The sloping, tree-lined Victory Boulevard that crisscrosses Staten Island's Tompkinsville neighborhood offers visitors a spectacular view of Manhattan. But it's more than a pretty residential street with views that would make a Brooklyner rethink their rooftop: it's also the heart of the Sri Lankan community that's taken hold on Staten Island (with some great restaurants to boot).
It's also home to Lanka Grocery.
When Staten Island Sri Lankans (and the rest of us of New Yorkers) want to make a home cooked meal rather than go out, they turn to Lanka Grocery for provisions. Jaawan—"people say Jay, that's the short one"—opened Lanka Grocery in 2005. Last year he opened a second, larger version almost directly across the street. They're both functional groceries, though you'll usually find Jaawan at the second outpost at #344. "I opened [this one] last June. Here I have more space, more products, more products from Sri Lanka, and products for the South Indian people, too."
Although Sri Lanka's culinary prowess is sometimes overshadowed by its northern neighbor, India (perhaps it and Staten Island are kin in this regard?) it has a rich and varied cuisine, and Jaawan is a ready ambassador. He's lived on Staten Island for 13 years. Before opening Lanka Grocery, he owned a video business in Manhattan. Before that, he owned a business in Sri Lanka. "There are some grocery stores here on Staten Island, but they are very small, they don't have all products" he explained. "And I have some experience in this business from my country. I had a wholesale business in Sri Lanka, and my father was also businessman, so I had the experience, and I decided to [open the grocery store]. I have many contacts in Sri Lanka and in Canada." (Apparently, outside of the Staten Island there's also a big Sri Lankan Tamil community in Canada.)
Sri Lanka is perhaps best known for the cinnamon and tea that carry its colonial name—Ceylon—and Jaawan stocks both. Cinnamon comes powdered and in splintered bits, and among his tea he has the "best" kind: Dilmah. Along with the tea you'll find several kinds of powdered milk (which Sri Lankans typically use instead of fresh milk) and jaggery, unrefined whole cane sugar. Jaawan picked up a disc of coconut palm jaggery. "It's used instead of sugar. You take a small bite, and then you sip your tea," he gestured.
In addition to cinnamon, tea and its accoutrements, Lanka Grocery stocks all the Sri Lankan pantry staples you need for home cooking. There are those that are expected of cuisines from this region of the world—rice, pulses, and spices—and some others that are perhaps more surprising. A good sixth of the store is given over to rice, mostly in 10 pound sacks or larger. There are several brands of white and red basmati, as well as red raw rice, ponni raw rice, white samba rice, suduru rice, and white kekulu rice.
Another wall is dedicated to pulses, or dal: masoor dal (red lentils), toor dal (yellow pigeon peas), kala chana (black chickpeas) and chana dal (its derivative), urad dal (referred to as black lentils), and green mung beans. Among the spices you'll find an interesting distinction: both roasted and unroasted curry. "The roasted curry, this is for meats," noted Jaawan. "The unroasted curry powder, that is for vegetables."
And then there's jackfruit, that sweet, oblong, green-skinned fruit that you can sometimes find among the street vendors in Chinatown. Jaawan carries the fresh fruit, which he sells by the wedge, but you'll also find it frozen, and in an astonishing number of curries. It's a popular ingredient, according to Jawaan, corroborated by its presence in almost every third product on the shelves of Lanka.
At Lanka you'll find jars of pickled mango, tamarind paste (and tamarind candies), Sri Lankan cookies, dried fish, almond and mustard oils, and cans of sweetened mango pulp for making lassis at home. There are also several types of flour, again in 10 pound sacks: atta flour (for making chapattis) and string hopper flour (essentially steamed rice flour) for making string hopper noodles (the Sri Lankan noodle of choice.)
The fresh vegetables in the fridge are particularly exciting. There are skinny Chinese eggplant and tiny Thai eggplant, whole lotus root, ambrella fruit, beautiful purple leathery banana flowers ("chop and sauté with a bit of unroasted curry powder" Jaawan noted) and Chinese bitter gourds ("this is good for diabetics: drink it as tea in the mornings and it helps the sugar go down" he advised.) Also in the fridge you'll find huge tubs of yogurt, including a brand—Desi—he particularly recommends, alongside cans of Elephant ginger beer and tiny glass bottles of woodapple nectar.
As Jaawan walked the aisles, pointing out special ingredients and ways to cook them, he was careful to make the distinction between ingredients used in Sri Lankan, Tamil, and South Indian cooking. The distinction is particularly specific when it comes to Jawaan's stock of ready-to-eat curries and sambals, but extends to other products as well. There's ginger garlic paste and coriander chutney (mostly for the South Indians), and ambrella chutney (more of a Sri Lankan thing). The mango chutney and biriyani mix are equally claimed.
Jawaan also has an aisle of Goya products, for his non-Sri Lankan neighbors, a seemingly odd concession that stems instead from his personal enthusiasm for his community and his work. Even on a busy Sunday, he was happy to pause a moment to talk to me and Nationaly Managing Editor Erin through different ingredients and dishes. As for what he cooks when he's home? Fish curry in a clay pot. You can pick up a beautiful clay pot for your own at Lanka Grocery, too.
344 Victory Boulevard, Staten Island, NY 10301 718-390-0052