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.