One way to satisfy a yen to travel in these lock-down times is to explore the foreign cuisines. The newly published cookbook, “A Feast of Serendib,” (Mascot Books, $40) offers a trip to the far-away island of Sri Lanka.
Located in the Indian Ocean, southwest of the Bay of Bengal and southeast of the Arabian Sea, the food on this island at the nexus of trade routes has evolved from a variety of culinary influences.
Author Mary Anne Mohanraj explains that her own family is of the Tamil ethnic, cultural and language group, who came to the island more than 2,000 years ago. Their cooking is different than the Hill Country Indian Tamils who were brought to the island work on coffee and tea plantations in the 19th and 20th century, although some also came independently as merchants and traders.
Tamils are a minority today, when the majority of the 21.6 million Sri Lankans, are Sinhalese, with significant groups of Moors, Malays and indigenous Veddahs, Mohanraj writes.
Add to this three waves of colonization: Portuguese, arriving in 1505, Dutch in 1602 and British in 1802.
The result is a fascinating cuisine.
Mohanraj came to the U.S. with her family at the age of 2. Although she grew up eating “rice and curry every night,” she writes, she “had only a tenuous connection to the food culture of the homeland.”
As a college student, she began to write “A Feast of Serendib” (“serendib” is an old Persian name for Sri Lanka), as a gift for her mother.
“My mother had to make many adaptations when she came to America in 1973,” Mohanraj recounts. “She used ketchup instead of tomatoes, for example, because she didn’t have access to coconut milk and cow’s milk didn’t have sufficient sweetness.
She adds, “When I gave my mother the finished books, she was pleased but also immediately started pointing out where I’d gotten things wrong. I threatened to do a second edition of the book with ‘Amma’s Corrections’ all through it in red. I still think it would have been a good book, but she didn’t go for it.”
Instead, the book rested for more than a decade until now when Mohanraj, married to a white American whose family has been here “for enough generations that he’s not sure exactly where all his ancestors came from,” and mother of a daughter named Kaviarasi, an old Tamil word for “queen of poetry,” decided to resurrect it.
“For those of us attenuated from the food of our grandparents and great-grandparents, learning to cook this food, in its many iterations, can feel like filling a hole in your heart,” she writes.
So — what is the food of Sri Lanka?
“I am often asked what is characteristic of Sri Lankan food and how it differs from Indian food,” Mohanraj writes. “The second question is difficult because it’s usually Americans asking me and they’re used to Americanized Indian food, which is often fairly generic and water-down — not actual food from India, which is dramatically different, depending on whether you’re talking Mughal-influenced North Indian cuisine (or) mostly vegetarian Gujarati, etc.”
Central to the cuisine, she writes, is dark-roasted curry powder, goraka (a fruit similar to tamarind, not used, however, by her Tamil family), red rice, plenty of chili heat, curry leaves, coconut milk, shredded coconut, dried Maldive fish and “a touch of tang from vinegar, tomato, tamarind or lime.
“We also eat a wide variety of fish, poultry and meat dishes, which I think is somewhat unusual in South Asia, given religious prohibitions, but can be traced to a long-standing multi-ethnic and multi-religious population.
“A Feast of Serendib” contains a rich assortment of recipes for curries (everything from Fried Liver Curry to Ripe Jackfruit Curry), chutneys, and Sri Lankan French toast (Bombatoast) but it also introduces much less familiar dishes with wonderful names like Hoppers, Uppuma, Idyappim and Falooda.
The first three are grain dishes, and the latter a Sri Lankan version of boba tea. Just saying the words is like a glimpse into a new world.
Of “hoppers,” also called “appam,” Mohanraj writes: “If I had to pick the perfect Sri Lankan meal, this would be it. There’s nothing like breaking off a crisp piece of hopper, dipping it into a broken egg and scooping up some curry and a bit of seeni sambol. Delectable.
“These rice flour pancakes have a unique shape. Fermented batter is swirled in a special small hemispherical pan so you end up with a soft spongy center and lacey, crispy sides — that contrast is the true glory of the hopper. Typically, you’d make one egg hopper per person, plus another plain hopper or two and maybe a sweet hopper to finish up.”
Mohanraj notes that you can buy instant hopper mix online, which “doesn’t require overnight planning,” but she includes directions for making hoppers from scratch.
2 cups South Asian rice flour (or a mix of rice and wheat flour)
1 tsp. sugar
Pinch of baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
2 cups coconut milk
Eggs for egg hoppers
Extra coconut milk and jaggery (a sugar made from concentrated sap of palm trees; brown sugar plus a little molasses will approximate the flavor
Mix the first five ingredients thoroughly in a large bowl, cover, and set in a warm, turned-off oven to ferment overnight. (In a cold climate, fermentation may not occur without help; preheat the oven to 250 degrees, turn it off and put in the covered bowl.)
Mix again, adding water if necessary to make a thin, pourable batter.
Heap a hopper pan (or a regular frying pan) to medium. Grease if it’s non-stick. When it’s hot, pour about 1/3 cup batter into the center. Pick up the pan immediately and swirl the batter around coating the surface. The sides of the hopper should end up with holes in them, thin, lacy and crisp. If the batter is coating the pan more thickly, mix in hot water to thin it down.
Cover and let cook 2-4 minutes. You’ll know it’s ready when the sides have started to brown and the center is thoroughly cooked. A silicone spatula will help get the hopper out of the pan.
For egg hoppers, after swirling, crack an egg in the center before covering. The egg will cook as the hopper does, finishing in about 3-4 minutes.
For sweet hoppers, after swirling, add a tablespoon of coconut minut and a teaspoon of jaggery to the center of the pan, then cook as usual.
Mohanraj’s book is filled not only with recipes and photos, but a genuine joy. “We come together with other Sri Lankans — homelanders and diaspora, Sinhalese and Tamil, Buddhist and Hindu and Christian and Muslim — over delicious shared meals,” she writes. “Sri Lanka has been a multi-ethic society for over 2,000 years, with neighbors of different ethnicities, languages, religions, living side by side. We try to teach our children to be welcoming to all, to share our unique cultural traditions. That is part of what it means to be Sri Lankan, what it has always meant.”
“Can we choose the good parts of our culture to cherish and leave the darker aspects behind? I hope so. I hope food can help provide a pathway there. Come together at our table, sharing milk rice and pol sambol, paruppu and crab curry. Linger over the chai — just one more cup. Eat, drink and share joy.”
Watch now: A cooking lesson with Mary Anne Mohanraj, author of “A Feast of Serendib”
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