All cuisines are mutts, mongrel mixes of influences and inspirations, borrowings and begettings. Yet, like characters in a Faulkner novel, some have more tortuous genealogies than others. The motley nature of Sri Lankan food has few rivals, as amply displayed at Banana Leaf, a narrow, dark, and winning restaurant on an unprepossessing strip in northern Chelsea. Here, an appetizer sings in Hindi, while one entree speaks fluent Thai and another whispers with a Dutch accent. The flavors on display demonstrate centuries of cross-cultural exchange, utterly upending any notion of indigenous purity.
As we munched on masala vadai ($4), fried lentil cakes, we mused about how appealing these would be as street food. Pack a few in a paper cone or even a hand, and you'd be good to go. Turns out, they belong to a group known as "short eats," Sri Lankan snacks mostly consumed at breakfast or tea time. But some traditions are meant to be broken: the crunchy-on-the-outside, moist-on-the-inside, not-a-speak-of-grease-in-sight patties deserve to be eaten at any hour. Split peas and lentils get pounded and mixed with garam masala, which lends complexity to anything it touches.
Next, we sampled vegetable godamba roti ($4), a flatbread filled with chopped veggies, then folded up and fried, the delectable cousin of a Hot Pocket. The scallions, carrots, peas, and potatoes squeaked as we ate them, contrasting with the bread's stretchy chew.
The accompanying chutneys and sambols add spice, a lot of spice. We opted for two fruit juice cordials ($4 each), but regular soda, imported soda, beer, and wine are also available. Mango arrived thick and essential, bright orange and vitamin-packed. Woodapple, in contrast, looked and tasted as if it had been made from a strawberry powder that hadn't quite dissolved. Later we learned that in some places throughout Southeast Asia, people use woodapple to make glue, so perhaps that helps explain the drink's thickness.
Pol (coconut) roti came with a choice of curry; we went for shrimp ($13), teeny, tiny prawns, boiled to softness, in some unfortunate cases with the shells still on. The roti appeared almost vacuum-packed, neatly stuffed with wheat and shreds of coconut. And the curry evoked red curries we've had at Thai restaurants, luscious from coconut milk and sharp from garlic and dried chilies. While we liked this a lot, perhaps the black pork version ($12) would have given us a more nuanced notion of Sri Lanka's take on the omnipresent curry.
In the festive, Dutch-inspired lamprais ($13), discretely prepared components mingle and merge inside a steamed banana leaf, rising to heights together that they could not ascend alone. Toothpicks hold the banana leaf closed; it opens to reveal a homey hodgepodge of long-grained rice tinged with saffron and cooked in marrow stock, strips of treacly eggplant, okra, fried ash plantain curry, a hard boiled egg, a fish meatball known as frikadeller, a relish made from caramelized onions known as seeni sambol, and chunks of tough beef. The meat was the weakest part of the dish and we were sad not to see it combined with mutton and chicken, as is often done. That disappointment aside, we'd go to any celebration where this earthy, messy mound of goodness put in an appearance.
"Ayubowan," the menu says. "May you live long," in Sinhala. Same to you, Banana Leaf, even if your service could be indifferent and the fake brick that lines your dining room left us befuddled. Tasting the vicissitudes of history, we looked up at the framed posters of typical tourist scenes and fantasized about traveling, as so many others have, to the little island next to the large subcontinent. For now, a return trip to this restaurant will have to do. It's best for: a date with diversity.