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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Fire in the Face

Vintage Stuff Dept.: During a long-ago visit to Minneapolis, I was taken to the Sri Lanka Curry House, where I ate an entrée so spicy that the skin dripped from my face. I wrote the following piece for Chile Pepper magazine not long thereafter, and cannot recall if it actually ran. The restaurant closed a while ago, but Heather still offers classes and runs a catering business.


Heather Jansz
THE FIERIEST CUISINE OF ALL comes from Sri Lanka and the first – and possibly only – Sri Lankan restaurant in the United States is in Minneapolis. For thirteen years, Evan and Heather Balasuriya’s Sri Lanka Curry House has been offering fare that can be prepared with so much zing that the menu offers grades of heat for each of the spicy items. First-time visitors are strongly encouraged to work their way up to the zenith (“extra hot”) slowly, with repeated visits.

“We had a hot food eating contest three years ago,” says Evan. “We made the food twenty-five times hotter than usual because we were afraid we’d have too many winners otherwise. It was outrageously hot – we had to keep our faces away while we were cooking it.” Qualifying sessions were held throughout the year on Tuesdays; contestants were required to finish a portion in less than five minutes. Over a hundred people entered, and fifteen – all of them Americans – made it to the final heat. Evan comments, “I was amazed to see how much tolerance people have.”

Although the varied ethnic profile of Minneapolis now makes a Sri Lankan restaurant seem like a natural, it was one of the city’s most unusual eateries when it opened. “Back in 1973, when I got there,” says Evan, “Minneapolis really had nothing in the way of ethnic restaurants. If you wanted something exotic, you ate chow mein at a Chinese restaurant.” Now you’ll find just about everything imaginable in the area, which also boasts one of the country’s largest Vietnamese populations and a consequently high number of Vietnamese restaurants.

The Balasuriyas were born in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. “I became a musician in a rock band,” says Evan. “I performed for troops in Vietnam in the mid-60s. We became the top rock group in the country, but we broke up after ten years. I came to Minneapolis where my sister and brother live, and went to school to get a hotel and restaurant management degree.” He opened his own restaurant at the urging of friends. “They used to come to my apartment to eat the curry we prepared, and someone suggested we should go public.”

The philosophy of Sri Lankan cookery is to capture the spirit of simple household dining. “We tried by error and experience to develop a menu that would reflect the way we eat at home, and I occasionally visit Sri Lanka to be sure I’m doing it correctly.” So pleased was Evan by the result that he has copyrighted his restaurant’s menu.

Not surprisingly, curries abound. A Sri Lankan curry tends to be hotter than its Indian counterpart, and where Indian curries are redolent of tamarind and mint, Sri Lankans use seeni sambol, a sweet onion and chile-based condiment, and goraka, a tart fruit resembling a green tomato. Coconut milk is another important ingredient.

“No one ever ‘cooks by the book’ in Sri Lanka,” Heather explains. “If somebody asks me how much of a given ingredient I put in, I show the amount with my hand, say, four fingers and a thumb. It’s a visual tradition.”

Another important difference is the Sri Lankan use of dry roasting, in which the spices are toasted in a skillet on the stovetop to bring out a stronger flavor. Although curries are designed to complement specific vegetables, meats or fish, the range of ingredients can include cardamom seeds, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, garlic, ginger, turmeric, mustard seed, cumin, fenugreek and goraka.

Lemongrass, a tart rushlike plant that looks like a scallion, and rampa, an aromatic leaf of the lemongrass family, also may be found in the mix. Curry leaves are an essential ingredient which have no equivalent. They’re used like bay leaves, but are edible and thus left in the sauce. Maldive fish comes from the islands south of Sri Lanka and resembles a dried, salted tuna when prepared as a seasoning. It’s a thickening agent as well. Salt cod or crushed dried shrimp may be substituted.

At the center of the seasoning are chile peppers. “There are five types that I use,” says Evan. “The hottest is about a half-inch long and it’s dynamite. I don’t know the English name for it. It’s native to Sri Lanka, and I have to import it dried from that country. The others I buy from Indian and Chinese grocery stores. I’ve been lucky enough to find people in Minneapolis who grow their own peppers, so I buy them fresh in the summer and fall. In winter, I get a lot from Florida.”

