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Between Bites
 
Amy Sherman in San Francisco and Amy Zavatto in New York City examine the culinary history and trends for the world traveler.
New York City: Exploring Staten Island's Little Sri Lanka
For most New York City tourists, the free Staten Island Ferry ride and the Statue of Liberty views are enough (judging by how many people walk off and get right back on again to return to Manhattan).

But Staten Island isn’t just a quirky little bedroom-community of a borough -- it's got a wealth of culinary history brought here by ever-evolving immigrant populations on this island of a half-million residents. And for the hungry, adventure-seeking food traveler, it’s reason enough to step off that big, orange boat and keep walking into the historic, hilly neighborhoods of St. George, Tompkinsville, and Stapleton.
Here, among Albanians, Polish, Mexicans, Liberians, and other ex-pats, be it from Brooklyn or Bangladesh, you will find the third largest Sri Lankan community outside of the country of Sri Lanka itself (seriously!) -- and the amazing dishes that came along with them.

I’ve spent a little bit of time poking around these spots, ever-fascinated by the smells and spices, let alone the story -- why did this area become the entry and settling point for so many people from Sri Lanka? The answers aren’t particularly well documented, but the best comes from a great article by N.F.P. Fernandes written in 2000 in the magazine
City Limits (www.citylimits.org/news/articles/2283/points-of-entry-sri-lankan-enclave). According to Fernandes, it all started in 1967 with one young Sri Lankan family who needed more living space, and more security, than the by-the-month tiny space they’d been renting in Manhattan. Across the harbor in Staten Island, the family got more for their money. After that, it all just kind of snowballed -- you tell two friends, or cousins, or in-laws, and they’ll tell two friends, or cousins, or in-laws… and so on.

Since then, Richmond County became the gateway for thousands of Sri Lankans who made new lives here, several of whom took their culinary skills public -- some have tiny storefronts with little to no seating, with the few seats available taken up by Sri Lankans watching cricket matches on TV, waiting for their to-go orders to be ready; some are full-on sit down experiences beautifully decorated with tapestries and woven fans from the Isle of Gems. All absolutely worth checking out. Here, a few of my favorites:

New Asha (322 Victory Boulevard, tel. 718/420-0649). Remember the description above about the place with the cricket-watching ex-pats? That's New Asha. It doesn't look like much from the outside -- tiny, some simple, crocheted curtains in the window, a big green awning shading its work-a-day aluminum-framed glass doorway from the beating sun on Victory Boulevard, but don't let the size or lack-of ambience trick you. This place is about big flavor. Warning: the dishes tend toward the spicy here. Kind of all the time: the rich spinach and chicken, the creamy red lentils -- they look innocent enough, but they've got a kick and a half, so forewarned is forearmed (or, at least, tipped off to buy a little milk or a lassi to cool things down). The thing I can't stay away from here is the roti -- oversize cigar-shape rolls of pastry filled with a fragrant mix of potatoes, onions, peas, and curry. Co-owner Prema Wijesinghe and her family make them daily (they're usually ready until about 2pm or so), and they run out fast, so get 'em by the bag. If they are out, sub in the saucer-shaped, crunchy lentil cakes, which are mild on the spice but a fun, savory treat to munch on all the same


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Dosa Garden (323 Victory Boulevard, tel. 718/420-0919). One of the newest to open on this strip locally known as Little Sri Lanka, take a tip from the name and order one of their dozen or so specialities -- a thin, salty, airy, gigantic pancake of rice flour that you can dip or wrap around various fillings. My latest favorite is the Rava Dosa. Served on a long, silver plate with small compartments filled with a creamy, tomato mix; a spicy, thick potato curry; and sambal -- a sweet, thick, coconut concoction (perfect for cooling off the spices from the other sides).

 

Another traditional dish not to miss are the texture-defying string hoppers. A sort of nest of rice noodles that cling together without being sticky or soggy, they serve as a sort of soft, surprisingly sturdy nestling ground for ever-more spicy fillings similar to those used for the dosa, but also including new surprises, like the golden sauce of cumin, onion, and mustard seed or spinach spiked with clove and cinnamon.


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San Rasa (226 Bay Street, tel. 718//420-0027). Formerly known as Lakruwana, the outside of San Rasa is a little foreboding -- four, large, white statues stand sentry outside the glass front door that is covered inside by a bamboo shade. You can't help but think to yourself, "Am I supposed to go in here?" Yes, you should, as it's easily the loveliest of all the Sri Lankan spots, with its pretty rattan placemats and woven baskets and tapestries artfully hung from the walls. Chef Sanjaya Handapangoda has won over his countrymen and non-Sri Lankans alike with his fragrant, flavorful menu (upon which he is happy to adjust the spice level, if hot isn't your forte). The not-to-be-missed dish here, though, is the Lamprie:

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Wrapped and steamed in a bright green banana leaf, you peel away the layers to find a neat circle of basmati rice topped with caramelized onions and eggplant, jack fruit, stewed cashews, and a crunchy, spicy lentil cake. It is a wonderland of flavor and, although I think I've eaten the dish dozens of times, it never gets old. I'm pretty sure I squeak like a kid opening presents on Christmas morning every time I unwrap those pretty leaves.

And there are more, of course. Some I've yet to explore, and dishes on the menus of the ones I have that I've yet to get to. All things that are well-worth a free ferry ride.

Tags: statenislandnycsrilankan
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bruce3404 wrote:
San Rasa is great and only a 10 minute walk from the ferry. They have a very good buffet which allows one to try several specialties. It's BYOB and the prices are dirt cheap. It's not always crowded, but does a brisk take-out business with local Sri Lankan expats. I've eaten their four times and can highly recommend it.
8/6/2010 1:40 PM EDT
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Amy Zavatto wrote:
I'm pretty sure that they have a newly minted beer and wine license now -- they've been serving beer in the back garden (or, they were during the World Cup, which was a ton of fun) and I think they've got some wine, too. (Although, maybe still bring your own!) Glad you dig it, too, Bruce.
8/6/2010 7:33 PM EDT
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winofigments wrote:
Good article Amy. If you decide to revisit, I'll shoot some photos for you. I've wanted to do an essay on the community since I live close-by. You omitted Lak Bojun which is right next door to New Asha.
Glen
9/21/2010 9:07 PM EDT
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Amy Zavatto wrote:
Just haven't been there, yet, but it's on my hit list. Also, there's a little one on Cebra I've been meaning to check out, too. So many places to eat, so little time or room in my stomach...
10/7/2010 1:46 PM EDT
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