Perennial and Feast

I’ve printed out and proofed the layout of Perennial (thanks to Lethe Press and Matt at Inkspiral Design for the layout work!). It’s a little under 100 pages, all laid out, which seems short, but hopefully not too short for a charming little gift book. It’s kind of thrilling seeing my illustrations in there — I’m still such a novice with drawing, but I am starting to actually like my own style. It’s odd to think of myself as sort of an artist. Odd, but nice. And for this book in particular, very personal drawings feel right.


Moving on to the cookbook, I find that there is a particular thrill to compiling the Scrivener file to .docx. I still write all my fiction in Word, but for the cookbook, where I was moving things around constantly, Scrivener was perfect.

I’m going to print it out now, which feels a little wasteful of paper, but I think I have to accept that every once in a while, writers need to use paper. For this final editing pass, I just find it easier to see everything in print.

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Final stretch

Plan for today: first, submit my votes for a thing I agreed to jury for — this one is quick, but I am increasingly convinced that such jury work should come with honoraria, so one of my priorities for 2018 is figuring out how to offer those to all the SLF jurors. Somehow — I hate to take away money that would otherwise go to awards, though. Well, just have to figure out how to raise more money for the SLF. Thinking. I suspect what I really need is a fundraising committee. Help?

Then, I have a theoretically open morning. I’m planning to spend half an hour pruning the parkway strip, which is full of flowers but also full of dead bits after enduring the last two weeks of construction. It’ll be nice when the street is repaved, but my plants are taking a bit of a beating. I think they’re mostly going to survive, though. I also have a few pansies to add to my fall planter, and a Japanese anemone to get in the ground — this is the THIRD year I’m trying to plant one, and I am crossing my fingers that this one actually lives. I think assiduous watering is probably key. Please picture me out there three times a day with my little watering can.

And then, I think work on the cookbook formatting. I’m sorry I don’t have a pre-order page up yet — I don’t think I can ask Steve Berman at Lethe to set a price until he knows how many pages the book will be, and he can’t do that until his layout guy does the layout, and the layout guy can’t do the layout until I give him the final text, so I’m the hold-up here.

I think I do want to add three more recipes (lamb curry, goat curry, and beet salad), which I’m planning to knock out in the next week, but mostly it’s going through and getting all the text consistent, deciding how much extra material to include, such as little stories or quotes, etc.

I think it may make the most sense to do three editions, actually — the stripped down trade paperback edition, with just the recipes, no photos, and the e-book and glossy hardback; the e-book full of photos (and included with purchase of either print book), the hardback with some photos, and both of those with some additional bits of story / memoir. I’m going to dedicate next week to getting this done — the goal is to hand it off to Steve by 10/7. (Steve, maybe we can get your designer to block off some time for the week following, so we can get the page counts and the pre-order page up ASAP?)

At lunchtime today, though, I’m going to knock off, because my college roommate Kirsten is coming into town, and I’m going to go pick her up at the airport and hang out. Man does not live by cookbook alone.

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Autumn Cookies

Owl and owlet.  These are made with my speediest form of decorating — make a six-second icing, color it, dip cookies and scrape off excess (takes a light touch to get the right amount off, but you get used to it), sprinkle with colored sugar.


These are quite time-consuming, adding these details, because you need to mix up different colors, put them into separate squeeze tubes or pastry bags, and apply the layers with time to dry between each one. But they are super-cute, so I suppose that makes it worthwhile.


Lots of little cookies, dipped and sprinkled, goes pretty fast, even if you do a few different colors.

I plan the color layers so I can do it all in one bowl — start with white, set aside any white you’ll need later for detailing in a mini squeeze bottle. Stir in yellow gel color to the bowl, ice some cookies. Add orange, ice some cookies (set some icing aside for detailing). Add copper, ice some cookies. Add burgundy, ice some cookies. Add brown, ice some cookies. Add black, set aside for detailing.



