As I settled in for a conversation with Oak Park resident and Sri Lankan cook book author, Mary Anne Mohanraj, she began scouring her refrigerator for the makings of a little lunch.
“I don’t think of myself as a cook,” says Mohanraj as she presents chili eggs, bright yellow ginger-garlic chicken, shredded beets cooked in coconut milk, carrot and green bean curry spiked with whole mustard seeds, an eggplant and potato poriyal, and a Sri Lankan spiced coconut custard called vattalappam.
Not a cook? All evidence in Mohanraj’s cheery kitchen suggested the contrary; needless to say, my curiosity was piqued.
As we assembled our plates and savored our lunch of sophisticated flavors, I learned Mohanraj was just two years old her family immigrated from Sri Lanka to the the United States. After settling on the east coast Mohanraj’s mother used to throw huge parties with her Sri Lankan friends in the area. Hundreds of people would attend the food-focused events designed to celebrate, cook and connect within their shared community.
“Like a lot of immigrant families we had a a hard time finding Sri Lankan food in Connecticut in the 1970’s, but my mom adapted her recipes to the ingredients she had available and the parties kept our food traditions alive.”
While her mother was an adept cook, ironically she never taught her daughter how to make the dishes that graced her childhood table. Mohanraj was allowed to cut and saute onions, the foundation of Sri Lankan cuisine, but the lessons stopped there. After entering The University of Chicago as an undergraduate student, Mohanraj realized quickly she could not subsist on dorm food and phoned her mother in hopes of getting her hands on her favorite beef curry recipe.
“I made that beef curry over and over again;” says Mohanraj, “slowly learning how to make it better and better.”
In fact the self-taught, if not slightly distractible, cook once forgot about a pot of rice in her communal dorm room kitchen. One smoke-filled dormitory evacuation later, Mohanraj learned to keep focused on her cooking projects.
“They evacuated more than 600 people from that dorm;” chuckles Mohanraj, “Thank goodness they didn’t fine me; I never could have afforded to pay!”
Today Mohanraj holds a PhD in English and creative writing, and spent several years writing fiction before her passion for cooking the Sri Lankan dishes of her childhood became a full-time passion–and let me be clear this hard-working woman has approximately four full time passions in my estimation. One beef curry at a time, Mohanraj developed an interest in creating a simple Sri Lankan cookbook based on her mother’s recipes. Mohanraj found a teeny tiny publishing house interested in producing the book and A Taste of Serendib soon followed.
More than fifteen years ago, as Mohanraj was developing her first cookbook, she sidled up to her mother in the kitchen and soon discovered she didn’t cook with recipes, but relied on instinct more than measurements to bring her dishes to life. Instructions like “just watch, “add some,” and “it needs a little bit” forced Mohanraj to intercept a handful of spices for measuring before her mother tossed them in the pot.
“My mom kept pointing out all the things that I had gotten wrong in the first book after it came out,” laughs Mohanraj, “I almost wanted to publish a corrected version with all of her thoughts in red ink.”
As she was exposed to her mother’s cooking methods and went through the long process of learning her recipes, Mohanraj’s culinary repertory evolved and her recipe arsenal morphed into a Sri Lankan food blog. As interest in her blog continued to grow Mohanraj began researching Sri Lankan cuisine and developing recipes in a more detailed way and building an authentic Sri Lankan pantry thanks to the influx of more readily available traditional spices and specialty in the United States.
As I savored my nutmeg flecked flan it clicked; Mohanraj views herself as a researcher more than a cook. In fact, she refers to her new approach to cooking as a “rediscovery” of favorite Sri Lankan dishes.
As she added detailed recipes utilizing specialized ingredients over the years, friends and readers began asking if she would consider creating a follow up cookbook to A Taste of Serendib. As a result of this high-demand Mohanraj is independently publishing A Feast of Serendib containing and features 106 Sri Lankan recipes and pen and ink drawings created by Sri Lankan artists.
While the book is filled with recipes her mother would have made, Mohanraj’s research driven approach to recipe development makes Feast a reliable introduction to Sri Lankan cooking for adventurous home-cooks and a sound resource for Sri Lankan families hoping to reclaim their culinary traditions at home.
The book will be produced in e-book, trade paperback and hardcover A Kickstarter, designed to offset production costs and offering discounted pre-orders launched April 1. Mohanraj’s friends and fans fully funded her Kickstarter goal in less than 24 hours, but special pre-order offers are available through April 30th and she has created some stretch goals for supporters of her passion project.
Whether Mohanraj is more a researcher or a cook doesn’t much matter to me. I left our refrigerator-raid inspired lunch with a full belly and new-found desire to explore a Sri Lankan cuisine in my own kitchen. Mary Anne Mohanraj is the real deal and I am betting A Feast of Serendib will be a gorgeous refection of her connection to the Sri Lankan dishes she brings to life for herself, her family, her friends and even a near stranger who shows up in her kitchen.
Mary Anne Mohnaraj’s Master Recipe: Sri Lankan Curry Powder
One of the main characteristics of Sri Lankan cooking is that the spices are dark roasted. You cannot simply substitute yellow curry powder! Mohanraj stresses the importance of toasting the spices in separate batches; it may be time consuming, but makes all the difference.
- 1 Cup coriander seeds
- 1/2 Cup cumin seeds
- 1 Tablespoon fennel seeds
- 1 rounded teaspoon fenugreek seeds (aka methi seeds)
- 1 cinnamon stick, about 2 inches
- 1 rounded teaspoon whole cloves
- 1 rounded teaspoon cardamom seeds
- 2 Tablespoon dried curry leaves
- 2 rounded teaspoons red chili powder
1. In a dry pan over medium heat, roast separately the coriander, cumin, fennel and fenugreek, stirring constantly until each one becomes a fairly dark brown. Do not attempt to save time by roasting them together – they each have different cooking times and you will only end up half-cooking some and burning others.
2. Put into blender container (I use a coffee grinder that is dedicated solely to spice grinding) together with cinnamon stick broken in pieces, the cloves, cardamom and curry leaves.3. Blend at high speed until finely powdered. Sieve into a bowl, discarding any large pieces, and combine with chili powder; stir well. Store in airtight jar.