Sri Lankan Cooking Class

Sri Lankan red lentils

A few months ago, I was reading “Mom Mail,” the beloved Oak Park list-serve for parents, when I saw a post about a Sri Lankan cooking class offered by an Oak Park mom. I was instantly intrigued and asked my fellow foodie mom, Chef Druck, if she wanted to attend the class with me. Not surprisingly, she was game. Sadly, that class had already filled up by the time we got around to reserving our spots. But luckily, the instructor, Mary Anne Mohanraj — who is an English professor and author, in addition to being a mom and a great cook — was willing to offer the class again. And she was even willing to accommodate my severe shellfish allergy.

Our Sri Lankan cooking class met last Sunday and it was both fun and extremely informative. I love Indian food, but of course “Indian food” is an enormous category, as befitting one of the world’s largest nations. And Sri Lanka, as an island off the cost of India with its own unique history, has its own unique cuisine. Anyone who is familiar with Indian food will recognize some elements of Sri Lankan cooking, such as the use of ghee (or clarified butter) and coconut milk, but you will also be surprised by some of the distinct elements of Sri Lankan cuisine.

Mary Anne explained to us that Sri Lanka was colonized by the Dutch and the Portuguese and that both cultures left their marks on the island’s cuisine. She also explained that many of the island’s inhabitants had converted to Christianity along the way, so that Sri Lankan cuisine was not vegetarian and even uses beef. (In India, many people are Hindu and Hindus do not eat beef for religious reasons.)

Sri Lankan cooking is quite spicy for Americanized palates and uses lots of unusual spices, including turmeric, fenugreek, black mustard seeds, cumin seeds and a different type of curry powder than is used northern Indian cuisine.  One of the highlights of the class was passing around Mary Anne’s brightly colored jars of spices and inhaling the heady fragrances. For more about cooking with new and exotic spices, be sure to read Chef Druck”s account of our cooking class.

Mary Anne’s class was very hands-on and everyone got a chance to chop onion — lots of onion! — smell spices, and stir the pots. And of course, at the end of the three hours, the 8 students and Mary Anne sat down to quite a feast! Our menu was:

  • Fried Eggplant Sambol
  • Salmon Curry
  • Curried Beets
  • Red Lentils, Sri Lankan style
  • Lemon-marsala mushrooms
  • Tropical Fruit Salad

Fried eggplant sambol with onions

The salmon curry was my favorite, especially with a dollop of refreshing yogurt on top. I was so inspired by the delicious meal that the very next day, I made my own Sri Lankan inspired menu. I had defrosted some beef stew meat that morning intending to make a typical beef bourguignon for my mom, who was arriving from out of town. (I really recommend the beef stew meat sold by Gepperth’s Meat Market, which is available from Artizone.com, as the most tender and flavorful that I’ve found.) But it was so warm last Monday that I couldn”t bear the thought of that heavy meal. So I adapted Mary Anne’s salmon curry recipe to make a beef curry using the ingredients I had. (Sadly, I only had the yellow North Indian curry powder, not the Sri Lankan curry powder that Mary Anne recommends.) I also adapted Mary Anne’s curried beets recipe to carrots, which is what I had in the house. Mary Anne had helpfully told us that the beet curry recipe was very adaptable to other vegetables.  With rice on the side, my own version of a Sri Lankan meal was delicious and my mother was quite impressed.

Curried Carrots
Adapted from Mary Anne Mohanraj

1 yellow onion, sliced
3 TB vegetable oil
1/4 tsp. brown or black mustard seed*
1/4 tsp. cumin seed
1 bunch carrots with their tops on, peeled and cut into a julienne
1 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. salt
1 chile pepper, sliced (I used a jalapeño because that is what I had on hand)

 Heat oil in a large, deep skillet and add mustard and cumin seeds. Toast seeds for a minute or two until fragrant. Add onion and saute over low heat until softened and translucent. Add turmeric, carrots and chile pepper. Toss to coat with oil. Cover vegetables with enough water so that they don”t burn. Start with 1/2 cup. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring frequently until carrots are tender. Remove cover and continue to cook over low heat until water has evaporated but watch so that the vegetables don”t burn. Serve.

*So Mary Anne recommends black mustard seeds, but I could only find brown mustard seeds at my spice store.

If you are in the Oak Park area, be sure to check out Mary Anne’s website for information on future classes. And if you are not in the area, you can always order Mary Anne’s cookbook. Mary Anne also recommends the Complete Asian Cookbook by Charmaine Solomon. For spices, Mary Anne recommends Penzey”s or Indian grocery stores, like A-1 Indian Grocers in Westmont, IL. The Sri Lankan curry powder that I sadly did not have is callled Jaffna.