Tried a new technique this time, marbling, which is super-easy — dipped the cookies to get the base color, squeeze bottle to add a line of a contrast color, use a toothpick (while both icings are still wet) to draw lines through them both. Really like the effect, suspect I will do it often going forward. A little sugar sprinkle makes it even more festive; these are my favorites out of this batch.

Finished little batches — cookies & owlet. Hopefully will sell lots of them for Pem‘s hurricane fundraiser! I think they’re pretty darn cute, and would make a nice little snack for yourself, a treat for your kids, or a sweet gift for a friend.

Cookie recipe:

Icing recipe (thinned with hot water to 6-second icing):

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Kavi just took Anand a little plate with his allotment of four apple-cheddar croissants. I told her she was a nice Acca, and she laughed and said, “I’m doing this so I’m not tempted to eat his too.”

(Pillsbury crescent rolls wrapped around a slice of apple and some pre-grated cheddar, bake for about 12 minutes @ 350. V. easy, v. fast.)

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Mango Pickle

This is a fiery, fruity accompaniment that will keep refrigerated for a long time — you can add a little to your plate of rice and curry whenever you want to kick things up a notch. It would also be tasty with cheese and crackers, or layered in a sandwich with roast meat.
2 c. raw mango (about 1 large), cubed small
3 T oil or ghee
1 stalk curry leaves
1 T black mustard seeds
1 T ginger, finely chopped
1 T garlic, finely chopped
3 Thai green chili, chopped
3 T raw red chili powder
1 t. turmeric
1/4 c. vinegar
1 c. water
1 t. salt
1. Heat oil in a large frying pan and sauté mustard seeds, curry leaves, ginger, garlic, and chili in oil or ghee on medium-high for a few minutes, stirring, until they start to smell cooked instead of raw.
2. Add chili powder, turmeric, vinegar, water, and salt; cook down to a thick pickling paste, about five minutes. Turn off heat and allow to cool for fifteen minutes or so.
3. Add mango to pan and mix well to combine. Store in the fridge and eat within a year or so (or fill canning jars and seal properly for seriously long-term storage). Serve with congee or other mild dishes.
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Sri Lankan Red Rice Congee

‘Congee’ comes from the Tamil word ‘kanji,’ and refers to a rice-based porridge, eaten through Asia. This variation is a comforting way to start your morning, a traditional breakfast made either with fresh rice or leftover, and served with a little jaggery to sweeten it. It’s also good for building up the strength of recovering invalids. Red rice can be purchased online, and is similar to brown rice in nutritional content; it has a mildly nutty flavor; a healthy choice for breakfast! You can make this with white or brown rice too, of course.
Some people prefer a more soupy version; just add more water at the end. Traditionally, you would smash the rice down with a spoon as a final step, to give it more of a porridge consistency, but personally, I prefer the distinct grains. Another option is to grind about half the cooked rice in a food processor after the step 1, but that does mean one more thing to wash!
Other traditional accompaniments include fruit, nuts, or fiery luna miris sambol. This is a dish that easily adapts to your personal taste.
1 c. red rice
1 3/4 c. water
pinch of walt
2 T ghee or oil
1 large onion, sliced thin
1 T ginger, sliced thin
3 cloves garlic, sliced thin
2 Thai green chilies, chopped
1 stalk curry leaves
1 t. salt
1 c. coconut milk
1 c. water
2-3 T jaggery
1. In a pot, combine rice, 1 3/4 c. water, and pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, cover, cook 20 minutes, then turn off the heat and let sit 5 more minutes.
2. In a large frying pan, saute onion, ginger, garlic, chilies, curry leaves, and salt in ghee, until onions are golden-brown.
3. Add rice to pan and mix well; add coconut milk and water and simmer a few minutes to desired thickness. Serve hot, with jaggery.
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[memoir draft piece / cookbook intro]

The first time I started writing a Sri Lankan cookbook, it was meant to simply be a Christmas present for my mother — writing down some of her recipes. The book only offered a few dishes in each section, and featured sketches that a friend drew illustrating me and my mother cooking — “You cannot read and stir at the same time!”

