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Learning 'Sri Lankan Home Cooking' A Family Affair

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Learning 'Sri Lankan Home Cooking' A Family Affair

Food

Learning 'Sri Lankan Home Cooking' A Family Affair

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:

As part of our books we missed series, we're looking at a cuisine not well-known in the United States: Sri Lankan cooking. Hip-hop journalist and filmmaker S.H. "Skiz" Fernando Jr. spent a year in Sri Lanka learning his family's favorite recipes and facing his toughest critics, his four Sri Lankan aunts. After returning to the United States, he compiled the recipes for an American palate in the cookbook "Rice & Curry: Sri Lankan Home Cooking."

So we want to hear from you. How do you modify your family's recipes for an American kitchen? Call us at 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website, go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. "Skiz" Fernando Jr. is here in Studio 3A. Welcome.

S.H. FERNANDO JR.: Hi.

LUDDEN: So I understand you're the only one in your family born in the U.S...

JR.: Correct, correct.

LUDDEN: ...but you didn't fully appreciate your mom's cooking until you go off to college. What happened?

JR.: Isn't that the usual case?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JR.: Well, you know, as you said, Jennifer, I was born in the U.S. and raised here as well. My mother used to make Sri Lankan food, maybe once or twice a week, for us, and I remember as a little kid I always used to kind of fuss. But, you know, once you go away to college and you're basically just eating institutional food, you know, you long for that taste of home.

LUDDEN: Suddenly, it's pretty good.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JR.: Exactly. So that was my first spark of interest in, you know, getting back in touch with my, you know, home culture, and obviously the food is a big part of that.

LUDDEN: And you eventually decided that you wanted to learn so much you needed to go to Sri Lanka.

JR.: Well, you've got to go to the source, you know? What's - that's the best place to learn about, you know, the cuisine. And also, there's - it's much more than just the food. You know, there's a whole ritual - the shopping and buying ingredients. And you have to know what all the spices do. You know, they're very - there are also practical applications, you know, for the spices and the whole ayurvedic system of medicine so...

LUDDEN: Oh, really. So beyond...

JR.: It's actually...

LUDDEN: ...beyond eating, you mean?

JR.: Oh, yeah, yeah. I mean, it's a real science, you know, Sri Lankan cuisine.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: So if you're feeling tired, your mom would cook this with the chicken curry and...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JR.: Oh, yeah, yeah. There's - well, not - maybe not like that. But there are certain species that you can, you know, you can make a tea out of or something like that, or you know? Everything has its own - everything has a distinct use.

LUDDEN: All right. We already have a call in the line. Let's hear from Randy in Tallahassee, Florida. Hi there.

RANDY: Hi. I just wanted to say I just came back from three weeks in Sri Lanka, and it's an incredible country. And we took cooking lessons while we were there. And the thing that I thought was absolutely the most outstanding thing I've ever eaten, is pineapple curry, and I'm wondering if you know about it.

JR.: Oh, yeah. In fact, the recipe is in my book for pineapple curry. It's interesting that you brought that up, because that's actually one of the more obscure dishes because you wouldn't think that a sweet fruit would make a tasty curry, but actually, it does because, you know, you've got the sweet-spicy thing going on. And, you know, I also have a recipe for mango curry in my book, too.

LUDDEN: Ooh.

JR.: Yeah.

LUDDEN: Oh, yum. So, Randy, what other surprises did you find in Sri Lanka?

RANDY: Well, the country itself is so beautiful, and the people are so nice. But, yeah, as far as food goes, I love coriander tea. That was another thing that surprised me.

LUDDEN: Coriander tea?

JR.: Yup.

LUDDEN: Huh?

JR.: There you go.

RANDY: And a fruit that I've never heard of before, called ambarella, which was wonderful.

JR.: Wow. You - was that your first time in Sri Lanka?

RANDY: Yes, it was.

JR.: Excellent. And you had a great time, I'm sure.

RANDY: I did.

LUDDEN: All right. Randy, thanks for the call.

RANDY: You're welcome.

