Last year I set out on a mission to explore friendships, cultures and personal histories through the friendly infiltrations of people's kitchens and homes. The project is simple: if you had to make one meal that was important to you, what would it be? So far the answers have been incredible, special moments, stories and histories unfolded in dough, and sauces, on countertops and on stoves, some recipes new, some very old and all significant in their way. Over the last few months, I've shot some fantastic food stories, but this one brings us right back to the start! After much ado and a little delay, I bring you one of the first stories I shot back in October- Dilani Rosa's crash course in Sri Lankan food!
Now obviously I like to eat, and I take great efforts to try new to me food that I might have missed along the way growing up in a rural New England town. I'm constantly entranced by the different ways people all around the world have made comfort food for their families with all the unique ingredients to their environments. This is especially interesting to consider when people migrate to different parts of the world and have to adapt their cooking to utilize the new ingredients around them or seek out the special food items that aren't regionally available or easily accessible.
As Dilani showed me the ropes of her Sri Lankan dishes one of the things that stood out to me was how special it was to be able to create these dishes now in LA in a totally different area then she had grown up in, how fortunate it is we have markets around to be able to acquire the more special ingredients like rice flour in the string hoppers, spices, fresh coconut or pressed cane sugar and how hard people in less culturally diverse areas must work to keep this element of home intact.
Throughout the morning and well into the afternoon Dilani showed me some of the methods she learned from her family. Many of the dishes included coconut which needed to be grated, something I have certainly taken for granted. She deftly cracked open the coconuts without spilling a bit of the coconut water (which was a mystifying experience to watch) and then showed me how to grate the coconuts by hand with a machine she inherited along the way, all the while boiling lentils on the stove, chopping onions and tomatoes and throwing chicken into an ever enticing smelling pots on the stove.
Grinding the coconut was hard work and took serious time to complete which was all the more valuable to consider while she had so many other things cooking simultaneously. As Dilani notes:
"Although I didn’t appreciate it as a kid, I have always loved the Sri Lankan food my parents made. Weekends growing up were always noisy mornings with mom and dad cooking and prepping the week's meals. My dad would wake up early and crack and scrape coconuts that later would be made in to milk our used in curries or symbols by my mom. When he was a kid he had to climb the tree first to get the coconuts. I scraped the coconut out old school like dad did for the sambol we made but bought canned coconut for the rest of the recipes.
Upon seeing Rebecca’s pictures I realized two things instantly: 1) My hands looked just like my dad’s did holding the coconut and scraping it out 2) Buying canned coconut was amazing because this is work and now I really appreciate the labor of love they did every week… especially finding coconut in Wisconsin. I thought this photo shoot was just about sharing the cultural food I grew up making it from scratch with old school tools, however I was pleasantly surprised!"
Lentils were cooked and drained, given only a moment's respite before being popped back onto the stove to become their final form.
More chopping, more stirring. The kitchen smelled like an indescribable dream..
In between all of this Dilani was steaming rice flour to make String Hoppers or Idiyappam, something she had told me about but I'd never even seen available in a store.
The process involved steaming the flour, then kneading a dough which was squished into a handmade "noodle" like press onto bamboo woven mats about the size of a coaster. These were stacked and then carefully lowered into a pot to steam. Squishing out the tiny strings was another hectic upper body workout. The dough objectingly pushed out into many thin threads and coiled around onto the mats. It took a lot of mats to get through this bowl and we traded off for the sake of our (read: my) arms.
The steam sticks the threads together a bit but they are still a delicate and wonderfully crumbly, fun mess.
After all that cooking it was time to eat! Dilani scooped out a little bit of everything onto plates, lentils, chicken, coconut veggie dish with coconut gravy, crunchy papadum (my favorite!), and all scooped up with her expertly made string hoppers and we made out way outside to sit and snack on her porch with her trusty pal Chloe the dog.
Finally, because Dilani had only been cooking for something like 6 hours, she felt like it obviously wasn't enough and we needed to try her favorite Sri Lankan desert. Since I'm not a monster I indulged her. Such sacrifice. Back into the kitchen we went where she squished out a bit of the string hoppers before putting some grated pressed cane sugar, coconut and spices and topping it with the string hopper mix.
The sandwiched in sweet mix got steamed on the mat and came out warm, gooey and delicate. Some cardamom tea on the side made this an unreal end to an incredible meal, and a really cool insight into the hard work and tremendous love it takes to cook Sri Lankan food!
A last word from the lady herself, Dilani Rosa:
"As I flipped through all the spectacularly vivid pictures she took, I saw more and more of my parents in me than I realized. I hold the knife in my own way but have my dad’s accuracy and my mom’s quickness. Moving on to making string hoppers that are steamed on a woven mat with a dough made from the coconut milk, I flashed back to my mom’s hands in the kitchen pressing firmly. When my hands need to do something difficult, are at rest or am happy garnishing, I am all mom. WOW, did that stun me as I wouldn’t have known (or honestly would not have paid attention) without Rebecca’s photos. As a scientist this is especially interesting to me, seeing as I just had genetics analyzed. My parents and I are 100% Sri Lankan and I think Rebecca captured it in pictures! I treasure these images and thank you so very, very much Rebecca."
Thank you Dilani for sharing a little glimpse into your food life! It was an amazing day!
If you would like to learn more about Sri Lankan food, Dilani recommended this book which she referenced throughout our cooking extravaganza!
As always, have fun, be safe and happy snacking!