Ruwanmali Samarakoon-Amunugama’s childhood memories of visits to her parents’ homeland in Sri Lanka were filled with colourful trips to the market, lively, happy meals with her extended family, and long, scenic car rides from the capital of Colombo, past tea estates and farmers’ stalls, into the hill country around Kandy. In Milk, Spice and Curry Leaves, Ruwan shares the rustic, tropical flavours of these Sri Lankan visits—sweet pineapple and mango, bitter gourd, toothsome cashews, spicy chili pepper, tart lime, and many more—in recipes designed with North American home cooks in mind.
She introduces the three pillars of Sri Lankan cuisine: coconut milk, rice, and spice, and walks readers through the steps to make the two foundational Sri Lankan curry powders (roasted and unroasted). She also goes into detail on specialty products—like goraka, pandanus leaves, tamarind, and young jackfruit—always with attention to using ingredients available in North American grocery stores.
With lush food photography and styling, hand-drawn illustrations, heirloom photos and ephemera, Milk, Spice and Curry Leaves is an invitation to a way of cooking and a family of traditions from the country known as “the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.”
There do not seem to be that many books about Sri lankian cooking, even less about regional dsfad Ruwanmali Samarakoon-Amunugama was born and raised in Canada to Sri Lankian parents. She learned to cook from her grandmother and mother. The experiences build a taste and love for her ancestral homeland. One of the results of this is her wonderful new book Milk Spice & Curry Leaves.
Ruwanmali Samarakoon-Amunugama was recently kind enough to talk with us about her book, her love for her homeland(s) and how her mother doesn’t bother with written recipes.
BooksAboutFood.com(BAF): Perhaps I can start off by asking a little bit about your background.
Ruwanmali: Yeah. So, basically, I was born in Canada. We lived in several provinces, and finally we settled in British Columbia. My mom had said she wasn’t going to move anymore, so we kind of just stopped in British Columbia. And we were there, and they’re still there. And then I traveled a little bit for my work with the government of Canada, so I moved to Ottawa and traveled a little bit there. And then when I met my husband, who is American, that’s when we sort of started thinking about the US, which is why we are here now.
I always thought it was interesting being a Sri Lankan Canadian, because I’d often seen more of Canada than my own Canadian friends. And my father certainly had, so it was really interesting, because as you know, Canada, from the west coast all the way to the Atlantic, they’re so different regionally. And I got that exposure at a young age and that awareness of how regions are really different, not only in environment, but then in culture.
It was interesting when I did the book, because there was this idea of, especially earlier on, when I would send it out, or people would ask about Sri Lankan food. There was an impression of Indian and Sri Lankan being the same, or, “What is Sri Lankan food?” As if it was one geography, and it’s really not.
So, it’s interesting, having had my lens on not only seeing as much of Canada as I did, and then of course the world, because my mother took us back to Sri Lanka almost every year since I was a baby, because she had such a connection to her home. And to see so many parts of the world and so much of Canada, it was really eye opening, I think, to understand the differences between geographies and peoples and localities and then how food influences that and how it intermixes, so that’s a little bit about my background.
BAF: You touched on something interesting about the dichotomy and diversity of Canada.
Ruwanmali: Right, yeah.
BAF: So, let me play devil’s advocate and say, how would you describe Sri Lankan cuisine?
Ruwanmali: Well, the hill country recipes are in the book. We’re really focused in about Kandian recipes or a region just because my mom, my family’s ancestry was raised there. So, the food was really reflective of the fruits and the vegetables that were abundant in that locality. And really, there was so much available. And then the way, the methods, that they cooked were different because of that. So, if you lived in a coastal region in Sri Lanka, what you would eat and the way you would prepare it would be very different. In the hill country, the way they use more coconut milk or the way they do the slow cooking or their use of a lot more. They eat a lot of mallums, which is finally cut up greens or sambols. That might be different from if you were up north in Jaffna, or if you were down south.
It’s a highly vegetarian diet, I think, as a result, because they didn’t have much seafood. It was like a treat. My mom said if she had seafood, or chicken it was a treat. They didn’t really view it as this main staple of their diet every day. So, she, as a result I think, had a very clean diet, not that they were overly conscious of it as we are today, and our attempt to eat clean. I think they were eating clean diets and her mother grew that much of her own vegetables and spices, the ginger and turmeric and rampe and curry leaves. All that, they grew. And then in addition to that, she had coconut trees for the coconut milk and her own cow.