LUDDEN: So we want to hear how you modify your family's recipes for an American kitchen. Call us at 800-989-8255 or email us, talk@npr.org. "Skiz," is that why they call you "Skiz?" Yeah?

JR.: Mm-hmm.

LUDDEN: What was that spice she - the fruit she talked about?

JR.: Ambarella, it's - I don't think there is an analog to it in the West. I think it's pretty much only found in Sri Lanka. It's kind of a sour fruit, and you can eat it raw. They make a lot of chutneys out of it. And it's also one of those fruits that are used in ayurveda. I take - I have a supplement that I take every day for - just for good digestion, and it's got ambarella in it - so...

LUDDEN: Ambarella.

JR.: Yeah.

LUDDEN: OK. So here in the realm of there-is-no-stupid question, can I ask you what is the difference between Sri Lankan and Indian food?

JR.: OK. That's a question I get a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JR.: Seeing that we're dealing with curries here, but no two curries are the same. If you notice, every Asian country, even Japan, has their own version of curry. And, actually, when you get back to the etymology of the whole thing, curry is, in fact, a British creation - curry powder, yeah. Now, the Sri Lankan curries are usually very spicy. That's kind of - it's the signature of Sri Lankan food in general. It's very spicy. And we use two different kinds of curry powder.

We use a roasted curry powder, which has 13 different spices which are individually roasted before they're ground and blended together. And then we have a raw curry powder, which has three different ingredients: coriander, cumin and fennel. And those seeds are just ground raw. They're not roasted. And the unroasted powder is used for vegetable curries, and the raw powder - I'm sorry, the roasted powder is used for meat and fish curries. And as you can see, I brought you a couple of bottles. I'm...

LUDDEN: No, are these your own. You've actually decided to - you've created your own line of spices.

JR.: Correct, yeah. I have my own little brand. It's called Skiz's Original. I have Sri Lankan roasted curry powder and Sri Lankan raw curry powder. And this was just, you know, because a lot of the dishes in my book either use either of these two blends, I figure this will be a little time saver for people. So...

LUDDEN: So if they can't find it at the their local Whole Foods or whatever the case may be.

JR.: Exactly. And, you know, Sri Lankan curry powder is very specific. I don't know any other curry powder that uses 13 different ingredients that are all roasted together, you know, before they're ground. So it's a very complex, and it's a lot of different levels of flavor there too.

LUDDEN: All right. Let's get another call in. Beihji(ph) is in Orlando, Florida. Hi there.

BEIHJI: Hi. How are you?

LUDDEN: Good. Go right ahead.

BEIHJI: I just wanted to call and say it is so wonderful to hear Skiz's voice. Skiz, we performed together in Nantes, France, over a decade ago.

JR.: Wow.

LUDDEN: This is in Skiz's other life as a hip-hop performing artist.

BEIHJI: Yes. Yes. And it's just wonderful to hear that you've come full circle into the cooking world. I'm a performance artist myself and actually have been finding a lot of joy and solace in the kitchen with recipes from my own family history. So...

LUDDEN: And what history is that?

BEIHJI: ...it's nice to see how circles collide.

JR.: Excellent.

LUDDEN: What's your family...

BEIHJI: My family background is Trinidadian.

LUDDEN: OK. So what - have you had to tweak some of those recipes when you make them in the U.S.?

BEIHJI: Yeah, and actually a lot of our recipes in Trinidad overlap with Southeast Asia, because we have a large Indian diaspora in Trinidad. So many of the recipes are similar with the curries. And I actually also have a pineapple curry recipe, so - but again, Skiz, I mean, just delightful to hear the work that you're doing and really happy to be able to go out and get that book.

JR.: Hey, great. Thanks for calling in. And I love Trini food, by the way. I love all Caribbean food - Jamaican, Trini. I love the habanero peppers, which are - which used to be spiciest peppers in the world. Now, there's - now I'm hearing about the ghost chili out of Assam, India, which is supposed to be like a million Scoville units. But I've yet to try, I guess.

LUDDEN: I hear a cooking show contest here, hottest wherever. Beihji, thanks so much for calling.

BEIHJI: Thank you. Have a great day.

