After leaving their politically unstable island nation, thousands of Sri Lankan people have settled on a new island: Staten Island. A small group of mostly-professionals, came in the 1960s followed by a much larger wave in the 1990s during a terrible civil war. Does the word tamil tiger ring any bells for you? M.I.A.’s got a few songs about it.
In a small but vibrant community these immigrants have created a tiny enclave of their homeland that appears to based entirely around food. Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was know in the imperial days of the British Empire, is a not-so-tiny island off the south east coast of the Indian subcontinent. Most of the population are Sinhalese, which refers to their language and ethnicity as well as their food. Sinhalese are mostly buddhist, hence their incredibly flavorful and vibrant vegetable-based cuisine. For more on the migration and politics of the community, read this.
Staten Island has always been a land shrouded in mystery to me. Admittedly I’ve only set foot in the Staten Island Ferry terminal with out-of-town guests who wanted a free boat ride that includes prime Statue of Liberty viewing. Several weeks ago I rounded up the ladies of #EFAC that’s the Ethnic Food Adventure Club and took them on what was perhaps our most adventurous adventure in that it involved two trains, a boat and a bus. It’s not easy to reach Sri Lankan Tompkinsville without a car. You’ll need to battle tourists at the very southern tip of Manhattan, board a ferry (which is free) and then navigate the Staten Island bus system to reach it. For the thrill-seeking foodie this is not a place to missed.
I took my girls to a highly-recommended Sinhalese buffet-style restaurant called Lakruwana admittedly because it had a detailed NY Times review and buffets are great for big groups (Pete Wells describes his whole Thompkinsville experience here).
There are other restaurants to get better roti and dosas but Laruwaka is a crowd-pleaser. The decor is perhaps a bit over the top with gold Buddhas and intricate 3-D paintings lining the walls but I found it welcoming.
The food, which was delicious, is served in beautiful clay warming pots in a buffet line along a cramped wall of the place. On Sunday’s the lunch buffet is $11.95 and you can’t beat that. The highlights were the smoky eggplant dip and the lentils. I wasn’t mad at the fresh unlimited papdum either!
Lakruwana is located a ways away from the center of things and the center of things seems to be the intersection of Cebra Avenue and Victory Boulevard. Within a two block radius are at least 3 Sri Lankan grocery stores, 4 restaurants, a travel agency and a few convenience stores.
Many of the shops were closed on Sunday and we were too full to try the dosas at Dosa Garden (next time, it’s a dosa crawl). Of course I wanted to spend hours in the small but mysterious Lanka Grocery but my fellow adventurers were hot and tired. Look how far we walked.
I think my heaven looks like a dingy ethnic supermarket where I don’t what half the stuff is.
Still I managed to pick up a strange small green fruit and was told by the cashier that it was a kasa kasa and that the seeds, if soaked would turn into these gelatinous type things to put into fruit juice. I think something was lost in translation because kasa kasa appear to be plain old poppy seeds. BUT, here’s a recipe for some delicious iced tea with soaked poppy seeds.
I later identified the mysterious green fruit as ambarella. I never got to taste my ambarella because it went bad while I was out of town. I deeply regret not buying this preserve!