I have long had an interest in Sri Lankan cuisine. As a child, some family friends who had emigrated to the UK from Ceylon (as it was then) cooked Sri Lankan food for us when we visited them, as my mum cooked the food of her region of North India, when friends visited us. I’ve intended to learn more Sri Lankan dishes ever since. Somehow I failed to buy Peter Kuruvita’s beautiful book Serendip: My Sri Lankan Kitchen when it was first published in 2009 but I’m very pleased a new soft cover edition has just been released, as now I have a copy to further my education in this South Asian cuisine.
Born in London to an Austrian mother and a Sri Lankan father, Kuruvita spent much of his early childhood in Sri Lanka including many happy hours in the kitchen with his grandmother. Aged 11, he moved to Sydney, Australia with his family. From his first job in a local restaurant kitchen, Kuruvita became a hugely successful professional chef, with a career that’s taken him all around the world. He has worked in some of the best restaurants across the globe, and now consults for and runs a number of restaurants in Australia and Fiji.
It was while attending a literary festival in Sri Lanka that Kuruvita learned about the dearth of recipe books for traditional Sri Lankan curries, and inspired to fill the gap, he began to revisit Sri Lanka more regularly, travelling around the country to research authentic recipes. Serendip offers curries of every kind, as well as a range of snacks, breads, and sweets. The name of the book, by the way, is an old Persian name for the country, one that predates Sri Lanka.
More than a collection of recipes, the book is also a treasure trove of evocative food and travel images, Kuruvita’s cherished childhood memories and cultural insights into the food, culture and people of Sri Lanka. After his personal introductions to his childhood and family comes a section called In The Beginning; First Kuruvita discusses the importance of spices–which to buy to cover the basics, how best to store them, and roasting to bring out the flavours. Next come four recipes for curry powder mixes, followed by recipes for chutneys, sambals and pickles, which are an essential part of every meal. At the end of is a lengthy essay on cooking rice; much of it dedicated to personal memories of his childhood task of picking through the rice for errant stones, the way that husks are sometimes removed by setting sacks of rice upon the road for cars and trucks to drive over (thus loosening the husks, which can then be thrown into the air to winnow), and the rice farm land gifted to his father by a former Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.
The rest of the book broadly divides between the kind of dishes Kuruvita’s grandmother made inside the home, and recipes made for or sourced from outside. Grouped under the heading ‘My Grandmother’s Kitchen’ are chapters covering Life at Home, Meat Curries, Fish and Seafood Curries, Vegetarian Curries, and Achi’s Treats and Comforters. In ‘On The Road’ we find Lunch Packets and Short Eats, Regional Food, and Ethnic Specialities. After these, Sweet Temptations, The Bakery, and finally Wickramapala’s Favourites, a chapter dedicated to his father. I love the traveloguesque introductions to each chapter, with their beautiful photos of places, people and objects.
At the back of the book, a Glossary is helpful to understand unfamiliar ingredients such as goroka (a thickener that features in many recipes), kanda leaves (a herb), kang kung (also known as water spinach), Maldive fish flakes (used for both flavour and thickening), murunga (a vegetable) and others. Be aware that some of these are not easy to source; certainly I would have appreciated suggestions for substitutes where one or more of these ingredients is not available.
The index is so-so; mishaps with indentation also make it hard to parse (cucumber curry appears twice under C but the first is meant to be indented under coconut, I think). It’s also not easy to find recipes by specific ingredients–I remembered seeing a curry made with mackerel when I flicked through the book but there’s nothing under M–that dish is listed under F for fish.
Each recipe explains the dish, translating the name, giving some context about how and when it’s eaten, and suggesting other dishes to eat alongside. Photography is sympathetic to the personal nature of Kuruvita’s writing, matching time-worn surfaces and backgrounds in lovely colours and textures, with local crockery to showcase the food. Some recipes don’t have a picture, which is a shame, as the glorious photography is a strength of this book.
Our cooking thus far has been a delight. The pineapple curry, made with a whole fresh pineapple, is a revelation–any fears it would be too sweet for a main fall aside as soon as we taste it. The snake bean curry (for which we substituted green beans but will make as it’s written next time we get snake beans from our nearest South Asian grocery) is also wonderful.
The fish cakes were a little tricky to form, as the mixture didn’t hold together as well as expected, but one they’d been floured, egged and bread-crumbed, they held together well in the fryer. They were great as a light lunch and would make lovely snacks served with one or more of the chutney or sambal recipes in the book.
The joy I find in this book is three-fold. First, and foremost, the selection of simple, delicious, traditional Sri Lankan recipes to add to our repertoire of international cooking, and secondly in the charmingly personal narrative that weaves this collection together. Add to these evocative food and travel photography which–together with playful stories and cultural insights–paints an image of daily life in Sri Lanka and how food plays an integral part in forging and maintaining the bonds of family and friendship.
Recipes from Serendip by Peter Kuruvita
We have permission from Murdoch Books to share three recipes with you from the book:
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Kavey Eats received a review copy of Peter Kuruvita’s Serendip: My Sri Lankan Kitchen from publishers Murdoch Books. Food photography from the book by Alan Benson. General photography from the book by Alan Benson, Peter Kuruvita and the author’s family collection.