by Sonali Herath
Instructor, Co-op Culinary Learning Center
I didn’t grow up eating a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as a child. To be honest, I didn’t have my first PB&J until I was almost a teenager. Instead, as a child, my list of favorite food went something like this: juicy mussels with a side of warm fries in Belgium; “takoyaki” or crispy batter balls of creamy and soft octopus meat in Japan; sun-dried salted fish with rice that tasted like the ocean in Sri Lanka; and the deliciously comforting minced meat pies and fish and chips in New Zealand. Growing up around the world meant my diet was full of new and exciting food, and being a curious little kid, I was game!
My curiosity with cooking began when I watched my dad cook in the kitchen as a child.
My dad was a mad scientist not just in his laboratory but also in the kitchen. On weekends, we would work on new creations, each tastier than the one before. I would watch him for hours carefully measuring, stirring, and dicing—trying to create his masterpiece. My dad’s mouth-watering, oven-roasted lemongrass salmon with a white wine cream sauce and a side of warm savory rice was one of the first dishes I helped him create and, to this very day, it is the epitome of comfort food for me.
I learned to cook Sri Lankan food from my mom; she cooks from the heart. I always know when my mom’s in the kitchen. She would turn on the radio and play her favorite Sri Lankan songs and sing while she cooked. To this day I am convinced the reason my Sri Lankan food doesn’t taste as good as my mom’s is because of one simple reason: I can’t hold a tune to save my life!
Still, they both taught me everything I know about cooking, just by simply watching them and talking to them while they cooked in the kitchen. My dad would WHACK! a nob of garlic with the palm of his hand, something that took me several times to master, but now gives me sheer joy as I think of him every time I conquer my garlic. Or, I watched my mom as she would grind and roast cinnamon, cumin, coriander and fresh black peppercorns that had traveled thousands of miles across oceans from my grandmother’s garden to our kitchen in New Jersey. Watching her making this earthy and aromatic curry power, an essential component of Sri Lankan cuisine, was like watching an artist at work. My mother would say to me, “You just add as you feel right; everyone’s curry power is a little different.” And she would always warn me, “Never roast the power on high heat Sonali, otherwise you will be eating bitter food!”
It’s a pretty safe bet to say that I am thinking of food or cooking in some form at least half of my day. I don’t think there is anything else that gives me joy the way cooking does.
I was itching for an opportunity to express my passion when my boyfriend Josh told me about teaching classes at a co-op, and I immediately contacted Eli Morse, Director of the Co-op Culinary Learning Center. My goal through my classes is to show everyone that though Sri Lankan food, like most South Asian food, might seem intimidating to cook at first, it is in fact not that daunting at all once you have gotten comfortable with the spices and the techniques. I want to share with everyone my tricks and tips on how to create delicious and mouth-watering Sri Lankan food that is sure to please your family and friends.
Join me on May 14th for my class on Roti and Dahl Curry! You can get your hands dirty making one of my favorite stove-top breads and a creamy and savory protein-packed curry!
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