Chelsea's Banana Leaf Sails to the Island of Strange Starches
At the heart of every cuisine lies a starch or starches. In many cases, the leading contender is obvious, as in Italian (pasta), Nigerian (pounded white yam), Thai (rice), Mexican (tortillas), and Irish (potatoes). But in some cuisines a lead actor isn't always apparent, and the underlying starches constitute an ensemble cast. One of those is Sri Lankan.
Hanging like a teardrop below the Indian mainland, the island once known as Ceylon lies along trade routes that have connected East and West since ancient times. It was colonized in turn by the Portuguese, Dutch, and English before achieving independence in 1948. While the predominant religion is Buddhism, there are sizable Hindu, Muslim, and Christian populations. Clearly, the island enjoys one hell of a lot of culinary influences.
Most picturesque of the Sri Lankan starches are hoppers. These are descended from the South Indian flatbread called appam ("hopper" is said to be an English mispronunciation of the word). But instead of lying prone as an appam does, the batter of ground rice and lentils has been cooked in the shape of a bowl. One serving consists of four hoppers, and every fourth one has a sunnyside-up egg annealed to its interior surface. Don't bother asking for no egg, or for four eggs—the scheme is engraved in stone at every Sri Lankan restaurant in Staten Island, Queens, and Manhattan. At Banana Leaf—a new Sri Lankan café just north of F.I.T. in Chelsea—you can order hoppers with a dark spicy curry made from your choice of chicken, kingfish, beef, squid, shrimp, or lamb ($12–$14).
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Other starches can be had with the same curries, including godamba roti (a lacy wheat pancake shaped into a bowl with a similar egg scheme), coconut roti (a flatbread of wheat and coconut milk), and string hoppers (noodles made from the bread batter formed into birds' nests). And if you thought these were unusual, you've got to try pittu. It arrives on a banana leaf, a perfectly formed cylinder of grated, toasted coconut and beaten rice, as dry as the Indian Sea is moist. But don't worry, in addition to a bowl of curry, it comes with a saucer of coconut milk and small bowl of luscious onion sambol (the name of this condiment clues you in to its Malaysian origin). How you eat this amazing combination of foodstuffs is up to you. "Most customers don't like pittu," our youthful waiter cautioned us. In our case, he was wrong.
Though curry-starch combinations form the heart of the menu, another section titled House Specials is equally diverting. These entrées tend to be served with plain rice, and best is the island's celebrated black curry ($12), made with pork, a meat almost never seen on a South Asian menu. This flesh choice is partly the result of the Portuguese having been on the island, but if you cast your eyes heavenward toward a rear corner of the dining room, just behind the cash-register counter's thatched hut you'll see a picture of Jesus, looking like he's just finished a very satisfying meal at Banana Leaf. While we already had Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist Ceylonese restaurants in town, this is the first I know of apparently run by Christians.
The deep color of the black curry is the result of the Sri Lankan habit of heavily toasting (one might almost say burning) curry spices prior to putting them in a recipe. This practice is mitigated by the inclusion of coconut milk in nearly everything—breads, stews, beverages, and desserts alike. Indeed, Banana Leaf must have a vat of it on the roof. Most notably, the ingredient is used in a drink made from woodapple ($4), a fruit native to the island whose botanical name is as ridiculous sounding as its popular one—Feronia limonia Swingle, which sounds like the name of an Austin Powers double agent. The thirst-quencher is sweet, creamy, and fruity, but with a faint whiff of turpentine. You'll become addicted immediately, but don't get caught huffing it behind the restaurant.
Also found among House Specials is beef koffta—a salute to Sri Lanka's Muslim minority, configured as four heavy cylinders of ground meat on a bed of brown-tinted rice. The mixture of herbs creates a multilayered flavor—and I'm sure there's some coconut milk in there somewhere, too. The Dutch even have their shout-out, in the form of lampreis ($13), a lovely field worker's meal pinned inside a banana leaf, including curries, chutneys, side dishes, and a boiled egg. Don't let its resemblance to a sagging green diaper deter you.
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