Picture this:

It was the week after the wedding. The bride and groom had been entertained every night. In a spontaneous gesture, the groom invited half a dozen people to dine at their apartment the next evening. The bride, who had come to Washington for the first time only days before the wedding, appeared to nod her head in assent.

The groom, too, was relatively new to Washington, so a few inquiries among friends in the local Sri Lankan community were needed to establish a shopping itinerary. The couple returned at 3:30, four hours before the guests were due.

Marriage is said to be a learning experience, but at that moment Nihal Goonewardene would rather have remained unenlightened. "What's going to be on the menu?" he inquired.

Looking about the kitchen, his wife, Chrystal, informed him that she had never in all her 21 years prepared a meal.

"But I've watched mummy," she said. "I've tasted her food. I think I can do it."

Nihal, passing the first test of the modern husband, kept his fears to himself and began readying the apartment. "It hadn't occurred to me," he recalled recently. "She seemed very confident, especially about spices. Then, after awhile, the aromas began to come out of the kitchen and after a few whiffs I knew things were moving along the right track."

They were. This is a Valentine's Day tribute, after all. The guests, including former ambassador Neville Kanakarante, partook of five dishes and yellow rice, a party dish, and pronounced themselves pleased.

"It was fine," Nihal said."The only problem was that we ate the same food for almost a week after. She had cooked enough for an army."

That was in October. A dinner last month provided convincing evidence of Chrystal's now-polished cooking skills and sense of portions. For entertainment, there was a lively recounting of the couple's whirlwind international courtship. Although both are natives of Sri Lanka, they would, they said, never have met at home.

Instead, they were introduced last June in an unlikely locale -- Monrovia, Liberia.

Nihal had arrived there by a circuitous route. He went from Sri Lanka to Japan to the United States for graduate and post-graduate study. Then he had worked in Manila and Honolulu. Last spring he came to Washington to join the International Science and Technology Institute. His first assignment took him to Liberia. By late June, the work was nearly completed. Within a week he would leave.

Chrystal's path was more direct. After finishing school and working in the business office of her parents' orchid nursery, she was planning to spend a year living with her grandparents. Her grandfather, an orthopedic surgeon, had accepted a post in Monrovia so he could continue his practice beyond Sri Lanka's manditory retirement age.

What followed, except for the happy ending, was pure Romeo and Juliet.

They met on the day she arrived. (Nihal wasn't quite as unprepared as was Chrystal. He had already seen a picture at her grandparents'.) And the next day. And the next. By week's end they went out to dinner together, alone. "It was my first 'date,'" said Chrystal with a laugh. Cupid's arrow scored a double bullseye.

But a rival emerged, another Sri Lankan who lived full time in Monrovia. He was friendly with Chrystal's family and Nihal felt the man's attentions were being encouraged by the family. There was a party filled with whispered conversations in various corners. With storm clouds gathering and his own time in Monrovia nearly at an end, Nihal "decided on a frontal attack."

The next day he spoke of marriage to Chrystal's grandfather. "He liked the idea," Nihal said. But someone had to confront her father, by all accounts a strong and possessive man, and explain that within a week of leaving home his beautiful daughter had become engaged to a stranger.

So Nihal changed travel plans, flew to Sri Lanka and after an evening with Chrystal's family (all of whom except the father knew of his mission and watched like spectators at a tennis match) pressed his case and was accepted.

There followed, in what seemed very rapid succession, another week in Liberia, his return to Washington to search for an apartment, marriage and the first dinner. (Actually, it was the second meal in the apartment. Her grandparents had dined there with them. But Nihal had cooked -- spaghetti.)

Sri Lankan cuisine is much closer to Indian than to Italian, however. The tropical island once known as Ceylon has a wealth of fruits, vegetables and seafood as well as tea.

By custom, according to the Goonewardenes, "3 1/2 meals are eaten." The half meal is mid-afternoon tea, accompanied by one or more sweets. Tea is a major crop and an "on-going beverage." Eight or nine cups may be consumed during the course of the day.

Dinner is served late, at 8:30 or 9 p.m. Normally four dishes are served with up to seven or eight for celebrations. Chicken is a luxury food; but beef (from work animals) is common. Fresh fruit salad is the national dessert.

Food is placed on a plate with a rice centerpiece and eaten with the hand. There is "spice in everything," but Nihal contends the hot pepper taste is more carefully balanced with a variety of spices in his country than in much of Indian cooking. (Children are led along gradually. Most of the spice will be washed off their meat before it is cooked. The number of chilis is controlled. But by the age of 5 or 6 most are eating their food at full strength.)

"Every day there are curries," Chrystal explained, "but each one has different ingredients, a different color or texture. So you don't get tired of them." Here she has become enchanted with a mechanical deep frier called the Fry Baby, but uses a press and molds from home to make "string hoppers" and "hoppers." The former are small straw-mat-like pancakes made from thin spaghetti strings of rice- or wheat-flower paste. They are steamed. The latter are yeast-dough pancakes cooked in a curved mold. Sometimes an egg is broken into the center of the mold, making it an "egg hopper."

Chrystal giggled as she explained the process. But her husband, laughing as well, hastened to point out that meals and cooking standards are "serious business" in their homeland.

The recipes that follow will help explain why. They serve eight persons as part of a complete meal, but fewer if prepared separately. Spices may be altered to the cook's taste. Chrystal makes a powder of long, thin, dried red chilis, including the seeds. Cayenne pepper may be substituted.