Because I knew people in small press publishing, it quickly spiraled into an actual little book, but the focus was still simple — what little I knew of her recipes. It was designed to be accessible to students like the one I was at the time; I was an immigrant who had come over very young, had grown up eating rice and curry every night, but had only a tenuous connection to the food culture of the homeland.

I knew it wasn’t going to be all that authentic — my mother had had to make many adaptations when she came to America in 1973. Her recipes had already changed, and as I made them myself, they changed further, adapting to my tastes. When I gave my mother the finished book, she was pleased, I think, but also immediately started pointing out where I’d gotten things wrong. For a while, I threatened to do a second edition of the book, with “Amma’s corrections” all through it in red. I still think that would have been a good book, actually, but she didn’t go for it.

So the book stayed as it was for many years. It could have been left there. But instead, more than a decade later, I started working on a second edition.

Kevin and I were talking recently about how I choose which projects to work on. There’s often a pressure to spend my time and energy on the more commercial projects, the ones that have the best odds of a good payout. This second edition of the cookbook — it should sell some copies. Hopefully, it’ll sell lots of copies for the small press that’s publishing it. But it’s hardly the most commercial project I could work on, and making the recipes, some of them over and over again, trying to get them right, has been exceedingly time-consuming. If it were just about the money, this second edition would make no sense at all.

But writing is rarely just about the money. Over the years since I did the first edition, I have made more and more Sri Lankan recipes. My cookbook shelf has been overtaken by Sri Lankan cookbooks — from classics like the Ceylon Daily News Cookbook, to war-related books like Recipes of the Jaffna Tamils and Handmade, to fancy coffee table books full of glorious photos, to what is still my favorite, Charmaine Solomon’s Complete Asian Cookbook — she is Sri Lankan, and her recipes taste like my mother’s, like home.

I do enjoy cooking dishes from other cuisines. Ethiopian is one of my favorites, and there are days when I crave sushi. Pizza is a family standby, and my children are built in large part out of mac-and-cheese. But I come back to Sri Lankan food — I cook it at least once or twice, most weeks. These days, I go online and read a dozen different recipes for a dish before I even start making it. I interrogate my Sri Lankan friends (both diaspora and homelander) about their recipes, about how they are generally done. I want to know how these dishes were typically made, in the villages, for generations and generations back. What should the balance of salty-sour be? How thick do we want the finished gravy?

Why does that matter? If I still cannot get a certain leafy green considered key to traditional cookery, why do I feel such frustration? Does it matter if the finished dish is really how Sri Lankans would make it? My adaptations of my mother’s adaptations are tasty, after all. Once, when Kevin and I were talking about naming our first child, he asked whether we wouldn’t be better off if we didn’t cling so hard to ethnic, racial, nationalist traditions. Divisions. In some ways, I think he’s right. Sri Lanka was riven by ethnic conflict — surely, it would be worth giving up much, if you could thereby make the conflicts end.

But this is who we are; this is what it is to be human. We are composed of our mother’s hand with a salt shaker, the squeeze of fresh lime at the end of the dish. For those of us who are a little…attenuated from the food of our grandparents and great-grandparents, learning how to cook this food, in its many iterations, can feel like filling a hole in your heart.

So I choose this. I choose to put time and energy into learning this food, into serving it to my mixed-race children, with the hopes that they will grow to love it too. Kavya comes into the kitchen to ask excitedly, “Oh, are you making the yellow chicken?” My heart skips a beat. She’s a big fan of papadum too. We try to teach the children to be loving, to be fair and welcoming to all, whether or not they share our cultural traditions. Can we choose the good parts of our culture to cherish, and leave the darker aspects behind? We’ll see.

I still make no claim to authenticity — there are many more authentic Sri Lankan cookbooks, painstakingly researched. But if there was a thin line drawn with that first cookbook, connecting me to the food of my ancestors, then the last few years of adding recipe after recipe to this cookbook have thickened and strengthened the connection, into a sturdy rope. One that you might use when lost, to find your way home again.

