At Sigiri, A Taste All Its Own

IMG_0323Meredith Hoffman Sigiri, 91 First Avenue.

The virtually indistinguishable Indian restaurants which line both sides of Sixth Street between First and Second Avenue, with their garish lights and obsequious waiters, constitute the one zone of ethnic kitsch in the otherwise vital world of East Village cuisine. Perhaps all those vindaloos aren’t really delivered to the Something Mahals along an underground tunnel serving a central kitchen; but they might as well be.

Authenticity, however, lies literally around the corner. Sigiri, a Sri Lankan restaurant at 91 First Avenue, up an iron staircase between Fifth and Sixth Streets, tastes like itself only. Sigiri roasts its own black curry, a mixture of spices different from the cumin-coriander-garam masala combination familiar on Sixth Street. The bread-equivalent is the Hopper, a bowl-shaped pancake made with coconut flour and rice milk, which somewhat resembles the South Indian dosa, but with a spongy base like uttapam. The Hopper in the bottom of the basket has a poached egg cooked into the base.

Mala Rajapakse, the co-owner, believes that Sigiri is the only Sri Lankan restaurant in New York City. She may be right: Sigiri is the only place listed in Zagat which describes itself so. Mala moved to New York 30 years ago, and did her cooking for the family. Five years ago, she and her friend and fellow housewife Tanya Desilva, took a trip to London, where they visited a Sri Lankan restaurant. Eureka! “We decided we have to open up a restaurant.” Now Antonia, the very English Sri Lankan woman whose brother operated the place in London, works the day shift as a waitress.

Sri Lanka is divided — violently, in recent years — between ethnic Sinhala, who dominate the country, and Tamils, who emigrated from South India. Mala is Sinhalese; she happens to share a last name with the country’s rather brutal ruling family, though she assures me that she is not related to them. Sri Lankan cuisine combines elements borrowed from the Dutch and Portuguese colonists, from the Malays and the Tamils. The Lamprais, rice, meat and spices baked in a banana leaf, combines Dutch and Tamil elements. Some dishes won’t be familiar at all even to fans of South Indian cuisine, such as the kuttu roti, described on the menu as “Sri Lankan road-side specialty prepared from doughy pancakes shredded and stir-fried with vegetables, onions and egg.”

Sigiri is narrow and rather gloomy, which is to say that it looks like a million other inexpensive restaurants in New York. Mala is a woman of few words, at least to an English-speaking stranger, so I cannot tell you much of her thoughts about running the only Sri Lankan restaurant in New York. She is, I imagine, content to let her food do the talking.

Sigiri, 91 First Avenue, 212-614-9333.