Oak Park resident, novelist, academic and current District 97 school board member, Mary Anne Mohanraj emigrated from Sri Lanka to the United States with her family when she was just two years old. She spent her childhood enjoying her mother’s Americanized versions of Sri Lankan entrees, snacks, pickles and sweets.
Mohanraj examined her mother’s cooking methods closely and ultimately added to her own culinary repertory. Her recipe arsenal morphed into a Sri Lankan food blog. As interest in her food writing continued to grow so did Mohanraj’s focus on developing recipes in a more detailed manner. In time, she transformed her distinct food memories into a collection of Sri Lankan recipes for American cooks entitled Feast of Serendib.
Mohanraj’s research driven approach to recipe development made the book a reliable introduction to Sri Lankan cooking for adventurous home-cooks and a sound resource for Sri Lankan families hoping to reclaim their culinary traditions at home. After spending the summer of 2021 researching, the passionate author has completed an adaptation and expansion of the same book for vegan home cooks.
“It was good for me to have something to concentrate on, but the pandemic shifted my approach,” said Mohanraj. “Normally I would do a lot of collaborative cooking and eating with my relatives, but I spent a lot of time doing research online and cooking at home.”
Full of hundreds of recipes, Vegan Serendib, is a celebration of the nuanced sweet, sour and salty flavors of the South Asian island, but turns away from meat laden dishes. The cuisine of Sri Lanka, however, naturally lends itself to the vegan diet. The island boasts a significant Buddhist population who embrace a plant-based diet anchored in wholesome grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables. Vegan friendly coconut milk is responsible for much for the richness in Sri Lankan curries whether they contain chicken or chickpeas.
Spurred on by the fact that many recipes from her homeland are inherently vegan, Mohanraj took further inspiration from memories of a collegiate friend who was a “moral vegetarian.”
“She loved food and eating, but often felt left out in traditional restaurant settings,” said Mohanraj who is not a vegetarian. “When people come to my house, I want them to be able to eat everything.”
She discussed the inclusion of colorful and impressive Rosappu Pachadi (Rose petal salad) inspired by the roses that grow in the verdant hills of Sri Lanka but was also quick to point out some of the dishes included in book may be less photogenic though no less delicious than its flowery counterpart.
“This curry is brown food at its best,” said Mohanraj opening the book to the recipe for Kaliya Kari, an eggplant, plantain and potato curry. “It doesn’t photograph well, but it is really one of the best recipes in here and represents the Muslim community in Sri Lanka.”
Mohanraj recently brought Vegan Serendib’s table of contents to life in a colorful kitchen display. She dove into her refrigerator to produce a robust collection of curries, pobriyal, sambol, and sothi. Complex spices, chili heat, plenty of onions, red rice, and jack fruit (in varying degrees of ripeness) came together in a sort of symphony of flavor on a single plate.
As we ate it became clear that none of the recipes Mohanraj served were trying to replicate a dish they were not supposed to be — authenticity is at the heart of everything she served and each recipe in her cookbook.
As we dined, she discussed adding gourd to traditional dishes, chatted about the convenience of canned jackfruit, showed me the apparatus for making string hoppers and talked about her marshmallow and ice cream making adventures. Her passion for making Sri Lankan fare is as limitless as the complexity in her mushroom and jackfruit curry.
Vegan Serendib is available for pre-order at serendibkitchen.com/vegan-serendib-2/. For those who already own Taste of Serendib, the 40 new vegan recipes are being sold as a mini book along with Taste of Serendib on Mohanraj’s website.