I asked two friends who had traveled to Sri Lanka about the food, and I got the same answer: "It's mostly rice and curry." That gave me a good feeling about the Sri Lankan cookbook "Rice & Curry: Sri Lankan Home Cooking" by S.H. Fernando Jr. (Hippocrene, 2011).
Fernando, a music journalist and second-generation Sri Lankan-American, approaches the subject of food like a good reporter. He spent a year researching in his native country; you may have seen him touring Sri Lanka on the Travel Channel's "Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations." He offers clearly written recipes "from regular people like you and me" and promises, "If I can make these dishes, then so can you."
As anyone who has ever attempted to cook an Indian dish knows, "curry" is not a spice but a combination of spices, with nearly as many recipes for curry powder as there are cooks. Amazingly, almost all the ingredients are now available in the average supermarket, with the exception of pandanus and curry leaves.
Pandanus, a leaf from the "screw pine," is hard to get; simply leave it out. Fresh curry leaves are sold in Southeast Asian markets and online (e.g., www.ishopindian.com). If you can't find them, leave them out as well, although for "authentic" flavor, do try to get them. Finally, if you'd rather not make the curry powder, Fernando sells it at www.foodoro.com and www.foodzie.com.
Fernando says the chicken curry was the first he learned, so it seems fitting to introduce his book with this dish. Don't rush it; the longer the chicken marinates, the better it is.
ROASTED CURRY POWDER
Yield: about 3/4 cup
1 tablespoon uncooked rice
1/4 cup coriander seeds
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
1 (2-inch) piece cinnamon stick
1/2 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
5 cardamom pods, shelled
5 whole cloves
1 (2-inch) pandanus (optional)
2 sprigs curry leaves (omit if unavailable)
Toast each ingredient separately in a hot skillet until fragrant. Remove from skillet and allow to cool. Grind together in a spice grinder or clean coffee grinder. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator up to 3 months.
Recipe from "Rice & Curry," by S.H. Fernando Jr. (Hippocrene, 2011).
Yield: 6 servings
3 to 4 pounds bone-in chicken thighs, rinsed and patted dry
3 tablespoons roasted curry powder
1 to 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons oil (preferably unrefined coconut oil)
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
1 (2-inch) piece ginger, peeled and chopped
1 sprig curry leaves (omit if not available)
1 (2-inch) stalk fresh lemongrass
3 cardamom pods
3 whole cloves
1 (1-inch) cinnamon stick
1 cup coconut milk
Salt to taste
1 tablespoon tomato paste
Place chicken in bowl with curry powder, cayenne and vinegar.