The urge is to think of Sri Lankan cuisine as Indian. The tiny island sits at the southernmost foot of that country, but that's only a fraction of the story.
It's Indian, sort of, but it's also a tropical place, with all the influences that climate implies — coconut, banana, fish. It was a focal point for colonizers such as the Portuguese — Portugal a melting pot unto itself -- but also the Dutch and British, who came to pillage the verdant coasts. Here too are the influences of the coastal region of India, a major spice trading center, and an important agricultural hub for rice growers. Arab traders also started taking trips through there starting in the 7th century, some of them even sticking around for love and making babies with the locals, so there are some Muslims, though mostly Buddhists and Hindus.
Maybe within the context of all this cultural circuitousness it seems fitting that two former 7-11 managers have made their way to Minnesota, by way of California, but first from Sri Lanka, and put down roots in Rosemount, on advice from their best friend the Buddhist monk who told them how nice our people are.
Vini Dissanayake and his wife Aruni Mahagamade have a six-year-old daughter, and they wanted to raise her among Minnesotans. Smart folks. Talented folks. Mahagamade was a home cook with formidable skills, and their friends were always pestering the two of them to open a restaurant. So they thought: Why not here? Why not now?
Restaurant rents are high, so the couple decided to open way out in Rosemount, where the rents are not so high. The space is sandwiched in a strip mall between an ice skating rink, a dollar store, and an H&R Block. You may be wondering whether there is a big Sri Lankan population there in Rosemount, home to 21,874 people, 87 percent of them white. Nope. Folks (both Sri Lankans and those of us who are simply enchanted by the cuisine) are driving the 45-plus minutes from the cities to enjoy the singular taste that is good, authentic Sri Lankan cuisine. Plus, no competition out there, so there's that.
You've been to a strip mall restaurant, and you've been to one with an Indian buffet. In some ways this is that restaurant: The dining room and service are more about efficiency than style, the beer and wine list nothing special (though at least one exists). But chances are you haven't driven 25 miles for a fancy beer, and so fortunately this place is all about the cooking.
Curries are fruity and rich with coconut, and tend to have less body than the thick, substantial curries from your favorite buffet table. The cooking at House of Curry does not use any ghee, butter, or cream, so flavors can seem cleaner and brighter and aeromatics sally through without cloying roadblocks, like a rocket sailing through crisp, dry air. Indeed, Dissanayake says diners often comment on the straightforwardness of flavor, despite the heavy use of spice. "The okra tastes like okra. The chicken tastes like chicken. Regular taste."
That is, if regular for you is intoxicating, bittersweet tamarind, Parliament levels of curry funk, enough chile to make steam puff out of your ears, nose-tickling ginger, and about a dozen other components made sumptuous with healthy doses of coconut milk. We wish the lamb were more tender — it could have used more time in the braise — but these curries are otherwise quite worthy of a look.
If you're a connoisseur of this cuisine, you'll be pleased with the familiar favorites the menu has in store. If you're a newbie, chances are you'll be dazzled by novelty as you navigate entire worlds inside of your dinner bowl. In general, the food is marked by its rustic intensity, complexity, depth, and the elevation of scrappy ingredients into prodigious intricacies.
Fish is deep-fried whole, fried okra is a proud national dish, onion and garlic feature prominently. This food is not about levity — we kept thinking about soul food, Caribbean food, and the cooking prowess of farmers, fishermen, plantation laborers, and others with deep working connections to land and sea.
Batu Moju is deep-fried eggplant cooked in tamarind sauce, rendered tender and almost spreadable by long cooking. You could roll it into roti bread, but it's also appealing enough to eat spoonful after spoonful. The tamarind's fruitiness makes saliva pool at the sides of your tongue, and the eggplant itself is lightly pickled, bringing a briny salinity to the party, with low umami bass notes of dried shrimp vying for balance. A vinegar and sugar dressing binds it all in a bewitching concoction that will have you seeking to catch each individual flavor, then losing it again, then catching another, like playful glimmers of firefly light in a night sky.
Kottu roti is at first glance fried rice, but take a closer look — those are no grains of rice at all, but instead finely shredded roti bread, stir-fried in the traditional Asian manner with onions, egg, and veggies. You may keep it vegetarian or add a protein; either way it's the sort of thing that feels like a dish for all occasions — lunch or dinner of course, but also breakfast, late night, on a picnic blanket, or over a tablecloth. It is in reality a street food, chopped on hot griddles in street stalls with two spatulas, and when the kitchen doors swing open at HOC, you can hear the chefs noisily going to town. It's a must-order.
A coconut flat bread called pol roti is served with a sweet onion chutney and tuna cooked heavily in elements you've probably scarcely thought of, much less consumed — things like goraka, which looks like a teeny, tiny pumpkin, but yields an unmatched sour fruitiness. The fish takes you to your limits with its dry, somewhat assertive nature, but then coaxes you back with the almost dessert-y fried bread, embedded with coconut. Slather it all with sweet, sticky golden onion chutney (seeni sambol) for an out-of-this world sandwich for the ages. It's like medicine and a spoonful of sugar in one seductive package.
If all of this unfamiliarity has got you nervous, there's something called a "deviled" preparation, which isn't really devilish at all, but an innocuous, deeply comforting dish of familiar sweet and sour sauce binding bell pepper, onion, tomato and shrimp, chicken, or lamb over rice. The sauce is glossy and sweet and makes you think of good, craveable, bad Chinese food — the kind to hunker over a cardboard box and eat by the glow of the television.
And oh, there is so much more! String Hoppers, a fun title for rice noodles, steamed and then served with yet more curry and spicy grated coconut; biryani, the Arab-influenced rice dish potent with saffron and turmeric; all the little deep-fried snacks like chicken rolls and veggie patties and fish cutlets, commonly referred to as "short eats," little savory treats grabbed by the dozen and eaten on the move, to make the go-go-go of life more palatable.
A soothing end to this mouthful of fireworks is watalappam — in name a mouthful, but in flavor a quiet bedtime story of condensed milk, jaggery syrup, cinnamon, clove, and nuts. Think of a tres leches cake meeting pumpkin pie and you'll be halfway there.
The long and winding historical, cultural, and geographical road that brought this almost poetically complicated cuisine to be reminds me of this family who packed up their rucksacks with spices and left the balmy climes of other places behind. What did the deep 'burbs and kindly mores of northern people have to offer? And how might they, in turn, set the crisp, cold strip-mall air afire with far-away aromas, restaurant dreams, and the many-millenia-old urge for exploration? Go and see.
Send your story tips to Hot Dish.