Years ago, a small oddity of a shop appeared in Manhattan's East Village, close to the famous pair of red pepper lit Indian restaurants. Sigiri was non-flashy and gave the promise of Sri Lankan tastes, what usually required a trip out to Staten Island or New Jersey to procure. Now the two friends who created this shop have expanded to those places as well, into the hearts of the Sri Lankan communities of Tompkinsville, Staten Island and Edison, New Jersey. Their foods and attention to detail are recognized by expats and those new to the cuisine. While not new to the country or cuisine, we recently made it out to try the Staten Island branch, which is in the previous home of another Sri Lankan restaurant (which also had a wonderful beer garden).
Like most places touching the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka has a history of influences from traders, travelers, and conquerors. Indian, Portuguese, Dutch, and Malay ships headed around these busy waters and left impressions on culture and cuisine. In different parts of the island, one can see different levels of influence even though most menus in New York City offer more of a baseline introduction to the food.
I traveled mostly in the north of the country, where the dishes look and act a bit more like those of Tamil peoples in India. Buddhist Sinhalese populate parts of the north too, and many pan-Sri Lankan favorites make their way onto menus even up in Jaffna.
While there is some coffee production in the highlands of Sri Lanka's interior, I remember only being served poor cups during my stay in the country. For that reason, I was somewhat apprehensive about the Sri Lankan iced coffee ($3.50, below). It was rather iceless, but enjoyable nonetheless, full of earthiness (and condensed milk).
Like other Sri Lankan restaurants in Staten Island, Sigiri also offers a Sunday buffet, full of options for less than $15 per person. We ate on a weekday for lunch and made selections from their quite lengthy menu. While waiting for our meals to come out, I picked up a pamphlet for the Staten Island Youth Cricket Program, which must be popular. In Sri Lanka, there was cricket on television everyday and "pick up" games in every park like we see basketball and football here.
The "devilled specialties" are those dishes prepared in a manner ubiquitous in Sri Lanka that you might expect to be incredibly spicy by the name. In reality there is some spice, but the tastes are also sweet and sometimes sour. We ordered the sizzling mixed seafood special ($20, below) platter, which comes with shrimp, squid, crab, fried fish, bell peppers and onions. With the shell still on, it is also served with crab cracker.
Chicken lamprais ($14, below) is a Dutch Burgher-influenced dish that is always served in the banana leaf that it cooks in. Mixed with meat stocks, curry, and sambal, the rice takes on the flavors of these and other spices.
Since it takes time to prepare, you will usually find this dish at special occasions and family gatherings. Opening the leaf reveals all the contents, which are then mixed and eaten as desired.
There is a lot to explore on the menu here, so taking a group would be beneficial. Trying the buffet also gives the option to sample different curries and plates in small sizes. Either way, this South Asian island's cuisine continues to be well-represented on New York City's south island.