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Sri Lankan food offers strong flavors

Sri Lankan food offers strong flavors

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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.

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," 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 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 such as 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 Mohanraj stresses it's definitely not what most Americans are used to eating when they go out for Indian food. While the two nations share 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. (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, a lot 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. 

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, Mohanraj says.

Learning an unfamiliar cuisine can be overwhelming, so when 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.

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."

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