Green chiles are essential to the restaurant and are used in variety of sizes and spiciness. Jalapeño and Serrano chiles are acceptable substitutes. The Banana chile, a long, yellow pepper, is not as hot as a smaller green chile and is used when a more delicate blend of flavors is required.

Evan is pleased to prepare a dish as spicy as you’d like to eat it, although those ordering “extra hot” are subject to scrutiny. “About once a night someone will eat a meal prepared ‘very hot,’” he says. “Three or four will order ‘hot’ and most of the rest are ‘medium.’”

During my recent visit to Minneapolis, I went straight to the top and ordered a seafood curry at its hottest. I had to – I’d boasted to my friends how tough my palate was.

Heather hurried to the table to talk me out of it. “You’ve never been here before,” she argued. “Work your way up to it.” I would not be persuaded, and can testify that you will find a fieriness unique to this cuisine. To put it another way, my face went into shock. My conversation was reduced to brief monosyllables. And now I’m yearning for more.

Evan laughs when I suggest his sauce is addictive. “As I’m sure you know,” he says, “this sauce is very healthy. The power of chiles has been mentioned in American Health magazine. They’re good for the heart and good for the colon.”

Spicy food enthusiasts know that the love of chile-based cooking is an acquired taste. Sri Lankans start very young – it’s even theorized that an infant gets its first taste of spicy food at its mother’s breast. Chile lovers who leave their native land may yearn for the hottest possible cuisine, which the Sri Lanka Curry House is happy to provide.

– March 7, 1991


The following recipes from the Sri Lanka Curry House in Minneapolis appear in Fire and Spice: the Cuisine of Sri Lanka, by Heather Balasuriya and Karin Winegar, published by McGraw-Hill.


1 Tablespoon dried, crushed red chiles
2 Tablespoons fennel seeds
20 to 25 curry leaves
10 cardamom pods, crushed
6 whole cloves
1 Tablespoon ground black pepper
6 one-inch pieces rampa
3 one-inch pieces cinnamon stick
1 Tablespoon mustard seeds
1/4 cup ground cumin
3 Tablespoons coriander powder

Start with a large pan, and dry-roast the ingredients separately over low to medium heat, roasting the mustard seeds last. In a few minutes, the mustard seeds will start to pop (keep the lid on the pan or the seeds will fly out). Then stir in the coriander and cumin; when the spices begin to turn light brown, add the rest of the ingredients. Since the curry powder mix can burn quickly, stir it continuously. Roast the spices for about 7 to 10 minutes, until they are dark golden brown. Then remove them from the heat, and grind or powder them immediately while they are still warm (whether you do it by hand with a mortar and pestle or in a food processor, they must be finely ground). Store in an airtight bottle – keeps well for two weeks or more.


1 cup dhal (lentils)
2 cups water
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
½ onion, finely chopped
6 curry leaves
1 teaspoon fresh garlic, finely chopped
½ teaspoon crushed, dried red chiles
2 Tablespoons crushed Maldive fish
2 Tablespoons crushed dried shrimp
pinch of powdered cloves
pinch of powdered cinnamon
1 teaspoon lemon juice
bread crumbs, about 1/2 cup
3 eggs, beaten
vegetable oil for deep frying, about 2 cups

Wash the dhal, and place in a saucepan with 2 cups water. Bring to a boil. Drain off the extra water and mash well. Heat the 2 Tablespoons of vegetable oil in a skillet and saute the onion, curry leaves, garlic, red chiles, Maldive fish, shrimp, cloves and cinnamon for about 5 minutes or until the onions are golden brown. Add the dhal and mix well, adding the lemon juice to moisten the mixture. Form the dhal mixture into cutlets (patties) about two inches in diameter. Add bread crumbs as needed if the mixture is too moist. Dip each cutlet in beaten egg and deep-fry in hot oil until golden brown.


