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Fund-raising feast: F-M Sri Lankans host dinner to support tsunami rebuilding

On Sunday, HoDo Restaurant chef Eric Inscho will step back and watch six Sri Lankan women take over his kitchen in Fargo. He and his crew of cooks plan to voluntarily let the women take charge and help out wherever they can. "I really know nothin...

On Sunday, HoDo Restaurant chef Eric Inscho will step back and watch six Sri Lankan women take over his kitchen in Fargo.

He and his crew of cooks plan to voluntarily let the women take charge and help out wherever they can.

"I really know nothing about Sri Lankan cuisine," Inscho says. "I assume there'll be a lot of rice."

That Sunday, some of the most accomplished cooks among the local Sri Lankan community of about two dozen people will initiate Inscho and others into the cooking traditions of their lush homeland.

The restaurant will host a night of Sri Lankan culture and authentic food, an initiative by Sri Lankan expatriates and their friends to raise money for post-tsunami reconstruction on the island.

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Hint: There will be a lot more than just a lot of rice.

Jessie Rock, a geology major at Minnesota State University Moorhead, was reading about tsunamis the week before the most powerful earthquake in four decades unleashed catastrophic waves on the coasts of eight Asian countries last Christmas.

Sri Lanka was proportionally the worst hit nation, and the initial outpouring of support and financial aid was massive.

But by the time Rock returned to campus at the start of spring semester, the ongoing struggle of tsunami victims to rebuild their lives had dropped off the public's radar.

A few Sri Lankan students were gathering donations in university halls, and when Rock dropped $5 on top of a jar half-full of change, she decided she wanted to do something on a larger scale.

"I couldn't believe how fast it all went out of the news," she says.

Rock, who works as a server in the HoDo restaurant Untitled, ran the idea of organizing a fund-raising dinner there by her statistics teacher, Ari Wijetunga, an MSUM mathematics professor from Sri Lanka. Soon thereafter, most of the local Sri Lankan community had mobilized to make the dinner happen.

Wijetunga's wife, Theja, who works at North Dakota State University's department of plant sciences, and five other Sri Lankan women committed to create a sumptuous dinner, with a little help from HoDo cooks, who volunteered to work on their day off.

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Pabalu Karumadharma, an MSUM undergraduate majoring in biology and chemistry, prepared a presentation about her country's history, political system, ethnic group and the compromised beauty of the Sri Lankan coastline, complete with striking before and after photos. During the presentation, the first course will be served.

Karumadharma and a group of friends will then perform traditional Sri Lankan dance, including an exotic number mimicking the movements of the peacock, as the second course is served.

Then, guests will indulge in the main course, served family style in the dining hall of the HoDo.

Scared of spice?

The women want to preserve an element of surprise when it comes to the menu, but they say that the offering will include all the staples of Sri Lankan cuisine.

Besides the requisite rice, which in Sri Lankan cooking is anything but blah thanks to an infusion of spices, guests will sample a chicken dish with several side dishes of curried vegetables. They will also try at least two Sri Lankan appetizers: roti, thin pancakes stuffed with fresh edibles such as chilies, onions, egg or meat; and cultets, a tuna, potato and onion mixture.

The meal will end with a fancy dessert involving a variety of exotic fruit and a serving of black tea, a long-standing ritual in Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon.

The measure of secrecy need not alarm less-than-adventurous guests. The Wijetungas have test-driven the featured recipes repeatedly with the family's American friends and colleagues, and the selection was partly based on the experimental audience's overwhelming approval.

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In fact, some of Ari's fellow professors at MSUM were the first to snatch $50 tickets for the event. After sampling Sri Lankan food at his home - a typical menu would include chicken with red lentils or dahl, curried vegetables, rice and sambol, a tangy mixture of grated coconut, chili and spices - they didn't want to miss a repeat performance.

Theja says just a couple of those guests were taken aback by the kick that some of the featured dishes pack. Sri Lankan food has a reputation, mostly well-deserved, of being fiendishly hot. But, "The university crowd, they can tolerate a little bit of spice," she says. "They were fine."

Those who fear they might not have the nerve to sample spicy Sri Lankan delicacies should relax. "It will be very palatable," says Theja, who promises she and her fellow cooks will go easy on the chilies to humor the uninitiated.

She says the Wijetunga family has lowered its own spiciness threshold considerably after a couple of decades in the United States, toning down the dishes for their children and, even more so, for their American guests. These days, when they travel to their home country to visit relatives and friends, they find the food to be too hot for them.

But the culinary courageous at the HoDo will get a chance to test their mettle. "If someone says bring on the spice, it will be an option," says Rock.

Cashew curry

8 ounces cashews

3 cups thin coconut milk

1 medium onion, sliced

2 fresh green chilies, sliced

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 cinnamon stick

4 pieces ramp (type of wild onion)

8 curry leaves

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

? tablespoon ground turmeric

1 tablespoon raw curry powder

1 cup thick coconut milk or fresh milk

Place the cashews in a bowl, add boiling water, cover with lid and soak for about four hours or overnight. Drain the water from the cashews and add salt, turmeric and curry powder. Mix well until the cashews are well coated.

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan, then add onions, chilies, crushed garlic and cinnamon. Fry until the onions are soft and golden brown. Add cashews and keep stirring until they are coated with oil and onions.

Add the thin coconut milk or water, cover with a lid and cook on slow heat until the cashews are soft. Add the thick coconut milk and bring to a boil on slow heat. Turn off the heat and add salt to taste.

Courtesy of Lakmali Hewa

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

If you go

- What: Evening of Sri Lankan food and dance, with proceeds going to the Sri Lanka Disaster Relief Fund

- When: 5 p.m. Sunday

- Where: Hotel Donaldson in downtown Fargo

- Tickets: $50; (701) 478-8888

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