Families, Children & Marriage, Food

Learning to cook Sri Lankan food *or* Curry: the way to my man’s heart


“But she can’t cook our food!!!” my South Asian friend mourned about his soon-to-be sister-in-law, “and worse yet – she doesn’t even want to learn! How will my brother survive?”

This conversation was my first clue about the kind of adjustments that marrying across a culture would entail.  It was slightly shocking to me that food – something which had been viewed primarily as a practical necessity for nourishment in childhood (well, minus homemade bread, apple pie and ice cream) – could invoke such a passionate response.  I filed our conversation away in my mind and pulled it out again in my first year of marriage to my Sri Lankan husband.

When we met, I had eaten Indian food once and wasn’t real sure what I thought about it.  The most ethnic food we ate in my home growing up was chop suey and tacos, so I was a little nervous about the prospect of even eating Sri Lankan food.  Thankfully, I ended up liking it a lot (actually even more than most American foods!), so we both breathed sighs of relief about my newfound taste buds.  When we married, in addition to curry, I tried to cook a few dishes I knew (which wasn’t much) – tacos, pasta, casserole.  My new husband dutifully tried to eat my favorite dishes, but he clearly didn’t enjoy them.  It didn’t take me long to figure out that Sri Lankan food was his love language, and that curry was a beeline to his heart.  Thus began my journey as a white-girl-turned-South-Asian-chef.

I first started cooking Sri Lankan food with my husband.  He’d learned a few recipes out of desire to survive the land of meat and potatoes.  Together, we mastered a mean chicken curry recipe and I discovered the joy of a rice cooker!  Over time, I’d follow my mother-in-law around the kitchen taking notes, pick up cookbooks to study when we were in Sri Lanka, and linger in the kitchen when other relatives were making Sri Lankan foods.  A lot of my lessons came not from the traditional western-style instructions of “Step 1, Step 2, Step 3”, but from just watching “a teaspoon of this and a pinch of that” and then tasting to see what we thought.

As I ventured into Indian grocery stores, I discovered the delight of frozen parathas and naans, 20 pound bags of basmati rice, coconut milk and ‘real’ spices (not the fake ones they sell for $5/bottle in the grocery store).  This also helped me start to understand other types of South Asian food and how it varies among countries.  Ultimately, I think I may have ended up cooking more like an Asian than an American – I don’t usually follow recipes, just throw in a pinch of this and a dash of that until it tastes good.  I get slightly stressed out if I have to bring something to a potluck because I’m not very confident in my American cooking skills (though I’m working on solving this dilemma through developing my cake-baking skills.  Everybody loves cake.)

Well over 10 years after my first introduction to curry, I’d have to say I’ve started to feel the same love for spices that my husband has.  Their depth of flavor adds so much richness to food that it’s hard to return to a bland baked chicken breast with salt.  STAY TUNED:  I’m planning to post recipes for some Sri Lankan food soon!

What about you?  How do you work out food differences between your cultures?

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9 thoughts on “Learning to cook Sri Lankan food *or* Curry: the way to my man’s heart”

  1. im a filipina and my fiance is sri lankan.i love this blog.i easly relate on u.coz we also have experiencing differences in food.he like spicy food and curry but inspite of this we are still together coz he like filipino food also im very lucky coz his not choosy and fuzzy he apreciate things but he told me to enroll in sri lankan cooking also coz i love their food also.my sri lankan fiance really take cares of me he is very fun loving person and kind hearted

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  2. It’s so interesting to read about other people with the same challenges. I am white and married to a Chinese man. I grew up without ANY traditional foods, the past couple generations mostly just made convenience foods like boxed spaghetti, etc. I do enjoy cooking but didn’t know a thing about cooking Chinese!!! So I have been making stir frys or other “Chinese” type stuff almost every day. Thankfully, my husband has been pretty accepting of mostly everything I cook for him. The only things he won’t touch are my health nut foods like quinoa, etc. Also, I’m a vegetarian so I can’t really taste anything I prepare for him. I just have to season it however it seems “right”. I have a couple cookbooks that seem pretty authentic but in order to cook like his family does, I’d need to spend a lot more time with them in China.

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  3. Love this blog, please post recipes. I’m in the sam boat cooking wise. I’m Mexican so I cook what I grew up eating and my husband’s palate has had to make adjustments. He now asks for beans if we haven’t had them in a while. I have tried watching the MIL for cooking but the language barrier makes it really hard. My SIL moved away and the Chicken Karahi she taught me is still the only dish I can make. I would love to learn to make Spinach w/beef chunks.

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  4. I just found your blog as well. I’m pretty much in the same boat. I’ll find a recipe that I’ve had before and sounds pretty straight forward, then the product is nothing like what I want or think it should be. The worst part is not being familiar with spices or cooking techniques so I don’t know how to fix it. My man wants food *exactly* like his momma makes it, not realizing I’m not his momma. The same thing cooked slightly different, he won’t touch.