All the dishes are served at the same time. They may be made ahead and reheated. Condiments such as cut-up bananas, other fruits or chutneys may be served as well. Water or beer is the usual beverage, although at one dinner Madeira proved a pleasing accompaniment.

BEEF CURRY WITH POTATOES (8 servings)

2 1/2 pounds beef

2 teaspoons ground cumin seeds

2 teaspoons ground coriander seeds

2 teaspoons crushed chili peppers

1 teaspoon salt

10 cloves

10 whole cardomoms

1 tablespoon vinegar

6 cloves garlic, minced

1 piece (2 inches) ginger root, peeled and grated or minced

Grated rind of 1 lime

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 medium onion, diced

8 bay leaves

1 cup milk

1 tomato, diced

8 small potatoes, peeled and halved

1 stick (3 inches) cinnamon

3 ounces tomato paste

Slice beef into 1/4 inch thick slices. Mix together cumin, coriander, chili, salt, cloves, cardomoms, vinegar, garlic, ginger and rind of lime and mix this paste with the beef slices. Heat oil and fry onion and bay leaves until golden. Add beef and stir-fry until browned all over. Add milk, tomatoes and potatoes. Simmer, covered, over very low heat and cook for 25 to 30 minutes. When almost done, stir in tomato paste. This gives a rich color and thickness to the sauce.

SQUID CURRY (4 to 8 servings)

2 pounds squid (2 cups when cleaned and sliced)

2 tomatoes, chopped

1 green pepper, chopped

6 cloves garlic, minced

1 piece (2 inches) ginger root, minced or grated

1 medium onion, sliced

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 teaspoons ground cumin

2 teaspoons ground coriander

2 teaspoons chili powder

1/2 cup milk

Juice of 1 lime

1 teaspoon salt

1 ounce tomato paste

Remove ink, clean and cut squid into 1/4-inch strips. Combine cumin, coriander, chili, salt, garlic, ginger and lime juice. Mix in squid. Heat oil and fry onion until golden. Add green pepper, prepared squid and cubed tomato. Let cook in its own juices for 5 minutes (if there is not enough juice add a few teaspoons water). Add milk and simmer another 10 minutes, covered, or until squid is firm but not tough. Lastly add tomato paste.

DEEP FRIED CASHEWS

1 pound raw cashews n*

1 teaspoon chili powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup oil for deep frying (FOOTNOTE)

n* Sold at Oriental markets and health food stores(END FOOT)

Heat oil until hot and deep fry cashews until golden brown, about 2 cashews until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Drain off oil and turn cashews onto paper towels. Shake on chili powder and salt and toss to coat the nuts. Keep warm until serving time.

EGGPLANT CURRY (8 servings)

2 large eggplant

1 medium onion, chopped

1 piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

6 cloves garlic, chopped

1 hot green chili or 1/2 green bell pepper, chopped

1/2 teaspoon mustard seed

1/2 teaspoon fenagreek seed

6 bay leaves

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon chopped or ground hot chili pepper

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup milk

1/2 lime

2 cups plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Slice or cube eggplant and deep fry until light brown. Drain on paper towels. In a sauce pan, using 2 tablespoons oil, fry onion, bay leaves, mustard, fenagreek, garlic, ginger and green chili until golden. Pour in milk and add salt, cumin, coriander and chili. Bring to boil and add fried eggplant. Simmer for 10 minutes, covered. Remove from heat and add lime juice.

SINI SAMBAL (Onion Relish) (8 servings)

6 medium onions, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon chili powder

15 whole cardomoms

15 cloves

6 cloves garlic, chopped

2 1/2 tablespoons shrimp powder (or whole dried shrimps) n*

1 piece (1 inch) fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

1 piece (3 inches) cinnamon stick

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

Juice of 1/2 lime

2 tablespoons oil (FOOTNOTE)

n* Sold in oriental markets(END FOOT)

Fry onion, cardamoms, cloves, garlic, ginger, cinnamon in oil over low heat for 10 to 15 minutes. Don't allow onions to burn. Add salt, sugar, shrimp and simmer, covered, for 25 to 30 minutes. Add chili powder. Simmer over low heat until liquid reduces to a paste, about 10 minutes. Stir in lime juice and remove from heat.

LENTIL CURRY WITH POTATOES OR SPINACH (8 servings)

2 cups lentils

1 onion, chopped

6 cloves garlic, chopped

1/2 teaspoon mustard seed

1/2 teaspoon fenagreek seed

6 bay leaves

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups water

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 tomato, diced

2 1/2 cups milk

5 medium potatoes, peeled and chopped into 1-inch cubes

1 package fresh spinach (optional)

Juice of 1/2 lime

Fry onion, garlic, mustard, fenagreek, bay leaves in oil until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add salt, water, turmeric and washed lentils and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Add potatoes, tomato and milk. Cover and simmer until potatoes are done, another 15 to 20 minutes. If using spinach, add it for final 10 minutes of cooking. Lastly, remove from heat and add lime juice.

YELLOW RICE WITH RAISINS (8 servings)

2 cups rice (Basmatti preferred), washed and drained

1/2 cup raisins

1/2 stick butter or margarine

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

10 whole cardomoms

10 cloves

1 onion, chopped

1 tomato

4 cups water

Fry onion in melted butter until golden brown, 5 to 10 minutes. Add cardomoms, cloves and raisins. Add rice and fry until light golden. Add water, salt, tomato and turmeric. Cover and simmer over low heat until rice is done, 20 minutes.

Two bay leaves may be added when frying onions.