That’s how her upbringing was. It was very rural and sort of, I don’t know if country is… It’s not equated to country here, but that’s the type of thing. But if you were in another part of the country, it’s different, because many people say Sri Lankan food is very, very hot and very, very spicy. And I think relative to maybe food people are used to, it might be, but regionally, it does differ here and there in Sri Lanka. You do use chili a lot. But some curries may not be as hot as people might expect, so I think that’s what translates in some of these recipes too, is that there’s such a variety.
BAF: You can’t really pigeonhole Sri Lankan cuisine. There’s certainly, this is what I think a lot of people probably aren’t aware of, just how diverse things are.
Ruwanmali: Even I’m not as aware. I would love to, when I’m able to go back, because when the north had opened up, I didn’t get a chance to travel as much there, so it’d be nice to go and learn a little bit more about the northern cuisines.
BAF: So, is this still an ongoing process?
BAF: How did the idea for this book come about? Because it sounds like you don’t really have a culinary background as such.
Ruwanmali: Well, and that’s the thing, I think every Sri Lankan might because food is such a huge, huge part of the culture and just the way you grow up. So, it’s a natural way to grow up. It’s not maybe professionally, but the way we teach food, and I think in some cultures is that way of generational teaching. And so, I was very aware of how it was bringing people together, and every time you were at the table, my mom was like, “Okay,” when she was preparing. When she had finished breakfast, she was always thinking about lunch. And after lunch, then it was dinner. And then she was thinking about the next day, and that’s often true. Sri Lankans are like that.
So, I grew up really appreciating food, but I suppose, me over my sister, yeah. I was very present in the kitchen and watching her and watching her methods. And I think the idea came along once I was a bit older, and I realized if I didn’t maybe start documenting it, we might lose some of these great recipes, because we didn’t have a lot of immediate family around as if we were living in Sri Lanka. We didn’t have all that, and I really enjoyed her cooking. I really loved the flavor of my mother’s cooking. Everybody loves their mother’s cooking, but she really knew how to make a curry. And she still does. And it’s amazing. And so, that’s when I really started to hone in on her methods.
BAF: When you tell people you’ve done this book. What sort of misnomers do people have about Sri Lankan or the hill country food or cuisine?
Ruwanmali: Yeah. I mean, I think that they just don’t necessarily may not just know. I think the first misnomer might be that, “Is it similar?” I think the starting point is always, “Is it like Indian food?” Because they would have gone and eaten Indian food somewhere, so it’s their frame of reference, but really, I think it’s so unknown to people. It’s really just an unknown. And so, I think where I often start is just talking about the spices, things like rampe or pandan leaf. That’s not often used. Or goroka, but our foundational roasted curry powder, for example, is very different from the spices that might be used in Indian cooking.
I think it might be the first book, even though you have a large population. So, I think it’s just that it’s an unknown, and I’m really glad that it came out, because it just has really opened up the discussion around the food, like the cashew nut curry has just become one of the recipes that’s got a lot of attention.
BAF: Yeah, well, because one of the things that caught my eye about the book was that it was certainly a unique subject, and regional at that. And I got to thinking, I’ve been to some great ethnic restaurants, but I don’t really recall finding a Sri Lankan place.
Ruwanmali: Yeah. They’re often holes in the walls. You might not even know they’re there.
BAF: Those are the best kind.
Ruwanmali: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. I agree with you.
BAF: You’ve touched on this already, but the components of the cuisine, you mentioned coconut and curry. What would you say the general main components are?
Ruwanmali: I would say the main components are, you have your ground spice, and there’s often a chili in that. There’s often a souring ingredient, which the book gets into, and the souring ingredient can either be the lime that finishes the curry at the end or goroka, which is the dried goraka fruit. I’ve noted vinegar as one, tamarind. So, there’s often a souring component. There’s the spice foundation, which is whatever ground spice you use. And then sometimes whole spices that are added in. And then the plants, like the curry leaf, which really give it that sort of signature flavor.
And I think, whether it’s a meat or a vegetable, there’s always the coconut milk, that is sort of, I guess, the sauce, if there’s a word for it. And that’s sort of what binds and melts all the flavors together. So, I guess the book gets into something called the essential flavorings, which is the spices. And then it moves on to things like the sour ingredients, souring ingredients.
But there’s the cast, which… I mean, there’s always that base of that onion, garlic, ginger as well. So, the aromatics, I guess I should say. I think the book really tries to break it up for people so that they understand, okay, here’s the spices, and here is the function of the spice. And then here’s your aromatic base. And then here’s your finishing souring, or it’s used for many reasons, the souring. So, those are sort of some of the components, I guess, of the flavors that come together.