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    1. Yes, the things we learn in intercultural relationships! It took me a LONG time to learn to make food like his mom, and it still isn’t exactly the same, but he does like it (finally!). I’m still VERY proud of myself when he tells me my curry is delicious – it feels like a giant feat! I’d say my skills have come slowly. Don’t take too much offense at your lack of perfect Indian cooking skills – it sounds like your man just misses his momma and has opinionated taste buds. This isn’t too uncommon even for couples of the same cultural background!

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  5. Hi there! I found u through a comment u left on the Big Bad Blonde Bahu blog and really like what I am reading here on your page.

    I have a food blog which is too silly and amateurish to link here (though I don’t mind linking my main wordpress blog, welcome to stop by) and on my food blog I write a lot about learning to cook desi foods. I identify with what you say in this post a lot.

    We did eat at Indian restaurants in my (white USian) family when I was growing up. But when I was exposed to home cooked Indian and Pakistani foods I had a major revelation: Typical USian Indian restaurants serve a specific restaurant style genre of Mughlai/Punjabi food which is loosely based on but NOT like what is eaten at home. So what I knew as “Indian food” was not useful for doing authentic desi home cooking.

    The next big revelation to me was how extremely regional desi food is. So say, channa masala, is made extremely different by Maharashtrians than Punjabis. I realized that while my husband is generally open to trying new things, he *loves* dishes prepared in his family’s way like mama used to make. His family is Urdu speaking Pakistani from U.P., India, and a lot of iconic North Indian and Pakistani dishes are part of his family’s food culture, so there are a lot of Indian cookbooks (sadly only 2-3 English language Pakistani cookbooks) that cater to his family’s type of cuisine. The two biggest names in Indian cookery writing for Westerners, Julie Sahni is Hindu Punjabi from Delhi and Madhur Jaffrey is Hindu from Delhi—so their home cuisine is very similar to what my husband ate at home (some of Jaffrey’s recipes are exactly like my MIL’s recipes) so I am lucky. (I also started out with Sri Lankan Charmaine Solomon’s prolific Asian food bible/cookbook, which I love) I can only imagine how it is for some poor non-desi wife of a desi guy trying to learn the regional cooking of a place or ethnic community for which there are very few English language resources. I guess nowadays you can find a lot of stuff online, but it is still a bigger challenge.

    Anyhoo-I don’t mean to write you a novel here, but I am the same as you, I really really love desi foods and learning to cook desi has profoundly influenced the way I cook and eat. And you mention another meme that I have encountered: you learned to cook by cooking desi, so you aren’t as well versed in your own USian cuisine as you are in desi cuisine! That seems to be a common experience. For me personally, I had been cooking for my family since my early teens, but like you, I think I have come to prefer desi foods.

    I eagerly await your Sri Lankan recipes.

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    1. Fatima,

      I enjoyed perusing your blog – your such a great writer! I so enjoy hearing about others’ experiences and perspectives – thanks for commenting 🙂

      I do have a similar experience to you in regards to restaurants. I like Americanized Indian restaurants probably because I’m American, but I also notice how different the food we eat at home is. It’s a little different for us because we eat Sri Lankan food and, while similar, has its own distinctions from other types of South Asian food. I’m not Mexican, but I do speak Spanish and have spent a fair amount of time with Latinos – this same fact always gets me about Mexican food too – how different the real stuff is from the American version!

      I have Charlamaine Solomon’s Asian book, which I use to learn more. My MIL has been my primary teacher, though I also pay close attention to how everyone cooks when we’re in SL. I think it would have been really hard to learn on my own if not for my MIL and SIL. It makes it easier to follow the cook books. I did find one Indian cookbook (some generic thing at Borders) with pictures, and I found that helpful too! My husband’s tastebuds are the real test 🙂 He’s gracious, but will tell me when it’s not worth trying again.

      I’d have to guess that many of my attempts end up as a fusion of American-Sri Lankan food (kind of like we are!) because of lack of access to ingredients, etc. I also am feeling like my repertoire is quite small, and would like to expand, but it feels like experimenting with new recipes in a new cuisine is a little tricky.

      Another saving grace has been the spice packets you can purchase at Indiana grocery stores. They’re quick, easy, and more authentic than the American versions. We use them as our “no-time-to-cook” meals. My husband tires of American food quickly, but I don’t always have time to cook, so they’re a happy compromise!

      I’m cooking tonight, so hope to have a recipe up soon!

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  6. Hi Jody,

    It’s interesting to learn about Indian foods. I work in an Indian community and I’ve gotten exposed to all the types of spices, little black seeds that make wonders on their food. I used to not like them, but it didn’t me take long to love them.

    I believe learning to cook curry must be a given when you’re in an American-Sri Lankan interracial marriage. No matter how challenging, if it’s a means to your man’s heart, then it’s a worthy and satisfying thing to do. 🙂

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