For our May interview, I was lucky enough to ask a few questions of Dona Sudarsani, creator of the always hunger-inducing website Best Sri Lankan Recipes. Dona currently resides in Tel Aviv, Israel, and demonstrates a level of cooking knowledge and skill on her site that made me an immediate fan of her and her recipes. Determined as I am to eat my way around the world someday, and well-acquainted with the veritable treasure trove of spices and rich flavors combinations to be found in Sri Lankan cuisine, it was a pleasure to hear her thoughts on topics like recent influences on Sri Lankan cuisine, the changing food scene in Tel Aviv, and more.
Flavorful World: What would you say are the chief staples of traditional Sri Lankan cuisine?
Dona Sudarsani: Apart from rice, the staples of traditional Sri Lankan cuisine are coconut and spices. Homemade curry powder and chili powder are used extensively in Sri Lanka, as well as fresh leaves like pandan leaves and curry leaves. Coconut milk is used for meat and fish curries, many vegetable dishes and even desserts.
FW: The Tel Aviv EAT food festival was earlier this week, and a significant focus was placed on street food as prepared by gourmet chefs. Tell us your about favorite street food(s) and what makes it/them your favorite.
DS: My favorite street food has to be Kottu Roti. It’s the quintessential street food of Sri Lanka: Flat bread is chopped into small pieces and mixed with chopped vegetables and sometimes chopped meat curry. I like it because you get to enjoy many different flavors with each bite. In order to prepare a good Kottu Roti, one has to be very skilled, it’s not something we can just prepare at home and expect it to taste the same as when we buy it on the street.
FW: Tell us about some recent influences on Sri Lankan cuisine and on the food scene in Tel Aviv. How have they changed from the time you were a child to now, in terms of ingredients, cooking style, etc.
DS: Sri Lankan cuisine has always been very diverse due to its many influences, but in the past years it’s been very noticeable that Chinese cookery has found its way into the island. Devilled food and dishes based on fried rice have become very popular in Sri Lanka and many restaurants now serve Chinese dishes with a Sri Lankan twist.
As far as Tel Aviv is concerned, it’s a very fast-paced environment and trends are changing so quickly that they’re sometimes easy to miss. Regardless of trends, hummus is still king on the streets of Tel Aviv – and I don’t expect this to change anytime soon.
Generally speaking, cooking in Sri Lanka has changed massively from the time when I grew up. Nowadays you can see an abundance of street food, with vendors on every corner. When I was a child, street food was very rare and mostly limited to sweets, boiled or roasted chickpeas and roasted peanuts. Instead many households used to have their own specialties, so if you wanted string hoppers you had to go to the house across the street, if you wanted pittu you went to a different house, and so on. Much of that probably has to do with the fact that much more food is available in Sri Lanka these days.
FW: What inspires you with regard to creating new recipes?
DS: Ideas for new recipes are coming to my mind all the time. Especially whenever I see a new or unusual dish, which happens very often around Tel Aviv. Besides my own experience and watching my mom cook, I draw a lot from the things I have learned from my friends and having lived in the Middle East for almost ten years now, I can see many influences in my cooking from Tunisian, Iraqi and Yemeni cuisine.
FW: If you were called upon to introduce Sri Lankan food to someone who’s never tasted any before, what dish(es) would you serve and why?
DS: I’ve had the pleasure of introducing others to Sri Lankan cuisine before and one menu that has always left them coming back for more is: Yellow rice with chicken curry, eggplant curry, devilled pineapple, papadam and a tomato/pineapple/cucumber/green pepper salad. One of the main characteristics of Sri Lankan cuisine is that it combines a vast spectrum of flavors that complement each other. I feel that this menu represents this spectrum quite well.
FW: Tell us about a recipe of yours that you feel best represents traditional and innovation as far as putting a new spin on a classic dish.
DS: I’ve done a fair bit of mixing traditional Sri Lankan recipes with Middle Eastern influences. My personal favorite is the addition of Hawaij. Hawaij is a ground spice mixture from Yemen that is used in different variations for either soup or coffee. Adding the Hawaij soup variety to a traditional Sri Lanka dish makes for a heavenly and completely new flavor. My favorite Middle Eastern spin on a traditional Sri Lankan recipe is my chicken curry recipe, where I leave out the coconut milk and add Hawaij to the curry powder to give the meat a more pronounced taste.
FW: Tell us about the best restaurant meal you’ve ever eaten. Where did you enjoy it, and what made it the best?
DS: The best meal I ever had in a restaurant must have been last year at the Al-Maas, an Indian restaurant in Colombo. I had nasi biryiani with fried chicken and pineapple salad, with peni walalu as dessert. The flavors of the menu complemented each other better than anything I’ve ever tasted before and I can’t wait to go back for another round.
FW: Excluding the name of any of your pre-existing blogs, websites, or print/online personas, tell us what name you would give to your memoir about your culinary exploits?
FW: When you aren’t cooking/eating delicious things, how do you most enjoy spending your time?
DS: There’s nothing like having a cocktail at the beach in Tel Aviv, the summer evenings here are absolutely wonderful.
*Note to readers: To enjoy more of the delightful and mouth-watering fare coming out of Dona’s kitchen, you’ll want to follow her blog BestSriLankanRecipes.com (unless you don’t want to be all up in the know about delectable foods and how to prepare them, and surely that can’t be the case, right? Of course not. We knew you were cool!) Another step in the right direction would be to follow her on social media like Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+.