Sri Lankan food, if it gets mentioned at all at restaurants, often gets lumped in with the Indian curries and rice dishes on the menu.
Or if you want to cook Sri Lankan food at home, you won’t find as many recipes as you would if you Googled some other South Asian countries.
Mercer Island resident Ruwanmali Samarakoon-Amunugama wants to change that. She’s here to make the case that Sri Lankan cuisine deserves to stand on its own merits, that the island country’s geography, history and bounties of jackfruit and coconut produce bright, clarion flavors that should be celebrated more in the United States.
In her first cookbook, “Milk, Spice & Curry Leaves: Hill Country Recipes from the Heart of Sri Lanka” (to be published Oct. 20 by TouchWood Editions), the author pays homage to her mother’s homeland, expounding on the abundance of fish around the flora-flush island in the Indian Ocean that inspired its seafood dishes, and fruits and veggies from the hill country of the Central Province that produce memorable vegetarian curries.
The pillars of Sri Lankan cooking, said Samarakoon-Amunugama, are rice, spices and coconut. Always the coconut.
Coconut is “featured in every meal of the day, whether in the form of fresh, dried or roasted flesh, or liquid oil or milk,” she writes.
When it comes to curry, it is the melding of curry leaves, onion, garlic, ginger and chiles that gives these dishes their complex, layered flavors, she said. They’re classified by colors: red curry (with chiles and sometimes paprika), white curry (with coconut milk with turmeric) and its revered black curry (with roasted spices).
The author, who grew up in British Columbia before moving to the Eastside two years ago with her husband and daughter, is a self-taught cook. She watched her mother in the kitchen, jotting down recipes to preserve the family history since her ancestors — like many Sri Lankans — never measured their spices and ingredients, she said.
Her motivation to write a cookbook came in part because she didn’t see any Sri Lankan cookbooks around British Columbia. “People don’t know the cuisine very well. I would see Indian and other South Asian cookbooks. Never saw Sri Lankan,” she said.
Sri Lanka’s cuisine might get its spotlight here. Last fall, Sri Lankan-inspired restaurant Rupee Bar debuted in Ballard and was anointed by GQ magazine as one of the “best new restaurants in America” in 2020. Rupee’s Liz Kenyon also earned a Rising Star chef nomination from the James Beard Foundation. In April, Cinnamon Sri Lankan Restaurant opened in Bothell.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Samarakoon-Amunugama has not checked out those new restaurants yet, instead spending her time tutoring her 5-year-old daughter at home. We recently caught a few minutes with her over the phone. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Tan Vinh: When I think of the difference between Sri Lankan and Indian cuisine, what comes to mind is the roasted curry powder that makes your island’s food distinctive from many other South Asian cuisines.
Ruwanmali Samarakoon-Amunugama: Yeah, you have coriander, fennel, cumin, cinnamon, the curry leaves and cardamom seeds; once you roast them, you intensify the flavor. It’s not a smoky flavor. But it has more depth and aromatics. When those all come together, they create a wonderful, deep aroma that you don’t really get with another spice blend.
Vinh: There’s also a pronounced tartness, especially in many curries, that I don’t find in other South Asia cuisines.
Samarakoon-Amunugama: That sour dimension is often goraka, a sour fruit. Goraka is often dried and brined and used whole or ground to a paste. That sourness you notice could also be a squeeze of lime at the end. Other times it’s tamarind or vinegar.
Vinh: The country’s colonial past must have had an influence?
Samarakoon-Amunugama: The Portuguese — that can be seen in the use of chiles, tomatoes and eggplants. Also desserts and breads. And the cooking method tempering — the sautéing of onions, curry leaves, mustard seeds or ground spices to release the aromatics. The Dutch [have] an influence with lamprais rice, which has been flavored in a broth with aromatics or spices … also sweet treats like kokis, which are deep-fried cookies.
Vinh: You had me at “deep-fried.” There are tea farms in the Central Province of Sri Lanka. A colonial influence as well?
Samarakoon-Amunugama: Yes, the British — we have afternoon tea with small bites. Carrots, peas and potatoes might have also been popularized through the British as well.
Vinh: Where do you shop for ingredients?
Samarakoon-Amunugama: India Supermarket in Bellevue. The curry leaves are fresh. I buy banana leaves there and ash plantains. People don’t like to grate their own coconut. You can buy fresh-grated coconut in the frozen aisle. Also, a lot of options for rice. I also hit the Asian Family Market, behind the India Supermarket. You can find tamarind and specialty products. For really great vegetables to use for vegetarian curry, I go to farmers markets or community farms. I found lemon grass at a community farm in Bellevue called TBUG.
Vinh: Devilled prawns is one Sri Lankan dish that pops up on menus around the Pacific Northwest. What’s the back story of this dish? (Recipe here.)
Samarakoon-Amunugama: That dish is reflective of the Chinese influence. And there is Portuguese influence because of the devilling, a method of cooking where the main ingredient is marinated with chili sauce or crushed chiles and sautéed, often with other ingredients. It has some sweetness from the caramelizing. It’s a fun dish to make when you have company. I like to serve it with yellow rice and a refreshing salad.
Our restaurant critic Tan Vinh recommends some Sri Lankan takeout options to try:
6307 24th Ave. N.W., Seattle; 206-397-3263, rupeeseattle.com
One of the best seafood dishes I had in 2019, the devilled prawns and potato dish at Rupee Bar in Ballard from James Beard “Rising Star Chef” semifinalist Liz Kenyon. Kenyon’s take is a crispier, drier version. Shells and tails get equal billing alongside the prawns in this spicy bar bite. The Ballard cocktail den doesn’t just de-shell and discard the casings, but instead dusts them with cornstarch, turmeric and chili and deep-fries them to create this briny, pork-rind-like snack. The actual shrimps are fried separately with garlic, ginger, onions and chili paste for a snappy bite with a spicy kick — a multitude of textures and flavors. When available, check out Rupee’s vegetarian dishes, from the jackfruit curry to the roasted cauliflower that gets drenched in a funky eggplant paste with raisins.
Cinnamon Sri Lankan Restaurant
1912 201st Place S.E., Bothell; 425-806-8424 cinnamonsrilankanrestaurantandbar.com
Rice and curry are the staples of the island’s diet. Order the bistro’s pork black curry or its chef’s fish curry special, with its tart yellow gravy. The red rice is a good side but more memorable was the aromatic, tumeric-scented yellow rice with onions and cashews. Also, order a side of coconut sambol.