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A Feast of Serendib: 10 Things You Might Not Know about Sri Lankan Food

Our founder and original editor-in-chief, Mary Anne Mohanraj, has just launched the Sri Lankan cookbook she’s been working on for the last four years, A Feast of Serendib. Ethnic cookbooks serve as online archives of deep cultural knowledge, bringing history and memory together with essential daily domestic practices that shape human lives; in particular, they often reflect women’s wisdom, and aspects of identity that are too often neglected in more standard histories. 

In writing and publishing the cookbook, Mohanraj (an English professor in her day job) had to delve deep into research. In the process, she learned quite a few things about Sri Lankan food, and also learned that much of the world wasn’t familiar with her home cuisine. So, here’s a little sampler she put together.


10 Things You Might Not Know about Sri Lankan Food

  1. Sri Lanka (previously Ceylon) is an island nation that sits near the southern tip of India, a little north of the equator. It’s about ten times smaller than Texas, and has almost two-thirds as many people as Canada. They cook a lot 🙂  
  2. Sri Lankan food is a cross between South Indian and Thai in flavors and approach, with influence from several other cuisines: Dutch, Portuguese, British (all colonizers), Chinese, Malay, Middle Eastern, and more, much as you might expect from an island at the nexus of trade routes. Many of our recipes celebrate a tropical island brightness of flavor.
  3. Sri Lankan food doesn’t have to be spicy! Many dishes have no chili heat at all (such as our ‘white’ curries), and even the ones that do typically use red or green chilies can be adjusted to your preference. My recipes suggest the amounts of green chili and cayenne that are typical in the region, but you can reduce those further, or eliminate them entirely if you like, and the dishes will still be delicious. (The only exception I might recommend would be for the few ‘deviled’ dishes and katta sambol — those really are supposed to be hot.) And if you like heat, but can’t do capsaicin, try swapping in peppercorn. (I use about 40 Tellicherry peppercorns in my tangy black pork curry, and like to chomp them whole.)
  4. You don’t have to build a large Sri Lankan kitchen shelf to enjoy our food. When I was a very broke grad student sustaining myself on $20 / week for groceries, I started with just cumin seed, mustard seed, turmeric, and cayenne. Along with salt, vegetable oil, milk, and onions, that’s enough to give you the basics for a meat, fish, or vegetable curry, and I pretty much ate that every night for years. Mackerel curry with red rice = cheap, nutritious & delicious. (If you can afford to pick up cinnamon, cardamom and cloves too, plus garlic and ginger, that’ll add a big boost of flavor. And then the next step, our dark-roasted curry powder…)
  5. Ingredients aren’t hard to source, especially via mail-order; Amazon carries Sri Lankan curry powder, though if you have the time to make it yourself, that adds a gorgeous freshness. (Note that the curry powder shipped from Sri Lanka will typically have cayenne mixed in, so may be spicier than desired; use with care.) In some American cities, you may even find fresh curry leaves in the grocery store these days. You can freeze them and pull out a stalk or two as needed. (But if not available, dried will do; just use a little more.)
  6. Sri Lankan food doesn’t use much dairy; while we do use ghee, vegetable oil is often used as well. While you may be familiar with the cream or yogurt-based curries of northern India, in Sri Lanka, we prefer to make our curries with coconut milk. (You can experiment, though; I’ve successfully made Sri Lankan curries with cow milk, goat milk, soy milk, and almond milk…) So if you’re lactose-free, this is a very friendly cuisine for you!
  7. You might think that as an island nation, seafood would be eaten everywhere, but while it’s prevalent on the coasts (and Jaffna crab curry is one of the world’s finest dishes), seafood is much less common inland; there are lots of Sri Lankans who don’t eat a lot of fish. (More for me.)
  8. Sri Lanka is very vegan-friendly; since about 70% of the population is Sinhalese Buddhist, that naturally leads to many vegetarians who enjoy a richly varied cuisine. And since, as I said, we tend to default to coconut milk instead of cow milk, much of the food is vegan by default. It’s super easy to cook Sri Lankan for my vegan friends, putting together a complex and varied menu to delight their palates.
  9. There are nonetheless plenty of chicken and meat dishes on offer, especially since there’s a significant Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and ‘other’ population (about 30%); Sri Lanka has been a multi-religious & multi-ethnic society for more than 1500 years. Dutch-influenced beef smoore would be my recommendation for a spicy, savory roast to impress a crowd, and chicken curry (kukul mas) is eaten all over the island.
  10. Finally, if you’re gluten-free, rejoice! Sri Lankans traditionally ate a rice-based cuisine, and when you try our red rice, you’re going to love it — a nutty, dense, and flavorful option. I like to mix it half and half with white rice for optimal flavor along with great nutrition. Our bread-y items were also traditionally made with rice flour, though wheat flour does make the end result a little softer, so many cooks do a combination of the two, and some have switched over to wheat flour entirely. So if you’re travelling in the region and celiac, do be careful and ask what kind of flour they’re using.
    (I know this sounds like I’m saying we have it all, but when it comes to food, we kind of do 🙂 ) 


