Sri Lankan food, history and mystery lauded by New Yorker and New York Times

To get a glowing mention in the prestigious high-society New Yorker magazine is easier said than done. But Lakruwana, a much-loved Sri Lankan restaurant nestled in a corner of downtown Staten Island, has managed it.

That was after the New York Times described this amazing haven of rice, curry and egg hoppers as “a shrine to another culture that can soothe homesickness in some patrons and kindle a thrilling sense of discovery in others”.

So that’s the food and ambience covered. But the New Yorker was after something else—the story of a young girl’s determination to spread the word of Sri Lanka’s unique history and mystery.

The only one of its kind outside Sri Lanka

Julia Wijesinghe, (above, centre) daughter of restaurant owners Lakruwana and Jayantha Wijesinghe, had an idea: create a Sri Lanka museum in the basement, the only one of its kind in the world outside our Paradise island.

Says the New Yorker: “Over several years, with her father’s help, she assembled the museum’s collection of Buddha statues (replicas and originals), ceremonial weapons, musical instruments, cooking implements, temple objects, a rubber-tree log, gemstones, and statues of Hindu deities like Krishna and Ganesha.

“Last August, she packed them in a twenty-foot shipping container and sent them on a voyage to America. The container arrived a month later; she worked on the museum all winter, and it opened in March.”

Putting Sri Lanka on the map

Says Julia: “My friends ask me, ‘You’re from New York, why do you have so much pride for your parents’ country?’ I have one-hundred-per-cent New York pride, too.

“But I am fluent in Sinhalese, and the amazing, wonderful country of Sri Lanka is my home, too. Sometimes strangers say, ‘You must be from India.’ I tell them I’m not, and then, over and over, I get the question ‘What—where is Sri Lanka?’ With my museum, I want to change that.”

She adds: “When my dad came, thirty-four years ago, there were almost no other Sri Lankans in New York. My mom was the first Sri Lankan woman he met here, and when they dated he took her to Yankee games. For us, there is no question between Mets or Yankees. We are a Yankees family all the way.”

Yankees family maybe, but with foodie roots still firmly anchored to the rich flavours and textures of Sri Lanka’s inimitable cuisine.

Read more here.

‘A balance of sweetness and spice that grew more captivating the more I ate”

Meanwhile, the New York Times is also smitten. Says reviewer Pete Wells: “Lifting the lids, I found deviled chicken in a chile sauce with a balance of sweetness and spice that grew more captivating the more I ate.

“Sticks of pineapple in a lightly hot curry paste soured with tamarind; chopped kale mixed with coconut and stir fried just until the greens begin to relax, a wonderful thing to do to kale; fat yellow lentils stewed in coconut milk with the warming flavors of mustard seeds, curry leaves and cinnamon sticks

First Sri Lankan restaurant

“This is the cooking that Lakruwana’s chef, Jayantha Wijesinghe, learned in her mother’s kitchen in Sri Lanka. After moving to the United States, she married another Sri Lankan expatriate, Lakruwana Wijesinghe, and together they opened what was almost certainly New York’s first Sri Lankan restaurant.

“It was unlicensed, and consisted of a picnic table under an umbrella behind a grocery shop in a sixth-floor walk-up above a pornographic movie theater in Times Square. In 1995, it moved to the street level and went legit.”

Read more here.

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