century sky palace of Sigiriya.
Vegetable dishes include cashew curry, jackfruit curry, asparagus poriyal, tempered lentils, broccoli varai and lime-masala mushrooms. There are appetizers of chili-mango cashews, prawn lentil patties, fried mutton rolls, and ribbon tea sandwiches. Deviled chili eggs bring the heat, yet ginger-garlic chicken is mild enough for a small child. Desserts include Sir Lankan favorites: love cake, mango fluff, milk toffee and vattalappam, a richly-spiced coconut custard.
In A Feast of Serendib, Mary Anne Mohanraj introduces her mother’s cooking and her own Americanizations, providing a wonderful introduction to Sri Lankan American cooking, straightforward enough for a beginner, and nuanced enough to capture the flavor of Sri Lankan cooking.
- Who taught you how to cook?
When I was young, my mother had me chop and stir onions for her; that was all I was allowed to do as a tween and teen. Then I went off to college, and after a few months of dorm food, called her up, begging for a recipe over the phone.
- Are there family recipes included?
Yes, many were originally my mother’s, though I’ve put my own variations on them.
- Which core ingredient do you prefer to cook with?
Sri Lankan food is very much onion-based – if I don’t have onions, I almost can’t cook!
- What is your favourite spice/herb?
Curry leaves, which are thankfully getting easier to get in stores around here; for several years, I’ve had to either grow my own or do without.
- If you would have to prepare a 3 course meal consisting of dishes you like best, what would be on the menu?
If it’s just for me, not considering anyone else’s dietary restrictions? An appetizer of crispy fried mutton rolls, red rice with beef and potato curry and caramelized beet (or carrot)curry, and creamy vatallappam (spiced coconut milk custard) for dessert.
- Do you think traditional dishes should remain that way or can they have a bit of a modern twist and why?
They often have to have a twist, as people move from region to region, and original ingredients are no longer available – though that’s less about modernity and more about mobility.
- Apart from the Sri Lankan cuisine, which one do you consider a treat?
If I can’t get Sri Lankan, either Ethiopian or Japanese are my favorites for eating out. Though it’s hard to beat a perfect slice of pizza for comfort!
- A meal is not complete without dessert. Do you agree? Which one is your guilty pleasure?
I almost never eat dessert, unless it’s a special occasion – but then it’s not so much a guilty pleasure as a celebration. I love creamy & fruity desserts the best, though a little chocolate never hurts.
- Do you sometimes cook together with family and/or friends or is the kitchen yours only?
My husband and I tend to cook on our own, alternating use of the kitchen, but we host big parties pretty often, and then anyone who comes over tends to get drafted into chopping, stirring, and assembling.
- I have never cooked Sri Lankan food. Which dish is perfect for beginners?
If you aren’t vegetarian, the ginger-garlic chicken is easy to make and a big hit with kids and grown-ups. You can adjust the spice level up or down to taste – when my kids were small, we left the cayenne out entirely. Now they like a little bit, and complain if I leave it out!
Thank you, and Rachel’s Random Resources.
About the author
Mary Anne Mohanraj is the author of Bodies in Motion (HarperCollins), The Stars Change (Circlet Press) and thirteen other titles. Bodies in Motion was a finalist for the Asian American Book Awards, a USA Today Notable Book, and has been translated into six languages. The Stars Change was a finalist for the Lambda, Rainbow, and Bisexual Book Awards.
Mohanraj founded the Hugo-nominated and World Fantasy Award-winning speculative literature magazine, Strange Horizons, and also founded Jaggery, a S. Asian & S. Asian diaspora literary journal (jaggerylit.com). She received a Breaking Barriers Award from the Chicago Foundation for Women for her work in Asian American arts organizing, won an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Prose, and was Guest of Honor at WisCon. She serves as Director of two literary organizations, DesiLit (www.desilit.org) and The Speculative Literature Foundation (www.speclit.org). She serves on the futurist boards of the XPrize and Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.
Mohanraj is Clinical Associate Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and lives in a creaky old Victorian in Oak Park, just outside Chicago, with her husband, their two small children, and a sweet dog. Recent publications include stories for George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards series, stories at Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, and Lightspeed, and an essay in Roxane Gay’s Unruly Bodies. 2017-2018 titles include Survivor (a SF/F anthology), Perennial, Invisible 3 (co-edited with Jim C. Hines), and Vegan Serendib. http://www.maryannemohanraj.com
Social Media Links
Serendib Kitchen website: http://serendibkitchen.com