Dining at Staten Island's New Asha Sri Lankan Restaurant is a steam table and styrofoam affair. Customers assemble their meals at the front counter through finger-pointing fiat, and then await the arrival of disposable plates laden with curries, daals and sambols.
But when you step into the back kitchen, it's a wholly different world. Bamboo steamers gurgle over pots of boiling water and jars of homemade spice blends line the walls. A hand-powered drill and a machete (or manna, as it's called in Sri Lankan kitchens) are on hand to transform hirsute whole coconuts into snowy white mounds of freshly ground flesh.
Here is where you understand how this little restaurant cooks up New York's freshest, most vibrant Sri Lankan food.
In South Asia's rapidly modernizing cities (and among its diaspora), easy, ready-made alternatives are replacing traditional, time-intensive cooking methods. But at this tiny Staten Island restaurant, everything is still made the old, hard way, using family recipes and fresh ingredients.
Coconut is an essential ingredient in Sri Lankan cooking, and New Asha's kitchen goes through 10 to 15 whole coconuts a day—each opened with a few expertly aimed whacks of the manna. Just before closing each night, dried lentils that have soaked in water all day are ground into fresh batter and left to ferment overnight. That traditional, day-long process gives New Asha's thick, fluffy dosas just the right tangy edge.
"We don't go to culinary school. We just learn our own food," says Vijayakumari Devadas, 48, the restaurant's stern but benevolent matriarch.
New Asha, which opened in 2000, was the first restaurant to arrive in Staten Island's Little Sri Lanka, a stretch of Victory Boulevard located a 15-minute jaunt from the ferry to Manhattan. Since the 1980s (when civil war broke out back home), the Sri Lankan community in Tompkinsville has grown steadily. Now it's the largest in the U.S., and Sri Lankan restaurants and grocery stores dot the neighborhood.
Over the years, the cooking at New Asha has remained steadfastly delicious. Viji (as her customers call her) and her husband Devadas, 60, own and run the restaurant together with Viji's older brother Subhaschandraboase and his wife Udayakumari. The menu combines recipes from all of their mothers, who hail from both northern and southern Sri Lanka, as well as Kerala (a state in neighboring South India).
"This is family," says Udayakumari, 44, who credits Viji with teaching her how to cook professionally. "This is our restaurant."
Sri Lankan cuisine, with its reliance on coconut, rice and fresh and dried seafood, has much in common with food in Kerala. But Sri Lankan cooks, with easy access to the island's famous spice gardens, also season their dishes with bold ground spice blends.
Sri Lanka is a small island—about the size of West Virginia, with roughly the population of New York City. But there are subtle differences between cooking in the Buddhist, Sinhalese-speaking south and the Hindu, Tamil-speaking north. Food in the north (where Viji and her brother were raised) is famously incendiary and seafood-centric, while Sri Lankans in the south (where Viji's husband and sister-in-law grew up) favor milder vegetable dishes.
Sri Lanka's Tamil minority and Sinhalese majority fought a bloody civil war over the last three decades, until 2009. But in Tompkinsville's tightly knit Sri Lankan community, Sinhalese and Tamil immigrants have found common ground. And Viji and her family, with their roots running through the north and south, cater to both groups at New Asha.
String hoppers (red rice flour noodles steamed in clumps) and coconut sothi (coconut milk gravy seasoned with curry leaf, onion, and mild spices)—staples in the south—are always available at New Asha. On weekends, pittu (steamed cylinders of red rice flour and shredded fresh coconut)—the carb of choice in northern Sri Lanka's Jaffna peninsula—are also available.
On a crowded shelf in New Asha's kitchen, a jar of fiery Jaffna powder (a northern spice blend) sits next to homemade kalu kudu (Sinhalese black curry powder)—a smoky, fragrant blend of roasted coriander, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and curry leaf.
Viji roasts and grinds her own spice mixes. One blend of her own invention—"masala coconut"—straddles northern and southern tastes. To make it, Viji grinds fresh coconut, cinnamon, cloves, and chilies and slowly roasts them over low heat, giving the spicy-sweet blend a mildly smoky flavor. It's a key ingredient in her polos curry (an occasional special made with unripe jackfruit) and the goat and chicken curries available daily.
On a recent Sunday afternoon in New Asha's kitchen, Udayakumari unloaded freshly steamed string hoppers from hundreds of tiny basket molds before putting the finishing touches on a batch of pol sambol (freshly ground coconut tossed with minced raw onion, chilies, and curry leaf), a savory-sweet condiment eaten with most Sri Lankan meals.
Wheat-flour buns (a vestige of centuries of Portuguese colonial occupation) filled with mackerel and homemade seeni sambol (a tangy-sweet condiment made with caramelized onion, tamarind, sugar and spices) are baking in the oven, and Devadas mans the grill. He slaps and stretches rounds of dough into handkerchief-thin rotis; then deftly flips and folds them on the hot griddle until they are lightly charred and steaming hot.
When an order for chicken kothu roti (a signature Sri Lankan street snack) comes in, Devadas swiftly switches gears. First chopped carrot, onion, leek, and green chilies hit the grill, followed by raw egg and a mound of neatly diced roti. After a quick, smoky stir-fry over high heat, generous scoops of meat and spice-rich gravy from Viji's chicken curry are tossed in for the crowning touch.
Meanwhile, Viji is constantly on the move, waiting on customers up front and ducking into the kitchen to steam cylinder after cylinder of pittu in between orders. The dish starts with a huge bowl of red rice flour, moistened with water. Viji adds salt and a few handfuls of ground coconut fresh from Devadas's hand-grater. The mixture is loaded into a small bamboo pipe (called a pittu bamboo), steamed for 10 minutes, and then gently ejected with a stick, yielding a single pittu.
It's a slow, effort-intensive process, but Viji refuses to switch to a newer, more efficient metal pittu-maker. She swears by her trusty pittu bamboo.
"It gives better flavor," she says with an assured smile that brooks no debate. "I'm happy to serve and really happy to cook."