Transposing a cuisine to a foreign setting requires adjusting the dishes to local tastes and ingredients without losing authenticity.
Felicia Wakwella Sorensen has mastered this challenge and made a name for Sri Lankan food around the world. Born in Colombo, the capital of the island nation, Sorensen has lived in Hong Kong for 22 years. There she teaches Sri Lankan cooking, caters upscale parties for the international community and markets chutneys and curry powders. She also stages Sri Lankan food festivals for posh hotels in Asia and has written a cookbook, “The Exotic Tastes of Paradise.”
On a recent visit here, Sorensen showed how well Sri Lankan food suits the California lifestyle. The dishes she prepared were fresh, light, easy to produce and gorgeous to look at. Accustomed to western preferences, she sautes with little oil; cooks vegetables lightly so they retain a crisp bite, and omits a classic Sri Lankan seasoning, sun-dried tuna exported from the Maldive islands and known as Maldive fish. The flavor doesn’t appeal to Europeans, she explained.
Sri Lankan dishes are notoriously hot, and Sorensen softens the effect by replacing some of the hot chile with paprika, again in deference to the Western palate. She teaches the health-minded to substitute low-fat milk for coconut milk in curries and to saute in chicken stock rather than butter, oil or ghee.
And she knows the importance of showmanship. Cooking was only part of the effort that went into a lunch Sorensen staged at the home of her daughter, Sandrena, in Huntington Harbor. Besides buying groceries, she picked up a brilliant gold tablecloth, purchased smart black plates from Italy, hunted down unusual Indian candleholders shaped like sprays of leaves, and illuminated the table further with Scandinavian oil lamps. Asian fans were set under the plates, and the serving spoons were made from coconut shells, with handles painted batik-style. “I like to present food with a flow, with movement and feeling,” she said. “The appearance is as important as the taste.”
In Sri Lanka, the typical meal revolves around rice accompanied by an assortment of curries, vegetables, lentils, chutneys, spicy relishes called sambols and crisp pappadums. Sorensen’s sophisticated menu included a ring-shaped mold of rice dotted with red, green and yellow peppers. In the center, she placed an onion sambol : sliced onion seasoned with green chile, lemon juice and salt.
Instead of a hot main dish, there were chilled shrimp tossed with onions and a spicy dressing. It took only a few minutes for Sorensen to make a vegetable curry--slivered green beans cooked with fresh curry leaves, a simple curry powder designed to enhance rather than dominate the vegetable and coconut milk. Modern machinery extracts the milk so effectively that the canned product is too rich, and Sorensen dilutes it with water to simulate hand-squeezed coconut milk. “Do this for all Sri Lankan curries,” she said. “Our curries are not so rich.”
Sorensen seasoned potatoes with curry leaves, black mustard seeds, chiles and lemon juice. And because she knows that westerners like a touch of sweet, she added pineapple curry, served in the pineapple shell, and her own mango chutney, brought from Hong Kong.
On this occasion, Sorensen skipped dessert. But for a party she would arrange a light final course such as fruit marinated with Cointreau or Grand Marnier; sliced green grapes tossed with kirsch and mint, or pineapple marinated with fresh basil and white wine. “You couldn’t eat a chocolate mousse after this,” she said.
FIRE AND ICE
1/4 cup chopped ginger root
1/4 cup chopped garlic
2 1/2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons chile sauce
1/4 cup white vinegar
1/2 cup water
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons coarsely ground black mustard seeds
1/3 teaspoon turmeric
1 onion, thinly sliced
4 green onions, chopped
2 pounds large shrimp, cooked, shelled and deveined
Combine ginger, garlic, sugar, chile sauce, vinegar, water and salt in blender and blend until smooth. Pour into bowl and mix in ground mustard seeds and turmeric. Add onion, green onions and shrimp and toss until thoroughly combined. Chill. Makes 6 servings.
