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Asian Lanka: Finding Sri Lanka's Culinary Identity

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Tue, Apr 17, 2012 at 3:23 PM

click to enlarge Kottu roti at Asian Lanka - EDDIE LIN
  • Eddie Lin
  • Kottu roti at Asian Lanka
Taric, a Sri Lankan immigrant and a regular at Asian Lanka Restaurant in Reseda, is one of those gregarious strangers who can trigger hunger pangs when he speaks to you about food while you wait in line to order. Ingredients and cooking methods leap off his tongue. Even if you're uninterested in the type of food he's explaining, your Pavlovian slobbering starts. The Sri Lankan lump rice he discusses in such high-definition, food-porn detail is now something you must eat, well, simply because you can practically taste it.

According to Taric, the lump rice is a mound of steamy, supershort-grain Suduru Samba rice that has been baked within a sweaty, fragrant banana leaf for about a half-hour along with hunks of beef, chicken, a slice of fried eggplant, tamarind seasoning and crunchy cutlets filled with meat, coated in a mealy, coarse crust like munchable, medium-grit sandpaper. Toss in a deep-fried egg and you have yourself a portable South Asian banquet.

Although lump rice now is known as a Sri Lankan delicacy, this handy meal was originally an attempt at Sri Lankan cooking by the Dutch Burghers, former colonialists of the country. The truth is many of the items at Asian Lanka may remind you of dishes from other cuisines. Like Sri Lanka itself, the food culture is a product of the surrounding cultures. Chinese rolls are thick-skinned egg rolls filled with different meats. There are vegetable samosas encasing curry potato and peas. The popular Friday-night buffet offers a coconut gravy that is suitable for drenching rice; it's a couple of key ingredients shy of the Thai chicken coconut soup Tom Kha Gai. Iran can lay claim to biryani, a highly seasoned chicken-and-rice plate cooked slowly in a pot.

click to enlarge Pittu at Asian Lanka - EDDIE LIN
  • Eddie Lin
  • Pittu at Asian Lanka
However, a few curious delights unique to Sri Lanka can be found at Asian Lanka. A versatile rice flour roll called pittu, traditionally steamed in a hollow bamboo, is enjoyed by breaking up the handsomely molded starch cylinders into small mounds and then dribbling coconut milk on it. If you're in a savory-spicy mood, add a dollop of the lunumuris pepper paste. But if it's sweet you're craving, sprinkle on the sugar.

No alcohol is served at Asian Lanka. Booze most likely wouldn't pair very well with the halal-certified meat (at least, not in any sacrosanct way). Ironically, kottu roti, which is on the menu, is considered by imbibing Sri Lankans to be very good hangover grub; like a greasy late-night breakfast, there is something revitalizing about chopped roti flatbread fried with vegetables and bits of meat.

In the country of Sri Lanka, at certain hot spots where the young and inebriated flock, you can be sure to hear the siren song of blunt kottu roti blades, from behind rows of food stalls, the rhythmic chopping of onions, carrots, leeks; the frying of egg, fish and strips of roti on a sizzling flat-top griddle, like a culinary drum line. It's the Sri Lankan take on a stir-fry, sort of like a chow fun but less oily.

A concave, crusty crepe known as a hopper is wildly popular at Asian Lanka. Everyone seemed to be either eating one or recommending that I eat one. A batter of rice flour and coconut milk is spread onto a special cooking surface that resembles a mini wok. Once it's firm at the center and slightly crispy on the edges, the bowl-shaped hopper is ready to eat. An egg hopper is a hopper with a steamed egg at its center. String hoppers look like skinny, springy rice noodles. They all serve the same purpose -- to deliver curry or sambal to your mouth.

Tripe curry and string hoppers go especially well together. The gently sweet carbs take the edge off of the spicy, dark, boggy curry that burns so good. The offal's chewiness, combined with the string hoppers' elasticity, results in something truly Sri Lankan. And that, in this day and age, is a special thing.

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