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.
(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.
The problem with going deep
is that you can fall in.
You find yourself reheating
frozen food, a pale imitation
of the real thing. Making
other dishes over and over
trying to remember
in the nose, lime on the tongue,
chili heat lingering on your lips —
a pain that you seek out repeatedly.
Sometimes you think your heart
can’t take it; it would be easier
to order pizza instead. Who
doesn’t love melted cheese?
Yet here you are, microwaving
frozen hoppers that you keep
stashed in the basement
deep freeze. Hoarded for
those days when you need
them, even if it hurts.
This dish can be traced as far back as the fifth century, when it was served at the court of King Kasyapa of Sigiriya (famed for his luxurious Sky Palace).
1 T ghee or oil
3 small onions, minced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 T ginger, chopped
3 t. mustard seeds
2 stalks curry leaves
3 Thai green chilies, chopped
3 T vinegar
3 t. roasted Sri Lankan curry powder
1 t. cinnamon
1 t. salt
3 large green mangoes, peeled and cut into long, thick pieces
1 can coconut milk
½ c. water
1 T sugar
1. Heat the oil in a pan and sauté the onion, garlic, ginger, mustard seeds, curry leaves, and chilies until the onions are soft.
2. Add the vinegar, curry powder, cinnamon, salt, and half a can of coconut milk with ½ c. water – stir to combine.
3. Add the mango slices, bring to a boil, and simmer until the mango is just tender, about ten minutes.
4. Add the rest of the coconut milk and sugar to the curry; bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for about five minutes. The gravy should be thick enough to thoroughly coat the mango. Serve hot.
Okay, people keep being startled that I did the desserts for 150 for the party, so here is a quick accounting of how to do such a thing and not completely melt down in the process:
a) Be on vacation, or a stay-at-home parent with kids in school, or just somehow not having a regular day job. If I’d tried to do this while holding down a 9-5 job, with commuting time and getting dinner and dealing with the kids and all, it would’ve been impossible.
b) Block out about 3 hours / day for a week for dessert-making. Starting two weeks ahead (or more) is less stressful.
c) Plan to make roughly one dessert per day, which means you have to think about what can be made:
– two (or more) weeks in advance (candies, caramels, truffles, sugar cookies, fruit cake, molded chocolate decorations)
– one week in advance (refrigerated mousse cakes, icing for sugar cookies)
– three days in advance (curd for lemon cake, sugared flowers)
– 1-2 days before (actual cakes you’re baking)
– day of party (whipping fresh cream for a berry shortcake)
I like to divide up my day of cookie baking with my day of icing cookies, because both are pretty time-consuming.
Allow time for cakes to cool before frosting — an hour in the morning for baking, an hour in the afternoon for frosting, an hour around for prep and clean-up.
d) About two weeks in advance, finalize your menu plan. I strongly recommend that everything on it is something you’ve made at least once before. My main frustration this time around was that I added the pink champagne cake which I hadn’t made before, and it had processes I wasn’t familiar with, which was a little stressful, and then I wasn’t thrilled with the final result, which was annoying.
e) Remember to shop! There is nothing more irritating than getting all set to bake and realizing you have no baking soda. Baking soda has been my downfall more than once, because you cannot substitute baking powder. (If, however, you need baking powder and don’t have it, you can combine baking soda with cream of tartar.) You can make a master list and buy everything in one go, or if you like little trips to the store / grocery delivery, you can buy what you need the day before each day’s baking.
Warn your household that if they consume your precious eggs / buttermilk / milk / butter that you will not be held accountable for the consequences.
f) Be sure you also have the tools you need — cake pans in the right sizes, cake circles in the right sizes, a sufficiency of measuring implements, etc.
g) Don’t be too perfectionist about it. You’re not a professional baker, and no one expects you to be. It’s okay if your cake is a little wonky, or if you’ve never mastered a smooth application of frosting (it’s me!) — people will love it because you made it, and because it tastes delicious.
Okay, that’s all I can think of right now. Feel free to add your own comments / suggestions below!