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Sri Lankan Chef Teaches Staten Islanders to Savor his Nation's Flavors

By Nicholas Rizzi | March 20, 2013 9:17am

TOMPKINSVILLE — When Sanjay Handapangoda came to America in 1995, his native food was a hard sell.

Working in a Sri Lankan restaurant in Manhattan, he would prepare hoppers — a pancake-style staple — and other dishes in front of customers, showing them exactly what they were eating.

“It’s very difficult to do the Sri Lankan food because everybody’s scared,” Handapangoda said. “I used to make the hoppers in front of the people. I'd make it once and show them, and I'd introduce to them the Sri Lankan food.”

While Handapangoda, who's owned San Rasa restaurant on Bay Street, Staten Island, for nearly six years, said things have gotten better because of the borough's large population of Sri Lankan immigrants and others developing more adventurous tastes, some are still wary about trying the food.

So he's still trying to show what his nation's food is all about. Handapangoda will give two demonstrations, buffets and talks about his creations at his restaurant in March and April.

Handapangoda will walk people through the steps to make hoppers, eaten in Sri Lanka for breakfast and dinner, and show them the unique ways some of the food is traditionally prepared.

“They want to know about Sri Lankan culture and how we cook,” he said. “I’m going to show them.”

His talk, the The Sri Lankan Foodways: Demonstration & Buffet, hosted by the Council for the Arts and Humanities on Staten Island, will kick off a series of ethnic food demonstrations in the borough this summer.

Aside from the hoppers, attendees will also get to sample other traditional dishes like amprais, kothu roti, sambol, curries, fish and homemade yogurt for desert. Handapangoda will also talk about how he had to adapt his recipes for the Staten Island palate.

Since Staten Island has a large population of immigrants from Sri Lanka, Handapangoda hasn’t had to leave off any items from his menu, but he said he does have to prepare dishes differently for some people.

And since a large portion of his customers aren’t Sri Lankan, Handapangoda said he has to dial back some of the spices in his recipes, and offer customers the choice of hot, medium or mild.

“I don’t make much spicy,” he said. “Everybody can have it.”

Another difference in the food he makes is the amount of salt.  Since Sri Lanka is a small island in the Indian ocean, there's a lot of fish in the diets — but waters in America are less salty, which makes some dishes taste different.

“I can’t get the right taste,” he said.

The Sri Lankan Foodways: Demonstration & Buffet will be on March 24 and April 7 at 6p.m. in San Rasa, 226 Bay St. Tickets are $15, and each event only has space for 15 people. To reserve a seat, visit COAHSI’s website.