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An interview with Sri Walpola, creator of "A Taste of Home: Cooking Sri Lankan in New York"

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Currently on display at the St. George Library Center is a photo exhibit by photojournalist Sri Walpola, "A Taste of Home: Cooking Sri Lankan in New York." We sat down with him for a brief interview.

What inspired "A Taste of Home: Cooking Sri Lankan in New York"?

Since my arrival in New York, I started cooking. I started looking for Sri Lankan ingredients first, and then I started cooking with the help of my mother and both my sisters via the telephone because all of them are in Sri Lanka.

In Sri Lanka, I used to be a helper with my mother and both my sisters, especially on Sundays when we’d prepare family meal; family lunch I would call it. I prepared fish and various vegetables, cut them. Putting the ingredients together, and then preparing them. I never cooked anything completely.

When I arrived when New York, I recognized only salt and pepper, which was familiar to me. After that I had to look for all the Sri Lankan ingredients everywhere. Finally I found Sri Lankan spice shops in Staten Island, Queens, and New Jersey.

The greatest cook in our family was my grandmother and she was a very good cook. I used to help her too. I was basically inspired by her cooking. She had a very extremely natural style of cooking, and in Sri Lanka we never used any artificial ingredients. Everything was homegrown, everything natural. My grandmother knew how to cook everything from anything.

Did you know how to cook prior to creating your display?

I knew how to cook good quality, tasty food. That was in my blood, from my childhood days. Therefore, putting the ingredients together, and putting a meal together wasn’t a difficult thing. I did not know the exact quantities, so that was my problem. Other than that I knew what was good, and how to make that kind of quality stuff.

So, I understand that you cooked and photographed all of the dishes featured in "A Taste of Home," what was that like for you? Did you have any help?

No, only me! Most of the American cookbooks, I came to the library and looked at. They had an art director, they had a chef, a food stylist, and then they had a photographer, and under him he had several assistants. So it was a very tedious tough job. I created my own studio, with 5 lights, and a light table, everything!  Then my wife and children went for a Thanksgiving holiday for a couple of weeks. So during that period, I did everything. Otherwise when children are around, its very difficult to put the things together. They will come and take a spice and things like that. So I had a greater freedom. I must thank my wife, and both my daughters. They were very, very, very helpful!

I also noticed that you photographed the local Green Market. Some of the women I recognized as patrons who visit the library regularly. Do you know them personally?

I don’t know them actually. I knew some of their friends. I did not know exactly who they were. But later on when I started the project, I introduced myself because many of the people recognized me because they were familiar with my name, and that I’m from Sri Lanka. Later on I started developing a rapport with them, but I did not want to get very close with them because that would have affected my rationale ramble. I wanted to ask things and I wanted to see their cooking, but many of the people did not want me to see the cooking because they felt that American standards are different. “They wear a hat, and they wear rubber gloves and things like that. And we are not doing things like that, so please do not photograph us in the kitchen.” But I was able to see many things and talk to them.

Did you know that the women were going to be there, at the Green Market?

It’s like this, if there is a dry zone, and there is only one hole which has water, you assume that the animals are going to come to that hole to drink water. Where there is greens, and chilies; Sri Lankans have a natural craving for the greens and the chilies, they can’t live with them!

I knew the green market was the best place, especially during the Spring and the Summer time, because they [the women] can get out comfortably without heavy clothes; and then look for the greens and the spices. So I knew this was the exact place that they were going to be!

Did you find yourself facing unique challenges in terms of cooking and photographing the dishes for this exhibit?    

Cooking itself is a challenge- Sri Lankan cooking that is; which is one of the reasons why it is not all that popular. See all the other types of cooking are available, very popular, and easily available in New York. Italian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Cuban, anything. Even Indian. There are plenty of places you can go and have an Indian meal. Sri Lankan food places are very limited. The process itself is very difficult. 

My mother always used to tell me, “If you want to cook quality food, you have to prepare quality ingredients.” She buys the spices, washes them, dries them in the hot sun, and selects them, the right ones. That is a preparation. After that you put the spices together. You don’t make the powders and the pastes and store them. All the essences go out, the smell, and all the oils and such from the spices. So when you need to make a curry “right now” you grind and prepare an ingredient “now” in less than 15-20 minutes, which is why whatever you eat here is somewhat different.

Preparation takes at least a couple of hours, and then the marination. You put the spices into the curry, or whatever you are cooking and keep it for marination for a longer period of time, maybe for a couple of hours. And then the cooking process for a fish or meat item is about 30-40 minutes. Cooking is not a big deal, but the preparation and marination are the difficult part. No one is willing to undergo this hard part, even though the end result is ultimately healthier and tastier. Various countries use types of clarified butters and artificial ingredients, but we never, never, ever use any of those. So when you eat Sri Lankan food, even if you have a very big meal, you never feel uncomfortable.

How long does it generally take to cook a good meal?

It’s like three to four hours generally. For example: That lady’s hands I have shot in a sequence. A lot of pictures are missing in that sequence because that took about 30 to 40 minutes for her chicken curry spices and ingredients. It’s a lot. 

In one image in particular, I noticed you showcased the Statue of Liberty and both the Sri Lankan and American flags. Can you explain that a little bit?

I wanted to create something symbolic within the United States, New York with a Sri Lankan meal. The brass and silver plate symbolizes Sri Lanka. And all the other small trays are containing the cooked vegetables, greens, etc, and the plate has the red rice. We eat lots of red rice of various varieties, because it has a lot of Vitamin B. Then I added the U.S. Flag, and the Sri Lankan Flag. A lot of people liked it, and that’s quite interesting. Instead of simply made, I was creative with it.

I hear that you are also creating a book featuring the Sri Lankan dishes shot for this exhibit. Can you tell me about that?

It will be coming out before the end of the exhibition. It has recipes, for how to prepare [food]. See, you don’t have to teach cooking, for Sri Lankans. I’m trying to make it popular among other people, and among other nationalities that are living here. So it will be a helpful guidebook for everyone, which you can use as a reference. I’m going to talk about the basics, and the basic ingredients and how to make all the ingredients.

Is it more of a cook book, than an art book?

I don’t think it’s more of a cook book. It’s more like a guide book to Sri Lankan cooking. There are not many cookbooks by Sri Lankans.

What do you hope viewers of your exhibit will come away with?

Whoever comes and sees it should know the difficulty of the process of a Sri Lankan meal. And you don’t have to go through that difficult process of cooking food. All the spices are ground packed and in bottles. Like ready made spice pastes. There are simple and easier ways you can make “D.I.Y.” cooking; Do it yourself! Try it! Go to a Sri Lankan grocery store and pick up some spices. Pick up a couple of chicken curries, and meat or crab or fish. And enjoy your Sri Lankan cooking. Enjoy!  

Sri Walpola's "A Taste of Home: Cooking Sri Lankan in New York" will continue to be on display at the St. George Library Center until February 28th 2011.

See also How to Cook Sri Lankan with Cabbage in the Huffington Post.
Search for Sri Lankan cooking in the NYPL catalog.

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