A Feast of Serendib is available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook forms, both online (it’s an Amazon bestseller in Indian Food, Cooking, and Wine), and in bookstores and libraries throughout North America. We hope it gets picked up worldwide! If your bookstore or library doesn’t have it ordered yet, putting in a request is always a great idea. Try some recipes at her food blog, Serendib Kitchen.

PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY starred review: “Mohanraj (Bodies in Motion), a literature professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, introduces readers to the comforting cuisine of Sri Lanka in this illuminating collection of more than 100 recipes. Waves of immigration from China, England, the Netherlands, and Portugal influenced the unique cuisine of Sri Lanka, Mohanraj writes, as evidenced by such dishes as Chinese rolls (a take on classic egg rolls in the form of stuffed crepes that are breaded and fried); fish cutlets (a culinary cousin of Dutch bitterballen fried croquettes); and English tea sandwiches (filled here with beets, spinach, and carrots). With Sri Lanka’s proximity to India, curry figures heavily, with options for chicken, lamb, cuttlefish, or mackerel. A number of poriyal dishes, consisting of sautéed vegetables with a featured ingredient, such as asparagus or brussels sprouts, showcase a Tamil influence. Throughout, Mohanraj does a superb job of combining easily sourced ingredients with clear, instructive guidance and menu recommendations for all manner of events, including a Royal Feast for over 200 people. This is a terrific survey of an overlooked cuisine.”

Ordering Information

  • 978-1-64543-275-3 Hardcover (distributed by Ingram)
  • 978-1-64543-377-4 ebook (on Amazon, etc.)
  • 2370000696366 (trade paperback; only available directly from me, at Serendib Kitchen site; you can also buy the hardcover or ebook there)

Review or Buy It Here (reviews are hugely helpful in boosting visibility!):

Join the Cookbook Club:

If you’d like to support the development of more mostly Sri Lankan recipes, Mary Anne would love to have you join the cookbook club at Patreon — for $2 / month, you’ll get recipes delivered to your inbox (fairly) regularly. For $10 / month, you can subscribe for fabulous treats mailed to you! (US-only)

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Why Jaggery?

I avoided South Asians for ten years. In part, this was to make life easier for my parents; the Sri Lankan-American community is small, so when I met another Sri Lankan, when they found out what I did, the scandal inevitably got back to my parents, inciting another round of arguments and tears.

In college and the decade that followed, I was dating white boys and later, white girls. By age twenty, I had given up on monogamy, with relief. I wrote erotica and published it on the internet and eventually in print. I went to college campuses and did erotica readings; I gave sex ed talks. I primarily identified in my twenties as a sexuality activist, a sex writer. Sometimes as a queer writer. I wasn’t engaging with South Asian issues in my writing, and it seemed kinder to my parents, and easier for me, to just avoid desis altogether.

When I turned thirty, something changed. I had said most of what I wanted to say about sex; I became interested in the intersection of sexuality and race/ethnicity. And feeling more confident in myself as an adult, as someone who could stand up to perceived cultural pressures, I found I could be a little braver.

I started grad school in creative writing, and after years in which my stories were dominated by white characters (for a long time, I didn’t even notice), I finally started writing a book of immigrant Sri Lankan stories, about people who looked like me. I was living in Salt Lake City, one brown girl in an endless sea of whiteness, and I found myself rather desperately missing my own kind. There was one Indian restaurant in the entire city—certainly no Sri Lankan ones. I dated a woman there who was smart and sweet and sexy, but who couldn’t even eat black pepper, much less anything hotter. Perhaps I should have known that we were doomed.