BAF: Yeah. So, do you have any advice for somebody who wants to start doing this?
Ruwanmali: My biggest advice is to, if they have the book, to read. You know how when you get cookbooks and you often just skip the intro, and you just get right to the recipe, because you’re just like, “Okay.” My biggest advice is to read the introduction. I remember when I got really into cookbooks that were significant to me learning how to cook something. I really spent time in the beginning of the book, because there’s often so much information that you just don’t know. And so, I did spend a lot of time on things like the traditional cooking methods to help people achieve either a consistency or a certain flavor that you could only get if you really understood why you did something a certain way, like the tempering, which is just a common term in Sri Lankan kitchens.
And so, my biggest advice is to read the introduction and learn about a little bit of that foundation, and then start with an easy recipe, like a dhal recipe, which is not overly exciting for some people, but just start with something simple like that, because if you want to trial and error some of those types of things or a potato curry, one of the vegetables, like a potato that maybe somebody, if you’re used to using potatoes. If you like beets, that’s another one. I feel like some of those ones are good ones to start with, and then kind of progress to the other recipes where you might be really going into the specialty markets to find ground coconut, to make coconut sambol, or before you attempt those, to try the other ones.
BAF: Well, actually, I just want to say one of the things which I really liked about the book was that you have the chapter about the pillars, the pillars of Sri Lankan cuisine, and then after you write all that, you have the tips and other things to know, which seems a very handy thing to have, and complete with drawings and tips, which is certainly something which is very advantageous in a book like this as a subject matter, that’s still somewhat mysterious for lack of a better word.
Ruwanmali: Yeah. I mean, these were things that I was learning as I went along too, and I realized that it was important for me. So, it was important for me to know those things as I was learning. So, I naturally knew that I wanted to include those tips in a book, because those are the secret things that often books don’t tell you, because you try something in a book, and you’re like, “Well, why didn’t it turn out?” Well, there’s probably a little tip in there that was needed. So, I tried to include as much of it as I could.
BAF: Yeah. Well, so you said it was a learning process, this whole thing. Was this a hard thing to go through, to sit down and actually write a book?
Ruwanmali: I think it was, but at the same time, I feel like when you write a book, it’s really a passion. If you’re going to sit down and write a book, it’s because you’re truly passionate about the subject. So, it doesn’t seem as onerous, I think, when it’s something you’re passionate about. It’s almost like you want to go back and make sure that you didn’t miss anything. And that was almost the problem for me was I was always going back and making sure did I give the exact, precise instruction as I could have? And finally, my publisher was sort of like, “Okay, we kind of have to stop now.”
BAF:Enough is enough.
Ruwanmali: She’s like, “Yeah, you only have this many rounds,” and the reason why was because I knew I had one shot, because there weren’t so many Sri Lankan cookbooks out there. And I really wanted people to succeed with the recipes. And I really wanted people to experience the food that they grew up with if they were a second generation Sri Lankan, trying to make a curry that their mom had made for them type of thing. That’s why it was as long a project as it was, but it wasn’t necessarily hard in that sense.
BAF:One of the things that I was taken by of the book was not only just the pictures of the finished dishes, but we got some wonderful, old pictures of Sri Lanka and markets and things. I just it was beautifully illustrated. How did that come about? Did you have any input, or did you work with a photographer?
Ruwanmali: Well, so Danielle Acken did the pictures of the actual dishes, and then the market pictures or pictures when I traveled to Sri Lanka over several, many, many years, and my interest started to turn to going to the markets.
Initially, we’d go for holidays, and I’d just spend it at the beach. And then it turned into, “I really want to go to the markets,” because I was so interested, because we get all these things here in North America in neatly packaged bottles. We don’t think twice about it. We don’t think twice about how the pepper arrived in that bottle. It’s so profound when you see a farmer bring it to a market, and you spend some time talking to them about how that process was, or you just see them selling their products with such pride, and how they display it and how they call you to their stuff.
Ruwanmali: It just had such a profound impact on me. And I wanted people to see that in such an organic state, and to see how fruits and vegetables are displayed in another part of the world, as opposed to how you buy it in a grocery store. And actually my father said to me, and I was doing the book, he said, “Make sure they get pictures of…” He said, “Make sure if they’re doing a photo of the pineapple curry, you don’t just show the pineapple curry, that you show the pineapple.” And it was very important to him. He said, “You need to show people the products, not just the end product.” And so, that was a really intentional part of the photography and what was depicted through the images, because I wanted people to understand spice and plants and the botany of things.
BAF: Are these family photos that you have in here? Somewhat?
