Mention of rice and curry may conjure thoughts of piquant Indian cuisine for most Baltimoreans, but for chef, author, and CP contributor S.H. Fernando Jr., rice and curry translates to something lighter and possibly more nuanced: Sri Lankan food.
"People assume it's going to be like Indian food, but it's a different flavor profile," Fernando says of Sri Lankan fare. It's also much healthier, skipping the dairy products that give Indian food body and heft. There's "no ghee, no butter, no yogurt, no cream," he says. "Strictly coconut milk, coconut oil, a lot of vegetables."
To sample Sri Lankan food, one would normally need to head to Washington, D.C., but Fernando is hosting a pop-up dinner on Nov. 7 at Peabody Heights Brewery featuring the South Asian food he was weaned on.
Fernando, whose mother hails from Sri Lanka, grew up helping his mom cook for dinner parties. "She taught me how to make my first Sri Lankan dish, chicken curry," he says, "and now she says I make it better than her."
In 2006, Fernando rented out his Baltimore home to spend a year in Sri Lanka, embedding himself in the country's home kitchens and restaurants. His relatives there showed him how to prepare curries, select produce, and incorporate spice into dishes. He also dined out a lot, to polish his perception of what authentic Sri Lankan food should taste like. (His experiences that year largely informed his 2011 cookbook, "Rice & Curry: Sri Lankan Home Cooking.")
That's what Fernando stresses about his food, the authenticity. "This is not some hipster take on Sri Lankan food," he says. "This is a real Sri Lankan who grew up eating this food, who goes there every year, who's got a huge family over there."
While he hopes to open a brick-and-mortar (or mobile) operation for his food one day—he cites the newly opened Mount Vernon Marketplace and the forthcoming R. House food hall in Remington as possible spaces—Fernando has for years organized Sri Lankan supper clubs in various cities to promote the cuisine. The Nov. 7 event is the third or fourth one he's held in Baltimore; last November he cooked a Sri Lankan supper for Dinner Lab, the subscription-based pop-up dinner series that debuted in Baltimore last year.
The Peabody Heights dinner ($60; $40 for vegetarians) is dairy-free and mostly gluten-free and includes two rounds of the brewery's lagers, Full Tilt's In Memory Of . . . pilsner and Old Oriole Park Bohemian. Masala vadai, or split pea fritters, and spicy croquettes made from ground beef will begin the meal.
The main course, served buffet-style, allows diners to combine Sri Lankan's sweet, spicy, salty, and sour notes in their own style, Fernando says. "You yourself are the artist mixing all these flavors." Consider the base paint steamed basmati rice, which you can blend with three kinds of curry, a coconut milk and lemon grass dal, sauteed greens, Sri Lankan salad, and mango chutney.
Perhaps the most unusual dish of the evening will be sour fish curry, made with a dried fruit called goraka that Fernando imports from Sri Lanka. All the curries served that evening—there's a beet curry as well as a black pork curry that derives its flavor from tamarind and burnt coconut—will feature Fernando's own curry powder, composed of 13 spices and ingredients that he roasts and grinds himself.
Dessert keeps up the coconut thread. Watalappam, a Muslim dessert, resembles a flan but is prepared with coconut milk and jaggery, a dark brown sugar made from the crystallized sap of different kinds of palm tree, including the coconut palm. Fernando describes the dessert's flavor as almost savory sweet.
Whatever expectations diners come to dinner with that evening, none will exceed those that Fernando imposes on himself. "I want food to taste like my mom made it," he says.
For more information about the pop-up dinner, visit tinyurl.com/srilankanpopup.