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Head to Staten Island for the City's Best Sri Lankan Food

Starches assume strange shapes at San Rasa

If you’re a geometry fan, San Rasa could be your new place. Every meal at this Sri Lankan restaurant is centered on some form of starch, cast as a handsome plate sculpture. Take hoppers, for example. One order consists of five pale pancakes that form perfect hollow hemispheres. For no apparent reason, one of the five has an egg cracked in the bottom, runny yolk intact. These curvilinear flatbreads made from rice flour and coconut milk are leavened with microorganisms that descend from the air, yeast, or sometimes toddy, a palm-based wine . The hoppers are crisp and creamy, and at San Rasa, you get to pick a bowl of curry to dip them in: beef, chicken, fish, lamb, shrimp, squid, or vegetable ($12 to $15).

San Rasa is one of at least six restaurants in Staten Island that represent the cooking of the Sri Lankan community there, which numbers around 5,000, mainly located in the St. George/Tompkinsville/ Stapleton neighborhoods, a pleasant 15-minute walk from the ferry terminal. The deep dining room is accented with paintings of ancient ruins, Hindu and Buddhist sculptures, and swooping wooden ceiling buttresses and beams that one fellow diner exclaimed, "look like they came from a pre-fab kit to build a beach cabana." A (liquor-less) bar flanks one side of the room, and a brick-lined nook at the rear provides a staging area for the Sunday all-you-can-eat buffet ($11.99).

So, what kind of curry goes with hoppers? Black lamb curry is a good choice, a signature of Sri Lankan cooking made by over-toasting the masala, a powdered-spice mixture. Exceedingly rich and flavorsome, the dark gravy provides the perfect dip for torn pieces of flatbread. Another nice selection is ambul tiyal, a tart fish curry. The recipe involves lime juice, chiles, ginger, and other flavorings; as with sushi, it originated as a method of fish preservation. Less satisfying in this context is San Rasa's plain chicken curry, which is a little too low on zing to complement the bland hoppers. (The name is said to be a colonial-era mispronunciation of "appam," the South Indian term for the similar pancakes.)

Khushbu Shah
Khushbu Shah
Khushbu Shah

Above: String hopper kottu with falooda. Below: Hoppers and pittu.

The pyramid figures prominently in chef Lalith Gunasakara's geometrical preoccupation. An elongated example provides the shape for kottu roti, a dish made by tossing torn and moistened roti fragments with a curry. Poised in the middle of the plate and strewn with parsley, it looks somewhat like the tree-dotted landscape around the Washington Monument. Here, shrimp or mixed vegetable curries are the ones to pick, making the pyramid as mellow as a Middle Eastern fattoush. Perhaps the most curious Sri Lankan starch of all is pittu: a ghostly white cylinder wrapped in a glistening banana leaf. Made from grated coconut and rice flour that's been steamed, the texture proves dry and crumbly, demanding a juicy curry to go with it. Pick fish.

Other starches include string hoppers, something like rice spaghetti, and godamba roti, which features a thin, flaky flatbread wadded like a brown hanky, and a series of flat packages (egg roti) served alongside a curry (once again, your choice!). The menu presents two further curry sections, and these can also be paired with any of the starches, or with a squat cylinder of white rice. One curry collection includes chicken cashew, beef and potato, and, less appealingly, chicken broccoli; another exclusively features seafood, reminding you that Sri Lanka is an island nation.

Khushbu Shah
Khushbu Shah

Lamprais and San Rasa exterior.

Also on the frankly bewildering bill of fare are various "devilled" proteins (stir-fries with peppers, onions, and ginger; some of the spiciest things on the menu and a bit sweet), biryanis in profusion, and a vegetarian section —€” though meatless options also inhabit the other pages. A final page devotes itself to Sri Lankan-Chinese dishes, which are not all that different from Indo-Chinese. There you'll find chili chicken, sweet-and-sour chicken, and, less predictably, fish chop suey on a bed of noodles. If your kids refuse to eat anything but chicken fingers, there's something for them, too.

But if one dish defines the wonderland of Sri Lankan cooking, it would be the lamprais ($13-$14, depending on choice of meat). The word comes from the Dutch, reflecting a 17th-century colonial oppression, but the genius of the dish is particularly Sri Lankan: a farrago of familiar foodstuffs wrapped for easy transporting in a banana leaf, just the thing to carry on a picnic or for a long-day's labor on the tea plantation. Unfold the pillow-shaped package and discover a fried boiled egg, a heap of yellow rice, a sambal, a curry or two, a vegetable mélange, and a fistful of cashews, which soak up all the other flavors. There's no better way to feel like a Sri Lankan, with all the complex colonial history that goes with it, than a lamprais.


Robert Sietsema is Eater New York's senior critic. See his full archives here.
Copy editor: Dawn Mobley

Cost: Dinner for two, with assorted appetizers, hoppers and a curry, and a lamprais, plus two juices, with tax but not tip, $45

Sample dishes: Masala wade (lentil fritters), ambul tiyal (sour fish curry), lamb black curry, kottu roti, watalappan (coconut milk pudding with palm sugar)

What to drink: In addition to lassis, favorite Sri Lankan beverages include wood apple juice, Ceylon tea, and faluda —€” a rose-flavored beverage with basil seeds and vermicelli, the Sri Lankan answer to bubble tea. (NOTE: The restaurant doesn't serve alcohol but is BYOB.

Bonus tip: Bonus Tip: Directly next door to San Rasa on the corner is the San Rasa Bakery and Deli at the same address. It shares a kitchen with San Rasa, turning out excellent tacos, tamales, and other antojitos. Why not stop in for a torta to share as you leave the restaurant?

San Rasa

17-19 Corson Ave, Staten Island, NY 10301 (718) 420-0027 Visit Website

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