LUDDEN: We have an email from Karen Winegar, who says: I love Sri Lankan food. It's aromatic, healthy, sensuous, complex. She's the author of "Fire and Spice: The Cuisine of Sri Lanka. And she says she doesn't measure. She sort of does it by feel. Is that what you do, Skiz?

JR.: I think most cooks, in general, you know, kind of dispense with the measurements. Definitely, Sri Lankan cooks – it's just like a pinch of this and a, you know, handful of that. That was the, actually, the biggest challenge in converting these recipes into something that Americans could actually use, because, you know, when I was watching my aunts cook and I - when I was watching Lila(ph), who's one of my aunts' cooks, cook, you know, it's just - there's no measurements at all. So that was the biggest challenge in putting together this book of recipes.

LUDDEN: Tell me more about your aunts there. They were sort of - they were your - the measure - the standard you had to reach, right?

JR.: Yeah, that was...

LUDDEN: They were your taste testers?

JR.: Exactly. Led by my oldest aunt, Auntie Dora, who just turned 85. I was just in Sri Lanka a couple of weeks ago to help celebrate her birthday. I also have Auntie Padma, Auntie Lalita(ph) , excuse me, Auntie Naleni(ph) - all of them definitely contributed to the book, you know, if not by giving recipes and by giving me tips about how to make something or, you know, it's a really family style cookbook, because all of these... And that's why the book is also called "Sri Lankan Home Cooking" because all of these food is very folksy food that is really meant to be prepared in the home by American people.

LUDDEN: Sri Lankan comfort food. All right.

JR.: Exactly.

LUDDEN: We have an email from Keith Stansfield(ph) in Ogden, Utah. He says: While on deployment in Iraq, an Iraqi family introduced me to mango curry. Fortunately, a local Indian restaurant will make mango curry for me, but I look forward to your book so I can make my own. Let's take another call. Elizabeth in Quicksburg, Pennsylvania.

ELIZABETH: Quicksburg, Virginia.

LUDDEN: I'm sorry, Virginia. Hi there.

ELIZABETH: Hi. I lived a lot all over Southeast Asia, and I really miss laksa.

LUDDEN: OK.

ELIZABETH: Do you have a recipe in the book?

JR.: You know, that's more of a Malaysian dish. Laksa is actually like a - it's almost like a soup. It's like a curry soup with noodles, and it's got shrimp in it. I love to make it myself. But we don't have anything similar in Sri Lanka. We're not big on soups there really.

ELIZABETH: I was hoping - it's hard to get laksa paste in the U.S. That's all.

JR.: Right because it's made with the dried shrimp. That's a very special ingredient. But I'm sure if you - if you're able to go to an Asian store, I'm sure they might have it, because I know Asian stores in New York have that ingredient.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, Elizabeth, good luck with that.

ELIZABETH: Thanks.

LUDDEN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go to another call on the line. Kelly in Centennial, Wyoming.

KELLY: Hey. I just wanted to mention that I don't - is there much kaffir lime leaves used in Sri Lankan cooking?

JR.: Not at all.

KELLY: Oh. Well, I was going to say that if there was, you cannot find those in these parts of the world. And I always substitute lime peel and it works pretty good.

JR.: OK.

LUDDEN: Hmm. And what are you making that you use those in?

KELLY: Oh, I do, you know, like some Southeast Asian cuisine and whatnot, soups and stews.

JR.: You know what, I've actually gotten kaffir lime leaves at Whole Foods, believe it or not.

KELLY: Well, yeah, that's still a good couple hour drive from where we're at.

JR.: Oh, OK. But one leaf that we do use a lot in Sri Lankan cooking is the curry leaf. We use fresh curry leaves in almost every dish. And to me, that's like the signature flavor of Sri Lankan food. So if you happen to get my book and you want to make these dishes, you got to get that ingredient, fresh curry leaf.

KELLY: And you can buy that at Whole Foods?

JR.: You can get that at Whole Foods and you can get that - if you have an Indian store in your community, they'll definitely have it as well.

LUDDEN: And what about if not?

