Just one short bus ride away from the bustling satellite Chinatown of Flushing, Queens is Bownie restaurant, a modest Sri Lankan eatery that has been owned and operated by Nanthini and Sri Kandharajah and their family for 11 years now.
While there are plenty of appetizing traditional Indian dishes on the menu, you’ll find that the Sri Lankan specialties really stand out. That night, dinner at Bownie was one in a continuing series of ambassador programs organized by Jeff Orlick, and Joseph Aranha of the Asian Arts and Cultural Alliance was our ambassador for the evening. So, how exactly does an ambassador dinner work? According to Jeff, this is what goes down: a guide (ambassador) “will order for the table and discuss what we are eating and why we are eating it. Not a classroom experience, but more of a familial gathering centered around the food.”
Just two weeks before, Joseph, Jeff and I set out to approach restaurants to participate in Asian Feastival, an event on Labor Day I helped produce. When Joseph brought us to Bownie, he first requested an order of their freshly steamed idiappams. Doused in hot mutton curry and flaky spiced desiccated coconut, these wheat noodle patties were a powerful trifecta of flavors and textures. Spicy, nutty, and with varying textures coming from the noodles, curry and coconuts, everything worked. Joseph instructed us to dip the idiappams into the curry like a tortilla chip into salsa, and then we were to finish them with a light sprinkling of coconut chutney. I somehow managed to inhale 5 idiappams even after a full day of eating.
I peeked into the kitchen just in time to catch Nanthini press out idiappams from a crazy-looking contraption. The wheat dough mixture is squeezed through the press, somewhat reminiscent of play-doh spaghetti.
Skip to two weeks later, and this was the menu for the ambassador dinner:
Medu Vadai and Dhal (Lentil) Vada
Idiappam with mutton curry
Uppumai with cocunut chutney
Puttu with coconut milk and sugar
For our first dish, we were each given a plate with a medu vada and dhal vada with a side of coconut chutney. Like salty, spiced donuts, the medu variety was made with rice and the dhal version with lentils. We dipped both into the accompanying pale green chutney, flecked with coconut and what appeared to be coriander, which might be responsible for the green hue. The chutney also contained some other mysterious spices that, when eaten in spoonfuls, can give your mouth a real kick. After a few bites, our tongues began to tingle and our eyes dashed towards of the drink cooler.
To ameliorate the spicy chutney situation, we ordered some Thums Up soda, the Indian equivalent to Coca-Cola (apparently acquired by the Coca Cola Company too). It is a fizzier, less sweetened version of its American cousin made with sugar instead of corn syrup.
As soon as our idiappams disappeared, plates of uppumai arrived. Uppumai may resemble mashed potatoes from afar, but they are actually made by mixing fluffy semolina flour with a mild medley of vegetables, herbs and spices. Eaten alone, they were a bit bland, but there again was the omnipresent coconut chutney. The uppumai served as the perfect carb vehicle to sop up the flavorful chutney.
The egg dosa had the density of a firm omelette and came with a dollop of flaky spiced coconut. Biting into the doughy dosa, I could taste the ever so delicate sour traces of the fermented rice flour.
Our dinner concluded with a plate of puttu, a compression of course ground rice, coconut and water. By itself, the puttu had a flaky texture, like oat bran. It wasn’t until a few bites in that I noticed the sweetened coconut milk, camouflaged against the white plate. When poured on top of the puttu, the sweet coconut milk added a welcomed flavor and moisture to the dessert. We washed it all down with a complimentary cup of hot milk tea.
At the end of the dinner, I collected our dues and finished with a group shot of the diners.
Thanks to Joseph, Jeff, and the Kandharajahs for this introduction to Sri Lankan cuisine.
143-05 45th Avenue
Flushing, NY 11355