One of Ruwanmali Samarakoon-Amunugama’s early memories is of the creamy beetroot curry she adored as a child, the fascination of watching her plate of rice turn pink, the snowy white grains stained by the beetroot’s deep crimson hue. She remembers it from her grandmother’s home in the tranquil hills of Peradeniya, her mother later cooking [...]


To a time when food was cooked with a lot of thought and love

A second-generation Canadian Ruwanmali Samarakoon-Amunugama’s cookbook ‘Milk, Spice and Curry Leaves’ draws on her Lankan heritage and roots

Finally in print: Ruwanmali Samarakoon-Amunugama with her cookbook

One of Ruwanmali Samarakoon-Amunugama’s early memories is of the creamy beetroot curry she adored as a child, the fascination of watching her plate of rice turn pink, the snowy white grains stained by the beetroot’s deep crimson hue. She remembers it from her grandmother’s home in the tranquil hills of Peradeniya, her mother later cooking it in faraway Canada. It is a dish she now enjoys making for her five-year-old daughter.

A second-generation Canadian, born in Mississauga, Ontario, Ruwanmali’s cookbook of hill country recipes ‘Milk, Spice and Curry Leaves’  had its genesis in the long leisurely school holidays she spent at her grandmother’s. It was the happy meals she shared there that later fed into a genuine interest in the cuisine that in her life has represented so much more than just good food, rather a sense of community, love and continuity.

“My mother really wanted my sister and me to know where we came from,” she says, the visits to Sri Lanka, to the Peradeniya house where her mother grew up beginning when she was just eight months old, the exciting drive from Colombo to the hills, watching the changing landscape and stopping at rest houses along the way all recalled in her book. “This is where I learned of my heritage.”

‘Milk, Spice and Curry Leaves’ – Hill Country Recipes from the Heart of Sri Lanka is dedicated to her maternal grandfather Leelawathie Kumarihamy Kiridena and her paternal grandfather Mudiyanselage Herath Banda Samarakoon, who owned coconut estates and rice fields in Halpandeniya in Polgahawela.

Where it all began: Baby Ruwanmali with her athamma

Published by TouchWood Editions, the book has already been spotlighted by the popular American food site Epicurious in its Fall Preview of new cookbooks, the reviewer Lauren Joseph describing it as “a vegetable and seafood-heavy book with recipes for all the classics ……a technique-heavy book, full of reliable instructions and gorgeous, nostalgic photographs”.

All the 65 recipes in Milk, Spice and Curry Leaves are inspired by her mother and grandmother, a tribute to an unhurried time when food was cooked with a lot of thought, with a lot of love. “Many of the stories about my grandmother refer to her hospitality. In addition to raising seven children, she opened her home to almost daily visits from friends and extended family, so she ensured there was always enough food to serve her family and guests. She also regularly took food to her neighbours and the nearby temple. Her generosity nurtured values around the importance of family and community,” Ruwanmali writes in the book.

Her mother practised this same generous hospitality in Canada, she says, recalling with admiration how there would be dishes prepared for all of twenty people. It was all about the gathering, the convivial conversation, the warmth; her mother always made time for people – “the food was served late in typical Sri Lankan style and it was delicious.”

Both her parents Ranaraja Samarakoon and Sumana Kiridena not only knew to cook, they knew their ingredients and would talk to their daughters about their own childhood meals back home. “My father had an extensive knowledge of fruits and vegetables which he imparted to us,” Ruwanmali says. If as a child she took it all for granted, as a teenager she was increasingly drawn to what she calls the quiet intricacies of cooking as she watched and cooked with her mother. On weekend road trips, her mother would prepare ‘wonderful parcels of rice and curries wrapped in banana leaves’.

So her cookbook, when she came to the realisation that those recipes, the ‘village-style curries’ she grew up with could well be lost if not documented, became ‘a project of the heart’.

Like many Lankans, her mother was an intuitive cook not inclined to measuring much. A cookbook however requires precision and so began the somewhat exacting process of revisiting, and testing the recipes to make them clearly understandable even to someone totally new to the cuisine.

It took shape slowly, sitting on her desk for over five years as Ruwanmali went on with her work and family life. Graduating from the Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, majoring in Communications, she had gone straight into a job in the Federal Government.

Searching for old Sri Lankan cookery books, seeking out farmers, market vendors in Kandy to ask about their produce, and even meeting ayurvedic physicians on her visits, (her mother’s great-grandparents had been ayurvedic practitioners), she read and researched to learn more on traditional cooking methods, the healing properties of the vegetables and spices.

A common misconception many have, she found, is that all of Sri Lankan food is spicy and laced with chillie. Not so, she says. In her book she has tried to express the balance of flavours, the complex layering that goes into each dish where one flavour must not overpower the other and each ingredient has its own value.

So there is a thoughtful intent to give her North American readers an understanding and insight into the island’s cuisine, its origins and influences – the Portuguese and Dutch elements that have enhanced it as well as cooking tips and recipes, all woven with memories. The recipes cover grains, vegetable dishes, meat and poultry, seafood, salads, malluns and pickles and small bites as well as beverages. Chapters on the pillars, as she calls them- the coconut milk, rice and spices without which not much would be accomplished in a Lankan kitchen and even family recipes for curry powders that date back to the 1930s are included to give the reader an understanding and appreciation of Sri Lankan food.

“A big part of this work is instructional, informative; how do you find the ingredients for Sri Lankan cooking in North America, how do you use things like the curry leaves, what transpires when you cook a spice…… I wanted it to be a go-to reference.”

It’s for Lankans too in many ways, she says, relating her husband Nevanka Amunugama’s experience when he moved to the US for studies, not knowing how to cook. Ruwanmali feels that her cookbook, one of the first, she believes, published by an independent publishing house in Canada on Sri Lankan cuisine would help the Lankan diaspora seeking to find ingredients and authentic recipes to recreate the food their mothers, aunties and grandmothers made for them back home.

She  has already been sharing her Sri Lankan heritage, recipes and passion for spices and wellness through her website ‘’.

Her husband’s work has brought the family to the US but Ruwanmali has an important engagement ahead in Canada. On the invitation of the Commander of the Canadian Navy, she will be the first in a programme to introduce international cuisine to the Canadian Navy, teaching them about Sri Lankan food. “They will be taking some of the recipes with them, serving them to the men and women who go to sea.” And what is she thinking of cooking for them? A chicken curry, kaha bath maybe and of course, the beetroot curry, her childhood favourite.

‘Milk, Spice and Curry Leaves’ will
shortly be available at Paradise Road.


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