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Sri Lankan immigrant entrepreneurs bring a taste of hometown to New York’s Staten Island.

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bluemoneyonline.com

May 26, 2021

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This story originally appeared in vertical. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

In 1967, young Leslie Gunaratne found herself on Staten Island, now New York City’s smallest borough by population. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The Sri Lankan accountant who was looking for a better opportunity became one of the first people in his country to settle in New York.

Six years later, he became a US citizen and helped the family move to Staten Island. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . By 1979, he estimated that 80 percent of the Sri Lankans living on the island were connected to him by “blood or marriage.” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The Tompkinsville and Stapleton regions of Staten Island now form a kind of Little Sri Lanka. The island’s Sri Lankan population has grown to include more than 4,000 people. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The more recent arrivals represent the island’s main demographic groups: the Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims.

taste of home

Vijayakumari Devadas, or Viji, decided to open a restaurant when customers called her in 2009. She currently runs the business with husband Devdas Ceruphatie, her younger brother and her sister-in-law.

Restaurant New Asha offers traditional rice and curry sets, as well as string hoppers (rice noodles), cotu (stir-fried roti with eggs, spices, vegetables and meat), fish dumplings and other specialties. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . A native of Tamil, Viji has never been trained in cooking, but her regular customers are raving about her authenticity.

With its rustic interior, New Asha is reminiscent of a small diner in a South Asian country. “For me, it’s the closest place to home,” says Sri Lankan student Dishani Silva, who moved to Staten Island in 2019. The restaurant also serves Northern and Southern Indian cuisine that is popular in Sri Lanka. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

On a special occasion, Silva goes to Lakruwana, an upscale restaurant that opened in 1995 in the Manhattan Theater District as a small eatery that can seat only 20 people. The original restaurant closed due to a fire in 2004. Since relocating to its present Staten Island location in 2010, Lakruwana has grown thanks to customers’ belief that the ingredients used in Sri Lankan cuisine can help “prevent many diseases”.

The restaurant’s owner, Lakruwana Wijesinghe, also wanted to convey the true meaning of his hometown to his customers. With this in mind, he shipped all of the restaurant’s décor and silverware from Sri Lanka to New York in 40-foot containers. Lakruwana’s most popular is the Sunday brunch buffet featuring over 20 dishes from the island.

Wijesinghe is also active in the cultural life of the Sri Lankan community, supporting her daughter Julia’s plan to open the only Sri Lankan museum in New York and donating art to the Staten Island Buddhist Vihara Meditation Center and Healing Gardens. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Other restaurants on Staten Island serve both South Asian fusion food and Sri Lankan food to cater to the average American palate. Anthony Bourdain is one of many celebrities who have experienced a variety of Sri Lankan restaurants on the island. But the pandemic has done its damage. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Some restaurants, such as Lak Bojun, which was famous for Lamprais, a rice dish linking Sri Lanka and Dutch colonial times, have been closed. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Foods that are comforting in a pandemic

For members of the community who don’t want to eat out regularly, Sri Lankan grocery stores are the answer. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Lanka Grocery, or Apey Kade, offers a complete selection of spices, canned coconut milk, sauces, Maldivian fish (processed tuna), condiments, rice and a variety of ingredients needed to cook authentic Lankan meals. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Having opened his shop in 2012, Jay Jayathunga has been in the Staten Island grocery business for over 20 years. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The well-stocked aisle also features products from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which reflects the store’s main customer.

Among other shops popular in the Sri Lankan community is Little Lanka, the main residence of Dilshani Silva. “I get plenty of Maliban (a popular Sir Lankan brand) biscuits and Elephant House cream soda at the local grocery store,” she says. “Some shops also have Lion Beer and Sri Lankan Arak,” he said..!? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Some shops also sell the curry factory Murraya koenigii. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Curry leaves are an essential part of Sri Lankan cuisine.

Silva also worked for an importer supplying both shops and restaurants in the area. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . “The pandemic temporarily slowed product imports last year, but business is generally booming as the Staten Island community has taken a lot of solace from eating Sri Lankan food,” he added. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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