In 2005, Julia and I spent three months in Sri Lanka. It was a revelation. Spices, spices and more spices. For the first few weeks, scooping every bite of every meal with our fingers, the only taste was the inferno of chilis. But after we acclimated, we started to live for this food. Underneath the hot, there is so much going on in Sri Lankan cuisine. Star of Anise, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, turmeric, pepper - they are all there, lurking underneath the chili. And the coconut! Certain tastes are indelible and the dishes we'd eat on a regular basis - the daal, sambol, kotturoti, hoppers with egg, string hoppers - the taste is right there in the back of my brain and the back of my tongue.
I had been wanting to taste these flavors again and because of Sietsema, the New Asha Cafe was first on my list. Then Anthony Bourdain visits with Mr. Buster Poindexter and it all looks so good. A trip needed to be made immediately. So, I gathered the crew, asking them to please forget the memories of our last ill-fated trip to SI, and we boarded the ferry.
A 25 minute walk from the terminal and we found New Asha bordering other Sri Lankan establishments on a nondescript street in a nondescript storefront. Why there? These things just happen.
The owner was superlatively friendly - clearly we had read and watched the foodies and she wanted to impress. We ordered most everything I was hoping we could get. No hoppers - she didn't have the time. Two other dishes I was missing, pittu (coconut/rice flour rolls) and Sri Lankan roti (nothing like Indian, these are dense disks maybe 4 inches in diameter and topped with sambol), could not be had. But everything else was there.
We started by popping open some Lion lager and stout. Really terrific beer - we would buy a case of 22 oz bottles every five days or so during our stay. They didn't have my other favorite local brew Three Coins. Sri Lankans love beer and also drink pretty heavily.
Short eats were brought out. Fried pastries and rolls filled with veggies, meat or fish. These were underwhelming -they had been sitting out for awhile I think. But then the good stuff started coming.
String hoppers were a big hit. Cold patties of rice flour noodles, the these things soak up curries and yellow/green daal. Think of patties of angel hair covered with squishy food - really fun to eat with your fingers.
The sambol tasted just like I remember - chili, coconut, maldive fish ground into a flakey mix that you can, and should, put on everything. When we said we wanted more spice, we were brought a salsa like mix of chopped onions, tomatoes and peppers swimming in vinegar. Yes! It was immediately laced over every item on my plate.
Love the Kotturoti. We ate this constantly in Sri Lanka. Street food and drinking food - huge boxes of it would be bought for dimes. It is basically chopped up bread (roti) with veggies, egg and sauce. The preparation in Sri Lanka is a cacophonous spectacle with a capped chef chopping the mix in various drum rhythms against a beat grill - each order chopped at full volume for a minute or two. New Asha's kotturoti was authentic and actually my favorite dish there.
We then ordered two curries - a red prawn and the notorious black curry of chunky goat meat. Black curry is unique to Sri Lanka as far as I can tell, although I know nothing of it having not experienced it in-country.
Both curries underwhelmed me. The goat was pretty gristley and tough - not like the slow cooked goat I've had in birrias. And they were both by far the most expensive dishes - $22 each. Everything else was dirt cheap.
I would definitely recommend a trip out there. I can't say it is the best Sri Lankan around - there are a few Manhattan places we need to try - but it is authentic, delicious and cheap.
Info: New Asha - 322 Victory Blvd Staten Island, NY