GREEN BEAN CURRY
1 pound green beans
6 small shallots, sliced
2 serrano chiles, sliced, or to taste
4 curry leaves
1 tablespoon Vegetable Curry Powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/3 cup thick canned coconut milk
2/3 cup water
Wash beans, break off tips and cut diagonally into thin slices. Place in saucepan. Add shallots, chiles, curry leaves, Vegetable Curry Powder, salt, turmeric, coconut milk and water. Bring to boil and stir.
Reduce heat to low. Simmer, uncovered, until beans are crisp-tender and sauce is reduced, 7 to 10 minutes. Stir occasionally. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Note: When diluting canned coconut milk for curries, add 1 cup water to each 14-ounce can. Additional water is used in this recipe.
Vegetable Curry Powder
3 tablespoons coriander seeds
3 tablespoons cumin seeds
1 1/2 tablespoons fennel seeds
Using electric spice grinder, grind coriander seeds first, then cumin and fennel seeds to make fine powder. Makes about 1/2 cup.
2 pounds potatoes
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 cup oil
6 curry leaves
1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
3 onions, sliced
2 serrano chiles, sliced
1 teaspoon hot chili powder
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 green onion, chopped
Peel potatoes and cut into 1-inch cubes. Wash and drain. Place in saucepan and cover with water. Add turmeric and 1 tablespoon salt. Bring to boil and boil until potatoes are just tender. Drain.
Heat oil in large skillet. Add curry leaves and mustard seeds. When seeds pop, add onions and chiles. Sprinkle with chili powder and paprika and saute until onion is just tender, about 3 minutes. Add potatoes and saute few minutes, mixing with seasonings in pan and lemon juice. Season to taste with salt. Serve sprinkled with green onion. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
HOT PINEAPPLE CURRY
1 (2-pound) pineapple
3 tablespoons oil
6 curry leaves
1 onion, chopped
3 slices ginger root, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 small fresh red chile, sliced
1 green chile, sliced
2 tablespoons Vegetable Curry Powder
1 tablespoon hot chili powder
1 teaspoon ground mustard
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 (2-inch) stick cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup coconut milk
Cut pineapple in half and cut out fruit, reserving shell for serving. Cut fruit into small cubes.
Heat oil in skillet, add curry leaves, onion, ginger and garlic and cook 2 minutes. Add pineapple, red and green chiles, curry powder, chili powder, mustard, turmeric, cinnamon stick, salt and sugar and mix well. Add coconut milk and gently bring to boil. Simmer 5 to 10 minutes. Serve in scooped out pineapple shell. Makes 8 servings.
FESTIVE RICE RING
3 tablespoons oil or margarine
2 cloves garlic
1 small sweet red pepper, finely diced
1 small green pepper, finely diced
1 small sweet yellow pepper, finely diced
1 teaspoon salt
6 cups cooked rice
Heat oil in skillet or Dutch oven. Add garlic, peppers and salt and stir-fry 30 seconds. Add rice and mix over medium heat until rice is heated through, 3 to 4 minutes.
Spoon rice into greased ring mold, pressing tightly into mold. Invert onto serving platter and fill with Onion Sambol. Makes 8 to 10 servings.
Note: Rice ring may be filled with cilantro or parsley instead of Onion Sambol.
1 large onion, sliced
3 serrano chiles, sliced
Lime or lemon juice
Combine onion and chiles in bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Moisten with lime juice. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.
2 pounds mangoes
2 tablespoons minced ginger root
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 to 2 teaspoons hot chili powder
1 tablespoon ground mustard
2 teaspoons salt
3/4 cup vinegar
3 1/2 cups sugar
Peel, wash and cut mangoes into small slices. Blend ginger, garlic, chili powder, mustard and salt with little vinegar. Combine sugar with remaining vinegar in large saucepan. Add blended spices and boil 2 minutes. Add mangoes and boil until mangoes are thoroughly cooked and chutney is slightly thickened, about 45 minutes.
Chutney will thicken further when cooled. Ladle cooled chutney into sterilized jars and seal. Makes about 3 1/2 cups.
Note: For milder flavor, chili powder may be reduced to 1/2 teaspoon.