MINNEAPOLIS -- When you order your food at the Sri Lanka Curry House, the waitress will likely give you a warning. The menu says that most dishes are available medium, hot and very hot. "Medium," she says, "is like the hottest Szechuan food you ever ate." If you like mild meals, we suggest you find another place to eat in Minneapolis. This is the cuisine of fire and spice.
The Curry House is easy to find along Hennepin Avenue. Loo for the set of mammoth wooden doors, each bedecked with an enormous round gargoyle-faced handle so elaborate you don't really know where to grab and pull. The inside is less like an exotic Ceylonese temple than a basic Asian-American storefront restaurant, staffed mostly by local youths who are contagiously enthusiastic about the hot food they serve. Travel posters hung on black burlap walls show pictures of Sri Lanka -- leopards, scenery and ancient temples.
On weekends, there is a small stage where live entertainer provide the clientele of Minneapolis epicures a taste of Sri Lankan music to accompany their food. On quieter weekday nights, in addition to recorded mood music in the background, the ambience of the dining room is enhanced by the sound of diners sniffling, as the curries they eat cause their sinuses to drain.
Swell appetizers: chutney chicken wings, served hot and sticky or lentil pancakes cooked brittle crisp, yet still moist inside, served with a syrup that sets your mouth on fire. The rest of the menu is big, and obscure if you aren't familiar with Sri Lankan cuisine, so waitresses spend plenty of time patiently explaining what is what and recommending, for example, Curry No. 2, available with shrimp, lamb, beef or chicken, as a good introduction. It comes with your meat of choice swathed in big oily green leaves that seem to be spinach but are somehow infinitely zestier than any spinach we have ever tasted. Also on the plate are potatoes, mashed chickpeas, tomato and onion salad, and two or three unidentifiable, highly spiced vegetable things. It is all powerfully seasoned, strange and dizzyingly complex.
Advanced customers who go beyond the combination plates order just those things they like best -- such exotica as prawn mallung (with coconut), whole curried lobsters and vegetable roti. Someday, we would like to come in and order a dish of the lamb curry extra hot, just to test the outer limits of this blazing cuisine. All full meals come with a three-cup condiment tray loaded up with coconut, parsley and a wondrous onion-tomato relish that tastes good on just about everything.
After a meal like this you want something soothing; and chef Heather Balasuriya of the Curry House provides it: cool fruit shakes or a dish of nice vanilla ice cream with mango pulp. Your exhausted and utterly satisfied taste buds will thank you.
This recipe for chutney chicken wings is adapted from "Fire Spice: The Cuisine of Sri Lanka," which Ms. Balasuriya wrote in collaboration with a Minneapolis Star and Tribune writer, Karin Winegar.
Chutney chicken wings
Serves four to six as an appetizer.
2 cups vegetable oil
1 1/2 pounds chicken wings, tips removed, cleaned and patted dry
1 cup cider vinegar
1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger root
5 cardamom seeds
5 whole cloves
1 1-inch length cinnamon stick
2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
2 tablespoons chili powder, or to taste
Heat oil in a large skillet to 365 degrees. Fry wings until golden brown. Set aside and keep warm.
Heat vinegar in saucepan. Add brown sugar and stir over low heat until sugar is dissolved. Cook until thick and syrupy. Add remaining ingredients, adjusting salt and chili powder to taste (it should be hot). Continue cooking over low heat about 20 minutes, stirring constantly to keep syrup from sticking.
Blend syrup with wings, coating them thoroughly. Serve hot with plenty of napkins.
Sri Lanka Curry House, 2821 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, Minn. 55408; (612) 871-2400.