Cookbook Review: 'A Feast of Serendib: Recipes From Sri Lanka' by Mary Anne Mohanraj
I have found myself with an insatiable appetite lately for curry. Not the bright, sunflower-hued, coriander-infused Indian varietals I often concoct, but earthy, savory, clay-colored types; rich with cumin and fennel and fenugreek; laden with onions and garlic. I’ve been dousing everything in my kitchen with the Sri Lankan curry powder blend from my number-one spice squeeze, World Spice Merchants, and consuming coconut milk at an alarming rate.
Because the Universe provides to all who believe, these desires were met with a delightful opportunity. I was given the chance to advance-review the new cookbook by author, academic and food blogger Mary Anne Mohanraj: “A Feast of Serendib: Recipes From Sri Lanka.”
The soon-to-be-released book will be self-published: funded through a Kickstarter campaign (which is running for a few more weeks), to include both paperback and hardcover versions. It will feature full-color photos and even pen-and-ink sketches from Sri Lankan artists. Stretch goals for the Kickstarter campaign include funding for process videos, as well as a digital gluten-free cookbook — which I personally would love to see come to fruition! (A digital edition of her vegan cookbook, “Vegan Serendib,” is currently available on Amazon.)
Mary Anne’s book was exactly what my energy needed right now, and I've spent the past several nights bringing to life page after page of the book’s soul-soothing sensory delights. Many of the recipes are of the one-pot variety I love, and bursting with bright vegetables, toasty spices, creamy coconut milk, bright herbs and bold spices dancing in harmony.
For the past week, my kitchen has been perfumed with cumin-kissed onions; the slightly smoky, toasty spice of curry leaves; and turmeric and tomatoes and coconut, soothing and satiating me to my very soul. The recipes are refreshingly straightforward, and it’s remarkable how much flavor can come from an ingredient list that, at least when compared to some of my other favorite chefs’ recipes, is quite simple.
I appreciate the background info Mohanraj includes about Sri Lankan history and influences, including the distinguishing elements of its cuisine: the aforementioned dark-roasted curry powder; red rice; liberal use of coconut; and acidic offset of tomatoes, lime and tamarind. As an anthropology geek, I loved her explanation of what a typical day’s meals might include, and what occasions they were generally reserved for.
The “Spices and Ingredients” glossary is a convenient reference, as are the explanations of each type of cooking style at the beginning of the “Vegetables” section. These give the not-completely-initiated a good primer on what’s what. A quick skim through this information, and shopping, individual dishes and meals come together handily.
Her note that measurements are approximate should be heeded; some steps in the recipes, for example, don’t list specific cooking times or temperature settings. I found I was generally safe keeping my burner on medium to medium-high and stirring near-constantly for steps with times or temps omitted. Just keep an eye on everything and verify against the photos to gauge when things are “done” at each step, and you’ll be fine. With all this great flavor, it’s hard to mess anything up too much.
Since I don’t eat meat or poultry, I can’t speak to those recipes, but I believe the true quality of a cookbook should be judged by its veggie dishes: when the ingredients must truly take center stage. (I know, I’m biased, but still.) Even those designed more as sides provided a fine meal for one when served with some rice and yogurt, and most any of them can (and should) be combined. I particularly enjoyed combining the cauliflower and broccoli dishes with the eggplant curry.
This may be intended as more of a side, but I found it a delightful light dinner one rare night when I wasn’t terribly famished. Bright, crunchy asparagus contrasts with tangy tomatoes and deeply seasoned, savory onions for a flavor combination well-suited for spring.
Broccoli Varai / Cauliflower Poriyal
I served these together one night for dinner with my mom, who is on a low-oxalate menu; it’s often tricky to find things that she and I can both eat, with our various dietary limitations, but these two checked all the boxes, and were smashingly satisfying. They paired perfectly together, with rice and yogurt. The coconut- and cinnamon-flavored broccoli dish was a lovely foil for the bittersweet, bolder cumin- and turmeric-heavy cauliflower (I subbed romanesco, because it was too beautiful to pass up).
As her description states it often is, this dish was a big hit with this particular vegetarian (OK, occasional pescetarian). A little savory, a little sweet, meaty and rich and bursting with umami, this curry was truly remarkable. I ate it several nights in a row, and particularly enjoyed it with a little of each of the broccoli and cauliflower dishes on the side.
Of course, the recipes are the star of this production. But it will come as little surprise to my readers that the most impactful part to me of the book is the Introduction, explaining her deeply personal connection to this food.
How the recipes are a thread that connects her backward — to her mother, grandmother and even longer-ago ancestors — and forward, to her children. How the cuisine imparts a culture, an art and an unspoken language to the loved ones who have never stepped foot on Sri Lankan soil. How there is a fusion between her ancestral culture and adopted culture that takes place — transforming the recipes from their original crafting into something of the moment, that, like her family, is a fusion of traditions and people and histories just as beautiful and even more unique than from whence they came.
Foods like this are a way to celebrate diversity and unity at the same time, which is probably a not-insignificant part of why I love it. It’s proof you can see and smell and taste that we are all part of one greater collective. This is an important message to remember in this day and age: that we are all fusions of our ancestry and contemporary culture; that, in America, we are all immigrants; that there is equal beauty in honoring our origins, and in taking our favorite parts of that lineage to create our own new traditions, families, art, food and culture today.
Keep an eye on my Instagram, and you’ll see me making more of these dishes in the days to come — and beyond. “A Feast of Serendib: Recipes from Sri Lanka” will be a new fixture of my cookbook rotation; support Mary Anne and add it to yours when it comes available (anticipated release date June 15).