How the Oak Park Author Mary Anne Mohanraj Filled “A Hole in Her Heart” By Writing a Sri Lankan Cookbook


There’s an idea in science fiction circles referred to as “cognitive estrangement,” whereby audiences’ preconceptions a couple of matter may be sidestepped by rendering it in an unfamiliar setting with unknown characters—say, house whales in one other galaxy as a substitute of refugees in Europe. The new surroundings helps the viewers see the humanity in one thing they may have in any other case dismissed.

A recipe can work in a considerably comparable approach. By consuming, cooking, or studying a couple of dish from one other tradition, one may turn into extra open to it, drawing similarities—ah, kimchi is like sauerkraut is like achaar is like dill pickles—as a substitute of specializing in the extra superficial variations and letting preconceptions get in the best way.

“My parents talk about, when the Buddhists were having festivals and cooking their special food, they would bring some [food] over to their Hindu neighbors and Catholic neighbors, and vice versa,” says the Oak Park-based author Mary Anne Mohanraj, who has written each science fiction and cookbooks. “Sri Lanka had for a long time—like 2,000 years—a multi-ethnic, multi-religious population that for the most part lived in harmony.”

Mohanraj was born in Sri Lanka and got here to the United States together with her Tamil Catholic dad and mom when she was two and a half. She will quickly come out with a cookbook that celebrates the range of delicacies in her birthplace: Vegan Serendib, a vegan sequel to her Sri Lankan cookbook Feast of Serendib, is due out on November 15.  

Like the Sri Lankan neighbors sharing their dishes, Mohanraj bridges quite a few worlds. “I grew up on Star Trek and Mr. Spock, who’s caught between two worlds,” she says. “I think many immigrants empathize with that, find that character to be someone they can identify with.”

Unsurprisingly, given her appreciation of Star Trek, she primarily writes science fiction—the house whales story is hers, and he or she has a brand new sci-fi e-book popping out early subsequent 12 months. But she has additionally delved into romance, quick tales, poetry, essays, and weblog posts about gardening and cooking whereas instructing on the University of Illinois at Chicago, enhancing literary journals and serving on the library board of Oak Park.

Her Sri Lankan cookbooks may be traced to roots in her childhood—or actually, bulbs: “My mom had me chop onions when I was at home growing up,” she recollects. “So she didn’t really teach me to cook as a kid, but I did a lot of chopping onions and sauteing onions. So in that sense it was a little bit like going to a French cooking school: you only get to work with onions for the first year.”

When she got here to Chicago for school, she rapidly turned homesick for her mom’s cooking. “After a few months of dorm food, I called my mom and begged her to tell me how to make something over the phone, which she did. But it’s tricky because she doesn’t measure. So I was able to make an approximation, and ate that for months.” When she went dwelling for the vacations, she noticed as her mom cooked, grabbing components to measure them earlier than they have been thrown into the pot.

She finally compiled the recipes in a small cookbook that she gave to her mom for Christmas. “She kind of went through and was like, ‘Well, you got this wrong, and this wrong,’” Mohanraj says with amusing.

Her cousins, different first-generation Sri Lankan immigrants, appreciated the e-book: “It was a way for them to start cooking the food,” she says. Other Sri Lankan cookbooks existed, however Mohanraj believes hers was the primary Sri Lankan-American one. “Something that was coming from somebody in the diaspora who was very familiar with the challenges of diaspora cooking: my mom not being able to get coconut milk back in the early days, and not being able to get curry leaves until very recently.”

Mohanraj left writing about Sri Lankan cooking there for years, till she was identified with breast most cancers in 2014. (She has written a memoir concerning the expertise that ought to come out subsequent 12 months.) Her husband is white, and “the closest Sri Lankan restaurant is eight hours away in Minneapolis,” so she had a “panicked moment” the place she thought her youngsters would by no means know Sri Lankan meals—they’d principally grown up on mac and cheese and broccoli as a result of that’s what they might eat whereas they have been younger.

“For those of us who are attenuated from the food of our grandparents and great-grandparents, learning how to cook this food, in its many iterations, can feel like filling a hole in your heart,” she writes within the introduction to Feast of Serendib

So she began speaking to family members about their recipes and researching different dishes, placing collectively a extra intensive compilation of Sri Lankan meals that finally turned Feast of Serendib. (“Serendib” is an previous identify for Sri Lanka, and the origin of the phrase “serendipity.”)

“I’m trained as an academic, so I wanted to do a good, scholarly book that would really give people a solid introduction to the cuisine and show the variety of it,” she says. Vegan Serendib is a pure follow-up that enables Mohanraj to highlight much more dishes and traditions, similar to kaliya curry, which is loved by Sri Lanka’s small Muslim inhabitants. (Try Mohanraj’s model of the recipe.)

Mohanraj describes Sri Lankan meals as “a little bit like a cross between Indian and Thai.” But there are a lot of different influences stirred in. In addition to the culinary traditions of the assorted ethnic and non secular teams which have lengthy resided on the island, the Portuguese, Dutch, and British all colonized Sri Lanka and left traces on the island’s meals: wealthy cake is much like fruitcake, caramel pudding is Portuguese flan, and Dutch meatballs are served with curry sauces. Chinese laborers on espresso plantations introduced their very own traditions, resulting in, amongst different dishes, rolls or Chinese rolls: a fried, breadcrumb-coated crepe encasing dry curry.

The coexistence of so many teams in Sri Lanka did result in violent battle, most notably within the decades-long civil struggle between the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan authorities and rebel Tamil Tigers. “Before the conflict started, Sri Lanka had a higher literacy rate and a lower infant mortality rate than the U.S.,” Mohanraj says. While the civil struggle resulted in 2009, the federal government “never really reckoned with the consequences of the war,” she says.

The final couple years have been disastrous, with hovering costs and shortages of primary items similar to rice and gasoline, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which lower off the important tourism trade. Government mismanagement finally led to widespread protests and the ousting of the president in July. But the issues stay, and Mohanraj is “worried about the future of the island.”

So on one stage, her cookbooks are a strategy to get folks curious about Sri Lanka. ”I might find it irresistible if extra folks realized about Sri Lankan delicacies, realized how scrumptious it’s, determined to take their subsequent trip in Sri Lanka, as a result of vacationer {dollars} are vastly useful,” she says with amusing. On a extra critical word, “I guess I feel like any time we learn about another culture or another cuisine, it teaches us something about ourselves and hopefully it promotes tolerance.”

Mohanraj brings all of it again to Star Trek.

“It has as a major theme infinite diversity and infinite combination,” she says. “We all used to live in the village, in a very homogenous place. That has shifted over the last several generations to much more heterogeneity in cities and so on, and we should learn to celebrate those differences.”

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