1 pound banana chiles
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 pound ground beef or lamb
1 small onion, chopped
6 curry leaves
1 large potato or two medium-size potatoes
1 ½  teaspoons fresh garlic, minced
1 ½  teaspoons fresh gingerroot, chopped
3 cardamom pods, crushed
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon crushed, dried red chiles
salt to taste
3 or 4 eggs, beaten
2 cups bread crumbs, approximately

Wash the chiles, make a slit in the middle of each one, and remove the seeds, if desired. Set aside. To make the stuffing, heat the vegetable oil in a skillet and brown the meat and onion with the curry leaves. Boil the potatoes, mash and set aside. Add the garlic, ginger, cardamom, black pepper and red chiles to the meat mixture, and stir over medium heat for about 7 minutes. Salt to taste. Mix in the mashed potatoes. Remove from heat. When the mixture has cooled a bit, use a small spoon or your fingers and stuff each chile, pinching it tightly shut. Dip each stuffed chile in beaten egg, roll it in the bread crumbs and deep-fry until golden brown. (If the banana chiles are really smooth, the egg and bread crumbs may not stick easily and may need more than one dipping.)


(Sathi curry is similar to satay, a dish found in Malaysia, Japan and Indonesia)

1 pound (2 cups) beef, cubed
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1/4 cup cider vinegar
3 gloves fresh garlic, sliced
2 one-inch pieces gingerroot, peeled and sliced
8 curry leaves
3 one-inch pieces rampa
1 two-inch piece lemongrass
salt to taste
2 cups water, approximately
3 to 4 Tablespoons vegetable oil
½ onion, sliced
1 teaspoon saffron
2 cups coconut milk
juice of one lime or lemon
2 Tablespoons flour (optional)

Place the beef in a saucepan. Add the pepper, vinegar, garlic, ginger, half the curry leaves, rampa, lemongrass and salt. Add about 1 cup of the water, and cook until the beef is tender and the water is absorbed. Then add the oil and saute the beef until brown. Set aside. In another pan, place the remaining curry leaves, rampa, lemongrass, saffron, onions and coconut milk. Salt to taste and cook, stirring constantly, for about 10 minutes. Then add the lemon or lime juice. Add the beef to this pan, and cook for a minute or two over medium heat. You may add two Tablespoons flour to make the gravy thicker if you prefer.


2 to 3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 pound (2 cups) any fresh, firm fish (tuna, halibut, etc.) cut into one- or two-inch cubes.
1 ½ medium onions, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fresh gingerroot, finely chopped
5 banana chiles, sliced
10 curry leaves
3 cardamom pods, crushed
2 Tablespoons ground mustard seed
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup water
3 large tomatoes, sliced
1 teaspoon salt (or salt to taste)
1 Tablespoon lemon juice

Heat the vegetable oil in a large frying pan and lightly saute the fish cubes on both sides. Remove them from the pan and set aside. To the same oil, add sliced onions, garlic, ginger, banana chiles, curry leaves and cardamom pods and brown for about 5 minutes. Then stir in the mustard seed and black pepper. Add a cup of water. Stir well, making sure the mustard is well mixed with the other ingredients. Then add the tomatoes and fish, and coat them well with the vegetable-and-spice blend, stirring gently so the fish stays intact. Add the salt and lemon juice, and simmer for about 15 minutes or until the fish and spicy tomato sauce is done to your liking. Serves 4.


1 pound (2 cups) and firm fresh fish, cut into inch-thick slices
½ teaspoon saffron
sprinkle of salt and black pepper
2 to 3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 onion, sliced
3 green chiles, chopped
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 cups coconut milk or light cream
3 cloves fresh garlic, minced
1 one-inch piece rampa
10 curry leaves
pinch of saffron
2 Tablespoons lime juice
additional salt to taste

Wash the fish, rub it with saffron,salt and pepper and set aside for 15 minutes to absorb the flavors. Then fry in vegetable oil until golden brown. In a separate skillet, heat the vegetable oil and brown the onions and green chiles. Grind the cumin seeds and add 1 cup of the milk, the garlic, rampa, curry leaves and a pinch of saffron. Add to this the browned onions and bring to a low boil. Add the remaining cup of milk, stirring continuously. Add salt and lime juice to taste. Add the fried fish slices and simmer for about 5 minutes.

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