The bread’s the thing at working-class Sri Lankan joints like Staten Island’s New Asha Café. Mottled brown on top, gloriously gummy underneath, rectangular rotis stand atop the counter folded and stacked like diapers ($1). Next to them totter amazing bowl-shaped breads called hoppers—some plain, others with a still jiggy steamed egg melded to the bottom. The rim is crisp, but the ricey-tasting hopper becomes progressively softer as you eat your way to the bottom of the bowl. The Sri Lankan rendition of dosas, called thosas, are also available, with or without a potato filling. Breads can be paired with relishes called sambols (no charge), or with one of the fragrant curries on the steam table (most $3.50 each), which wreak delicious changes on our ideas of Indian food, while spotlighting the island’s diverse ethnic population and alluding to past colonial powers like Portugal, England, and the Netherlands.
On the steam table, an inky eggplant stew is knocked for a loop by a spice mixture known as suwunda kudu, featuring cumin, black cumin, cloves, fenugreek, and, especially, cinnamon. (Indeed, if you don’t like cinnamon, Sri Lankan is not for you.) Kingfish steaks loll in a banana-colored coconut broth dancing with droplets of red oil, while chicken curry boasts a chocolate brown broth tangled with so many flavor-bearing twigs and leaves that it looks like a beaver dam. This is an example of Sri Lanka’s notorious black curries, which begin as powdered spice mixtures similar to Indian masalas, but are given a much deeper and richer flavor by pan toasting. Thanks to indentured laborers brought to the island by the Dutch from Indonesia and Malaysia, some curries also feature Southeast Asian flourishes like lemongrass and screw pine, and island cooks invariably throw a sour wrench into the works by adding tamarind, lime, vinegar, or goraka, a small orange fruit that’s brined and crushed for use as a thickening agent.
New Asha Café is one of a pair of side-by-side Ceylonese eateries that face the new Albanian mosque on Victory Boulevard as it toils its way uphill through the rundown Stapleton neighborhood. The narrow storefront is jollified with blue checked cloths and a travel poster of an elephant posing with her babies. The staff often darts next door to the associated grocery when staples run out, and sometimes there are three women cooking in the small kitchen at one time. Catering to a diverse constituency of Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims, the café must do a balancing act so as not to violate the dietary restrictions of any group. Our cordial hostess, who wears a red bindi on her forehead, confided that some dishes that might normally contain the condiment Maldive fish (dried bonita) omit it out of respect for vegetarians.
Like the Sicilians, the Sri Lankans are inveterate snackers, and as you dine, you are likely to see an assortment of characters dash in from the street and depart just as quickly bearing a bread improved with a dab of the delicious onion or coconut sambol. Sometimes, they select instead from a glass case that displays neat rows of deep-fried finger foods, still called “frikkadels” in deference to the Dutch. Though the orbs of finely minced kingfish are certainly of Portuguese origin, the tubular mutton rolls ($1) reminded me of Cornish pasties. The rich filling of goat and potatoes is dotted with cardamom and other crunchy spices, and the roti wrapper is further dipped in bread crumbs before frying for added crunch. As I ate one that the cook had brought fresh from the fat, I thought, If only Mom had packed these in my lunchbox.