Spicy, salty, sweet: Lamprais is the best of Sri Lankan cuisine in a delightful package
Opening the packet is part of the experience of eating lamprais, writes Metro Morning food guide Suresh Doss
The Greater Toronto Area is home to a very large population of Sri Lankans, and as a result, really good Sri Lankan food is abundant throughout the 'burbs — most notably, in Scarborough.
Thousands of Sri Lankan families, like mine, moved to Scarborough in the '80s and '90s. With such a large population, Scarborough quickly experienced a growth spurt of Sri Lankan restaurants, grocery stores and takeout spots.
After arriving in Canada from Colombo, it didn't take long for my mom to locate these shops. Soon, we would visit regularly for Sri Lankan staples like short eats — fried or baked snacks that are stuffed with a vegetable or meat filling — and of course, rice and curry.
Rice and curry is a staple in Sri Lanka. Meals usually include a fistful of rice on a plate, surrounded by a vegetable or meat curry and an assortment of sides that can range from sauteed okra to coconut sambal (grated coconut mixed with red chilies.)
While there is an abundance of takeout spots in the city that specialize in curries, very few Sri Lankan spots offer another quintessentially Sri Lankan dish: the lamprais (or lump rice.)
For me, it combined all the things I loved about Sri Lankan food: the spice, saltiness and sweetness.- Suresh Doss, Metro Morning food guide
Lamprais was introduced to Sri Lanka under the Dutch rule, sometime in the mid 1600s. It is an interpretation of rice and curry accompanied by sides, inspired by the Indonesian lemper. Lempers are savoury rice snacks made with steamed glutinous rice and spiced protein like fish or chicken. The Dutch transformed the lemper to lamprais by incorporating the Sri Lankan staple of rice and curry.
I remember trying lamprais for the first time when I was a kid in Colombo. My dad would pick it up from a restaurant down the street from his office. We were living in a time of uncertainty due to the civil war,. As a result, many Sri Lankans would eat at home or get takeout. Lamprais was a natural choice because of how well the dish could be transported. For me, it combined all the things I loved about Sri Lankan food in one neat package: spiciness, saltiness and sweetness.
After eating my fair share of lamprais in the GTA, I'm convinced that New Quality Bakery offers the best. Owner Mary Martin's Sri Lankan takeout spot is nearly two decades old. She recently moved the shop to a new location and re-opened with a new name.
During the week, it's a steady flow of patrons that come in to load up on fish cutlets, mutton rolls, samosas. The short eats are excellent, but what is even better is New Quality's weekend lamprais special. To me, their lamprais is a good introduction to Sri Lankan cuisine as it highlights many of its best elements.
Martin didn't serve the dish at her previous shops, but decided to after receiving a lot requests from customers.
"I wanted to put it on the menu because it's a very special and personal dish for me," she said.
"Growing up in Jaffna, we used to eat lamprais every Sunday. We would leave church and go sit in the park and each have our own lamprais packets."
Martin makes only 100 packets of lamprais every weekend, and she insists that freshness is key.
"Good lamprais is hard to make because everything needs to be fresh. We don't have curry sitting around. We make our batches for the lamprais."
Martin starts with short grained rice that is cooked in stock and turmeric to give it a yellow hue. The rice is the centrepiece: fluffy, soft, and wonderfully aromatic. She spoons a mound of rice on to a warm banana leaf. Then surrounds it with curries.
"Every lamprais needs at least two meat curries, but we can also do all vegetarian on request."
The non-vegetarian version includes both chicken and mutton curries. Martin also adds a dollop of cooked eggplant, shrimp cooked with shallots, a boiled egg and a fish cutlet. The banana leaf is then tightly wrapped before it heads out the door. The banana leaf does impart some flavour to the dish but most importantly, it preserves the heat and forces the ingredients close to each other.
Opening the packet is part of the experience of eating lamprais. Steam billows out as you unfold the leaf, and immediately you smell a variety of spices. The idea is to mix the ingredients with each spoonful, getting salt, sugar, and spice with each bite.
If you're looking to visit New Quality bakery to try the lamprais, make sure you call ahead to reserve your packet.
New Quality Bakery is located at 1415 Kennedy Road.
Suresh Doss's weekly food segment airs every Thursday on Metro Morning. Watch for video of his jaunts across the city on CBC Toronto's Facebook page.
Do you know a GTA restaurant that Doss should visit? Tweet us @metromorning or send us a message on Facebook. And if you try any of the places he features, we want to see photos!