I had written one story about South Asians at that point—an arranged marriage story, unsurprisingly. I went to a desi panel at AWP, a writing conference, and one of the panelists said, Well, we all have to write our arranged marriage story and get it out of our system. My parents had wanted an arranged marriage for me, had expected it. They couldn’t have possibly envisioned how far from that I would end up. But I couldn’t get completely away from the idea either. In one way or another, almost everything I write circles back around to marriage, arranged or otherwise.

I’m not actually married myself, though I did, in the end, mostly settle down. My partner, Kevin, is white; he and I have two children. They have an Uncle Jed, my other sweetie, who lives several states away, and visits when he can. Kevin and I have had an open relationship for more than twenty years; we have been involved with a variety of men and women in that time. There is, obviously, material enough here for several novels. If I wanted to, I could avoid writing about race, ethnicity, nationality entirely.

And yet, I can’t seem to get away from those topics. They are intertwined in my life, and as a result, in my work. When I try to write a fantasy novel, it ends up based in ancient Sri Lanka, in the midst of a conflict between warring ethnic groups. My heroine may be from Chicago, but she’s drawn into a world that looks a lot like the one in which my great-great-grandparents grew up. When I write science fiction, the book that starts as a fun futuristic romp turns into a tale of war and the alien, community and the question of how we navigate the differences between our varied identities. The longer I write, more inescapable my nationality and ethnicity become. The thirty-year war in my homeland permeates my thoughts on an almost daily basis, even though it ended years ago. Sex writer or queer writer has stopped being a sufficient definition; I can’t contain my writing within those definitions.

The publishing world often tries to put its writers into boxes: easily-marketable boxes. You can’t really blame them, in some sense—it’s much easier to create a shelf in the bookstore, label it ‘ethnic literature’ and then put all the ‘ethnic’ writers there than it would be to market each complex writer individually. The big publishers want a young desi woman to write an arranged marriage novel because they know where the market is for those books. There’s a reason they keep putting red saris on our book covers; they know what sells.

You could, perhaps, argue that creating a magazine like Jaggery is creating just another box. We are saying to the world, Here is some fine writing by and about South Asia and its diaspora. We could put a red sari on our home page. But we won’t, because we plan to give you far more than the stereotypical arranged marriage story, that Orientalist tale of the desi woman who flees the constricted life available to her in the East for the freedom of true love and marriage to a liberated white man in the West.

Of course, that is one of our stories, even an important story in desi diasporic history—I don’t mean to discount it. But it is not our only story. We also have stories of South Asians relating to other South Asians, for example. Or to other people of color. There are South Asian stories that aren’t about love, or sex, or marriage, stories of family, or community, or career. There is war, and other kinds of cultural conflict. There is war with the self, or with God. We are more than a single allowable story; as writers, we claim the right to write all the stories.

With this space for South Asian and diasporic writing, we hope to offer you more than a single thread of our story; we hope to offer you the entire tapestry, the story-threads that shuttle through the years and miles, weaving tales full of pain and confusion and glory. By focusing this space on a particular group of writers, with a specific regional and cultural emphasis, we hope to serve a dual purpose. Firstly, to foster desi writing that might otherwise have a hard time making its way in the larger, still-white-dominated literary world. And secondly, perhaps more importantly, to let us talk to one another, so that we may read each other’s words, absorb each other’s art, and let it expand our idea of what it means to be South Asian, to be desi.

We are so much more than the literary world has seen.

Watch this space.

mohanrajMary Anne Mohanraj wrote Bodies in Motion (a finalist for the Asian American Book Awards and translated into six languages) and nine other titles. Mohanraj received a Breaking Barriers Award from the Chicago Foundation for Women for her work in Asian American arts organizing, and has also won an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship. Mohanraj is Clinical Assistant Professor of English and Associate Director of Asian and Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She serves as Executive Director of DesiLit. Mohanraj’s newest book is The Stars Change, November 2013 from Circlet Press, a science fiction novella of South Asian-settled university planet, on the brink of the first interstellar war.