By Allison Baxter
Mary Anne Mohanraj is a creative powerhouse: mother of two, author and editor of 17 books, professor of English at the University of Illinois Chicago, member of the Oak Park Library Board, director of The Maram Maker Space nonprofit arts organization, administrator of Friends of the Oak Park and River Forest Garden Club and now, the author of “A Feast of Serendib,” a Sri Lankan cookbook. The cookbook was born out of a love of food, culture and her battle with breast cancer.
“The summer after treatment, I started obsessively cooking Sri Lankan food and studying in order to give my kids this inheritance,” said Mohanraj, who was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer in February 2015. “I dedicated my book to them with these words: ‘that they may remember.’”
Mohanraj’s recipes include her mother’s, her own and those from Sri Lankan friends. Her mother cooked curries and rice for every dinner, but in the kitchen she was a perfectionist who didn’t welcome help or questions. Instead of teaching her daughter, she told her “just watch” and expected her to learn.
“I wrote things down…when she tossed in some black mustard seed, I’d ask her how much she’s put in, and when she said ‘3 inches,’ I’d estimate what that meant in teaspoons (8),” Mohanraj said. On occasion, she caught spices in her hands as her mother dropped them into the curry pot in order to measure the amount.
In college, she tired quickly of the institutional food and called her mother for instructions on how to make beef curry. That recipe in hand, she cooked it over and over again, adding a vegetable curry when she was at home for the summer. From then, she worked at increasing and perfecting her repertoire of Sri Lankan food.
The 243-page cookbook is an easily accessible introduction to Sri Lankan food that also features Mohanraj’s fiction writing, which adds another dimension to the cookbook.
She also approached “A Feast of Serendib” with an academic eye, researching to make sure she introduced it accurately. She details briefly the immigration, colonization and history of Sri Lanka for the reader to more fully understand the diverse influences on the cuisine.
A teacher at heart and an ambassador for her native cuisine, Mohanraj has set up a multimedia website with a blog and video tutorials.
“Reach people where they are…people gravitate to comfort media…my goal is to teach America about Sri Lankan food,” she said.
To be more inclusive, Mohanraj has organized a vegan recipe book that is available digitally now and will be available in print for December. She’s selected recipes that are simple for the novice chef, yet full of flavor and history. This is a feast you can enjoy anywhere with a little patience, a little preparation and a lot of flavor.
– Allison Baxter, 1995 graduate of UIC, Master of Education