Ruwanmali: Yeah I sneakily took my mother’s photo album while she was actually in Sri Lanka. I sneakily took it, and she didn’t know. These are all photos of her growing up in an era. And this is to me is the hill country as she grew up in it. Very calm, very happy times for her, I just feel, that can never be replaced. And the organic, natural background. I mean, some of these pictures, you see her just standing in this beautiful picturesque background. And that was just how she grew up, so she took it for granted, but for me, growing up and knowing that she lived in this kind of environment was amazing. I wanted people to understand what hill country was, not just as a locality, but as a reality for somebody who grew up in that. And [crosstalk 00:21:08]
BAF: Not just in theory.
Ruwanmali: That’s right. And that people around, and I wouldn’t poke at people’s understanding of people around the world. We have such different life experiences, and how that bleeds into everything that we consume, including food, and how that shapes our minds and our experiences of the world. I somehow wanted to infuse some of those concepts in the book, because it had such an impact on me, and knowing that one day, this might go to my daughter. I wanted her to think about that, too.
BAF: Is she interested in the food as well? In what you’ve done?
Ruwanmali: She is. Now she’s become quite interested in being in the kitchen, and I really am glad that she takes interest. She is trying to understand her culture. She’s five now. So, she’s trying to understand her identity.
I think, growing up in Canada. And at the time when I was, when you said visible minority, really were kind of a visible minority in the community. I don’t think it’s the case now, but it was important that my mother helped us understand what and who that identity was, and has allowed us to experience it and then own it in our own way. I think that was really important.
BAF: You’ve referenced your mother quite a bit. Did she act as any sort of editor or advisor of the book? Did she have any input off the record or on the record?
Ruwanmali: No, because, I mean, apart from me just cooking, and these being many of her recipes that I grew up with, and so I was her sous chef in the kitchen, the book was, I think, a surprise. I mean, when I showed her the book, she was just beside herself-because when I was trying to go through recipes with her standing there, she really has no patience. She was just like, “I don’t know, it’s a pinch of this. It’s a pinch!”
BAF: She doesn’t use recipes. She just cooks.
Ruwanmali: No, she really doesn’t to this day. I don’t know how. She just is very intuitive. They are so intuitive with their cooking. She is so aware of an ingredient, I think. It’s such a good relationship with food to have when you’re that aware.
BAF: Since you used her image, maybe she’ll hit you up for a percentage or something of the sales.
Ruwanmali: Exactly, yeah.
BAF: I’ll just finish up my asking, because you have this wonderful book out, so what’s next for you?
Ruwanmali: What’s next? I’m hoping what’s next for me is another trip to Sri Lanka, and to look towards the next one. And to hope to really get a next. It’s a really big deal, I think, for a community to have themselves represented and to get as much exposure for it and the credit and I think the light it deserves, because we all need to see that in our communities, to see it represented in the larger community. So, I hope another book is next for me.
“This vegetable and seafood-heavy book has recipes for all the classics . . . I would plead for as a kid . . . It’s a technique-heavy book, full of reliable instructions and gorgeous, nostalgic photographs.” —Epicurious
“All the 65 recipes in Milk, Spice and Curry Leaves are inspired by her mother and grandmother, a tribute to an unhurried time when food was cooked with a lot of thought, with a lot of love. . . there is a thoughtful intent to give her North American readers an understanding and insight into the island’s cuisine, its origins and influences – the Portuguese and Dutch elements that have enhanced it as well as cooking tips and recipes, all woven with memories.” —Sri Lanka Sunday Times
“A lush trove of thoughtful, economical advice for adapting [Sri Lankan cuisine] to North American pantries. Vegans, vegetarians and meat-eaters alike will find much to enjoy in this collection. Whether cooking for a crowd or a few, celebrate familiar fall flavors during this unusual holiday season, and find delicious solace in the winter squash, the crab curries, the elegant, topping-laden Fancy Yellow Rice and the simply divine Coconut Roti.” —Shelf Awareness
“[Samarakoon-Amunugama] pays homage to her mother’s homeland, expounding on the abundance of fish around the flora-flush island in the Indian Ocean that inspired its seafood dishes, and fruits and veggies from the hill country of the Central Province that produce memorable vegetarian curries.” —Seattle Times
“Taking a long flight somewhere to enjoy new cultures and foods is not, for obvious reasons, in most of our current plans. We’re staying close to home and looking forward to the day that we can travel like that again. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get a big bite of what that journey might be like. That’s how I felt when reading . . . Milk, Spice and Curry Leaves.” —Times Colonist