Yes Siree Lanka!

New York City is of course well known for being the crucible, as it were, of the American melting pot, the city in which the world's many diverse peoples meet to mingle and meld. One thinks of the Spanish-speaking Bronx, or Queens, a borough said to contain more than sixty identifiable ethnic enclaves. Manhattan's Harlem, lately home to expats from countless nations across the vast African continent, springs to mind. So does Brooklyn, with its miniature Russia in Brighton Beach, its petite Puebla in Sunset Park, and its lesser-known Chinatown, spread out along much of Eighth Avenue. Of the five boroughs, only Staten Island fails conjure up an image of the new arrival scrambling to make his way in the new world. Most of us think of Staten Island as a quasi-suburban enclave inhabited by retired policemen, the Wu-tang Clan, and third generation Sicilians in the carting industry. It is a place where The Sopranos might have been set had the producers not been frightened of ruffling too many local feathers, and therefore turned to New Jersey.

But one growing group of immigrants has claimed the borough as its own. Where Victory Boulevard, Staten Island's unofficial main drag, begins its descent down a steep hill toward New York harbor, a dense cluster of Ceylonese have taken up residence. Why the Sri Lankans should have settled here is a mystery to me, but when I was a child, growing up in Princeton, New Jersey, immigrants from Italy were still arriving there. Many promptly went into the gardening business. All, invariably, were from the island of Ischia, in the Bay of Naples. The explanation I was given for this was simply that one Italian from that island had made his way to Princeton, flourished in gardening, and written home to friends and cousins that the living was easy. In one way or another Staten Island now apparently plays a similar role in some Sri Lankan community, and we are the richer for it.

The New Asha, at 322 Victory Blvd., reported on Chowhound to be the best of the community's restaurants. It is a small room with glass-fronted cabinets protecting a steam-table, and it has all the ambiance of a joint selling pizza by the slice. Nonetheless, the friendly proprietress, wearing pink and saffron, took one look and said "you've never been here before, let me make you some plates." Extraordinarily spicy chicken and fish in an almost orange curry, sauteed jackfruit slices in Colombo sauce, crisp and crunchy deep-fried chickpea fritters, delicate fingers of roti wrapping a meat filling: nothing was a disappointment.

At 353 Victory Blvd., a superette with a sense of humor. We loaded up on spicy and delicious Sri-Lankan style mango chutney and black mustard seed, unavailable at Fairway, for making our own Colombo powder. The glass deli fridges, used at the local bodega for sodas and 40-ouncers, here held crisp, fresh okra, sprigs of curry leaf, and a box full of big, strange purple sprouts. These looked vaguely familiar from my travels, but out of context, collected together in a box in a fridge on Staten Island, I couldn't place them. "Excuse me, what is this, please?" I asked, bringing one to the cash register. "It's a banana flower," replied the cashier. "How does one cook it?" "Sauteed, with butter." "Perhaps a bit of curry, if you like it," added a customer, putting her provisions into a bag. "Peel off the tough purple outer leaves, and then slice it," she went on. She was an attractive woman with the typical dark complexion of south Indians. A lively discussion followed, which included various recipes. "They say it is very good for the action of the colon," concluded the woman. It was all I had been waiting to hear, and I added the bulbous purple bud to my pile of purchases.


Otto Mannix said...

I've heard of this enclave. Lankan food is the best. "Kata Dhannava!" There's a good restaurant on 1st Ave. between fifth and sixth, but it can be pricey if you want a range of items, unless you get the RICE AND CURRY COMBO, (not listed on menu)

This is Rick, Anthony's friend, wussup Richard? i'll put your blog in my list of links on my blog. Hey, you ever read the book "Big Dead Place"? i gotta find a copy of that one.

Otto Mannix said...

thanks for getting back. i try to avoid buying things on-line, but since i haven't found that book at the stores, Amazon wins.

your blog is now in the link list on Otto Mannix, but i often wonder if we're doing these blogs only for ourselves! besides a couple comments here and there, it's never certain whether or not anybody is reading them.

we bloggers gotta support each other. the web is dog-eat-dog goddammit!

i like to go to Sigiri, the Lankan restaurant, in the middle of the afternoon, all by myself. i bring a tall beer, order some hot spicy curry with various other tidbits, take my time and eat about half the meal, then take a smoke break, come back and slowly finish the meal. by the time i leave, the spices have sent me into the twilight zone. it stays with me all day. it's unlike any other culinary experience i know.