Island to Island: A Cookbook Author Brings a Taste of Sri Lanka to the Northwest

October 27, 2020 | by Naomi Tomky

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Cookbook author Ruwanmali Samarakoon-Amunugama | Photo courtesy TouchWood Editions

When Ruwanmali Samarakoon-Amunugama moved to Mercer Island two years ago, she recognized the same small, tightly knit communities with longstanding traditions from her time in Sri Lanka. “When you speak island to island, there are a lot of similarities,” says the author of Milk, Spice, & Curry Leaves: Hill Country Recipes from the Heart of Sri Lanka.

Though Samarakoon-Amunugama grew up in Canada, she learned to cook from her mother, who tapped spoonfuls of Sri Lankan curries into her hand, teaching her to taste and adjust until the recipe turned out.  “I like to cook,” she says, but the real impetus for writing a cookbook came from the realization that she needed to start writing down how to make her favorite dishes if she wanted to share them with her own children. “You take it for granted when your parents are cooking.”

The book walks newcomers to Sri Lankan cuisine through the ingredients and techniques to create the colorful, healthful, coconut-flecked foods of the island just off the southeast coast of India. With recipes ranging from the simple, ubiquitous onion and chili condiment lunu miris to the deeply complex black pork curry, Samarakoon-Amunugama shares heartfelt memories of childhood trips to Sri Lanka, vintage photographs, and tips for how to eat like a Sri Lankan. “We don’t bring the food out piping hot,” for example, she explains. Instead of rushing to the table, curries rest a little after cooking, letting the flavors come together.

Young Jackfruit Curry | Photo courtesy TouchWood Editions

“I think a lot of people know of Sri Lanka for not great things,” says Samarakoon-Amunugama, like the decades-long civil war, or the damage caused by the 2004 tsunami. But she also sees people excited to try flavors that are new to them. Many of the ingredients in Sri Lankan food, like cashews and jackfruit are gaining popularity, and she knows that open-minded readers will find dishes like pineapple curry exciting and intriguing.

When she first started writing the cookbook, she intended to self-publish the book to create an heirloom for her family. But after 15 years working for the Canadian Federal Government, she moved with her husband to Mercer Island. Along with her new role as a stay-at-home mom, Samarakoon-Amunugama began transitioning her passion project into something bigger and submitting her manuscript to publishers.

Growing up in a predominantly Caucasian community in Canada, Samarakoon-Amunugama realized how many people saw curry as a generic concept. In the book, she writes an in-depth introduction detailing the role of curry in Sri Lankan cuisine, the ingredients and techniques required to make it, and the textures and colors to aim for. Her book guides readers through how to cut, use, and cook the various plants and spices that drive the cuisine.

Milk, spice, and curry leaves | Photo courtesy TouchWood Editions

It also offers advice on how to buy those ingredients, though Samarakoon-Amunugama didn’t find that too difficult here. At India Supermarket in Bellevue, she found the type of grated coconut she needed and fragrant fresh curry leaves. She even found lemongrass growing in the Bellevue Urban Garden. “The Pacific Northwest has an abundance of fruits and vegetables,” she says, noting that islanders – whether in the Indian Ocean or Lake Washington – tend to have an outsized appreciation and respect for nature.

“I love to contribute to the diversity of the island,” she says. “It’s great to be a local author here.”

Learn more about Ruwanmali Samarakoon-Amunugama on her website, Her book, Milk, Spice, & Curry Leaves: Hill Country Recipes from the Heart of Sri Lanka, came out October 20th, 2020, and is available to purchase online and at Island Books.