I’ve come to appreciate the long history, the gathered wisdom of a thousand thousand cooks, who have come to know that with the perfection of hoppers at breakfast, all you need is a little fresh coconut sambol to accompany it, with perhaps an egg cracked into the center to steam. The more I cook these recipes, the more I grow to love this food. I hope other readers of this cookbook will feel the same.

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Beef Smoore

(4-6 hours, served 8)
This is a dish of Dutch / Sri Lankan origin, perfect for a Sunday roast, when you have time for long, slow (yet easy) cooking. A great dinner party dish. Yummy with rice — also great in weekday lunch sandwiches on hearty Italian bread, or shredded into a pita or folded naan, with some pickled onions and a little yogurt. Long-handled metal tongs will help with moving the large piece of hot meat. Delicious with a deep red wine; garnish with cilantro if desired.
3 lb. chuck roast
3 T oil or ghee
1/2 c. vinegar
1 T salt
1 T pepper
1 T tamarind, dissolved in one c. water
2 medium onions, finely chopped
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 T finely chopped fresh ginger
1 stick cinnamon
2 stalks curry leaves
1 stalk lemon grass, chopped
2 T Sri Lankan curry powder
2 t. chili powder
1 t. turmeric
1/2 t. fenugreek seeds
2 t. salt
1 cup coconut milk
1. Pierce the beef all over with a fork or skewer and marinate in vinegar, 1 T salt, and 1 T pepper for 2-4 hours. (I find this easiest to do in a plastic bag, turning periodically.)
2. Heat the oil or ghee on high in a large, heavy pot, and sear the beef until lightly brown on all side, which will seal the meat and help to retain the juices; it also adds great depth of flavor to the sauce. Remove the meat from the pan and set aside.
3. To the same pan, add the tamarind water, onions, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, curry leaves, lemon grass, curry powder, chili powder, turmeric, fenugreek, and remaining salt. Stir to combine, scraping up any browned meat on the bottom of the pan.
4. Return the meat to the pot, bring to a boil, cover the pot well (the steam needs to stay in, to cook the meat), and simmer gently until meat is tender, approximately 2 hours.
5.  Add coconut milk and simmer uncovered 15 minutes.
6.  Remove meat to a serving dish; if the gravy is too thin, reduce it by boiling rapidly uncovered. Transfer gravy to a serving bowl. Slice the meat into the desired thickness, and pour gravy over the slices; serve hot with rice or bread.
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Okra Curry

(45 minutes, serves 6)

For those afraid of okra, I promise you that this will not be slimy at all. A tender vegetable dish, with a nice toothsome chew to it.

1 lb. okra, washed and dried
1/2 t. turmeric
1/2 t. salt
vegetable oil for frying
2 T ghee or oil
1 onion, sliced thin
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 t. black mustard seed
1/2 t. cumin seed
1/2 t. fenugreek seed
3-4 dried red chili pods, crumbled
1/2 t. Sri Lankan roasted curry powder
1/2 can coconut milk

1. Slice okra on the diagonal, and mix with turmeric and salt.

2. Heat oil and in a small frying pan, deep-fry okra in batches, removing to drain on paper towels. (At this point, okra may be served as is, for a yummy snack.)


3. In a small saucepan, heat ghee / oil and sauté onion, garlic, mustard, cumin, fenugreek, and chili pods until onions is soft and golden.

4. Add curry powder and coconut milk; simmer for a few minutes, stirring, until well blended.

5. Add okra to the pot and stir for a few minutes more on low, until well-blended. Serve hot with rice.

NOTE: This recipe is a little fussy, because it’s designed to make sure the okra is quite dry before cooking — alternatively, you could skip step #2, and add the okra at the end of step #3, before adding curry powder and coconut milk. That would involve just one pan, so easier and faster — about thirty minutes total.

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