There are certain cuisines that are exported from their origin so rarely that encountering anything resembling them is an event. When what you’re eating in an obscure, entirely neglectable strip mall in Tarzana is as rare as it is in a 2,000-mile radius, you can’t help but think you’ve stumbled upon something truly awesome.
That something is Apey Kade. The restaurant – with its Muslim clientele, generic plastic chairs and extensive Sri Lankan menu – could have been picked up in Colombo and set down in the San Fernando Valley, and hardly anyone would notice. Certainly not L.A.’s army of food bloggers, who have long since decided the Valley is some sort of culinary wasteland, redeemable only for its admittedly decent sushi. Driving down Ventura Boulevard only reinforces the notion – it seems like the kind of place you’d pass through to escape 405 traffic rather than browse for spicy fish curries.
That the restaurant in some form has survived nearly 20 years – first as Curry Bowl, now Apey Kade - is impressive, but it’s not because it has developed any sort of neighborhood camaraderie. The people who eat here seem to be the kind of people who eat only here. The restaurant’s most profitable season is Ramadan, the one month of the year when hungry Muslims looking to break their fast need so much food catered that Lalith Rodrigo, Apey Kade’s owner and chef, will, for all practical purposes, shut down his restaurant to the non-fasting public.
The rest of the time, there’s food here that’s found only in Sri Lanka and Southern India. This is the food of the Tamils, a major ethnic group in Southern India and the descendants of the same Ceylon Tamils who first migrated to the island. There will be some things you may be familiar with: dosas, while not a major Sri Lankan staple, are still occasionally found around the country; curries and rice are still the focal point of most meals. But there are also foods in Sri Lanka that seem as if they were crafted by a mad scientist, maybe some Ferran Adrià equivalent, who decided to reinvent Indian peasant food.
That would explain the existence of string hoppers, the tiny bird’s nests of vermicelli that you’re told to eat with your curries. String hoppers resemble Vietnamese banh hoi, but here they’re a fundamental rice replacement. There’s also egg hoppers — known as appam in Southern India — which are an entirely different species of food: rice-batter crepes, shaped like a bowl, with an egg dropped inside to fry on one side. In Sri Lanka, egg hoppers are a common breakfast food, but it would be less surprising to encounter them for the first time in, say, Belgium.
For those who are fond of Southeast Asian cuisine, you’ll be happy to discover that roti exists here. The most common roti dish in the country is kottu roti, where the bread, stretched out to the length of Kevin Durant’s arm, is slammed repeatedly with a butcher's knife until the pieces resemble short, fat noodles. The bread is then mixed with vegetables and meat. It's said that if you're hungry in Sri Lanka, you should listen for the telling smack, smack, smack sound that is almost certainly someone making kottu.
Curries take the center stage for most meals, sometimes alongside string hoppers, often simply served with rice, nearly always offered with light Sri Lankan papadum crackers. Sri Lankan curries are uniquely Sri Lankan. They employ coconut milk, which means they’re different from the murgh kari found in Northern India, but they’re not at all like the Thai or Malaysian curries you're probably familiar with. More fishy than fragrant, more funky than elegant, they are not necessarily the world's most attractive curry, but they are delicious regardless.
All the foods described above are what you would encounter at a standard Sri Lankan diner, a place locals go to grab a casual breakfast or lunch. What makes Apey Kade particularly interesting is that the Rodrigo family can also bake. Sri Lankan bakeries are interesting things, simultaneously casual, like a Cuban bakery, but also obviously Asian, sort of in the mold of a Burmese tea house. Some items could as soon be a Cuban croqueta or Burmese samosa, but the spices are uniquely Sri Lankan. At Apey Kade, there are three themed shelves: chicken, fish and vegetarian, with each section having its own empanada or pastelito equivalent.
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Any discussion of Sri Lanka should probably mention that the country just recently escaped a gruesome, horrific civil war. It is, after all, the main reason that we are not more familiar with Sri Lankan curries, kottu roti, and string hoppers. It is also worth mentioning, though, that the country remains astoundingly beautiful, a place where you can encounter herds of elephants on any random road or stumble upon a leopard or two in the mountains and, a mere 3 hour drive later, search for blue whales a half hour off the beach. It is also a place where there is an enviable food culture, and where, despite considerable trauma, people are beginning to relearn to love what they eat.