JR.: If not, in the back of the book, there's a couple websites that I give - I think one of them is LankanDelight, where you can order all of this stuff directly from them and they'll ship it anywhere in the U.S.

LUDDEN: All right. Kelly, does that help?

KELLY: That helps. Thank you very much.

JR.: Sure.

LUDDEN: Thank you.

KELLY: Bye-bye.

LUDDEN: Bye-bye. There's an email from Richard in Florida: There was a marvelous restaurant in Minneapolis when I was working there, some 15-plus years ago called the Sri Lankan Curry House. The food was magnificent, but you needed to be able to tolerate, if not enjoy, spicy food. There was no mild on the menu. I hear it since closed and I am sad to hear that. I miss it.

JR.: Oh, t's too bad.

LUDDEN: Have you – "Skiz," have you had a biggest disaster or tried to substitute something and it just didn't work?

JR.: You know, when I first started cooking, you know, I can eat very spicy food myself, so it's kind of difficult when I first started cooking to make curry for other people because I would spice it to a level that I could take it. And I've definitely almost killed a couple friends along the way. So, you know, you live and learn. You learn by experiment that you're doing. Now...

LUDDEN: You couldn't taste the rest of the meal that you (unintelligible)...

JR.: Exactly. People - no, I'm talking about people who have passed out. So, you know, obviously now I've learned to strike a happy medium.

LUDDEN: All right. Let's get another call in here. Trevor in Golden, Colorado. Hi there.

TREVOR: Hi. I just wanted to call and say that this subject is really close to my heart. I actually finished my master's project on Sri Lankan tourism. And I talked about how food is really important to promote it here. And I wanted to say I came from - I visited the central mountain region of the Kandy area, and this seems like that central mountain region where all of those spices come from. It's like - it's got whole different aroma to the countryside than, say, you get at the beach. And I was wondering if, you know, a lot of the spices looks like the most unique thing out of that region that is really hard, that you can't really get here at all.

JR.: Yeah, that's definitely true. The central highlands, which the caller is talking about, is also really where all the tea is grown. You know, Sri Lanka has been known for years for tea. It's still - in fact, it's still called Ceylon tea. Ceylon is the old name, you know, that the British had for the island, when it was in British colony. But in addition to tea, practically every spice you can think of is grown up there: black pepper, cloves, cardamom, I mean, you name it. And, you know, for such a tiny island to produce so many - such a varied amount of spices is also incredible, in my opinion.

TREVOR: It is. It's illogical to hear, like, the actual Ceylon cinnamon in the United States. And will that is come here, or...

JR.: Oh, yeah. You can definitely get that. Once again, if you'd go to an Indian - if you have an Indian store in your community, they'll probably - the cinnamon that they have will probably be Ceylon cinnamon. And I'm sure Whole Foods would also have it. But, yes, cinnamon has been one of our big crops, you know, from antiquity. Sri Lanka used to trade cinnamon with the Egyptians in, like, 2,000 B.C.

LUDDEN: Wow.

JR.: So...

TREVOR: Yeah.

LUDDEN: That's great. Trevor, thanks for the call.

TREVOR: Thank you.

LUDDEN: And we've got an email tip from Gonzalo. He says: dried shrimp are readily available in most supermarkets in Mexico. Try going to some Latin American grocery stores for this. We're almost out of time, but any quick tip or hint of a favorite recipe we can send people to our website?

JR.: Well, unfortunately, they didn't bring it out for you, Jennifer, but I made some chicken curry. So...

LUDDEN: I may not be able to seek the recipe out if I had to. It's spicy.

JR.: No, no, I didn't make it too spicy for you. But also, just let me mention that my cookbook, "Rice & Curry: Sri Lankan Home Cooking" is the only one with customer service, OK? My email is curryfiend@gmail.com. And if you have any questions about the recipes, drop me a line there.

LUDDEN: S.H. "Skiz" Fernando Jr., author of the cookbook "Rice & Curry: Sri Lankan Home Cooking," thanks so much.

JR.: Thank you.

LUDDEN: You can find his recipe for chicken curry at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY looks back at the science stories that made headlines in 2011. And Monday, 2012, Neal Conan will be back. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington.

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