Sooner or later, the discussion turns to heat at Shakthi South Asian Cuisine in Alexandria. The negotiations with your server may occasionally feel as intense as those for an international peace agreement, given that one concession (“Sure, I’ll take it spicy”) can lead to long-term suffering for those not accustomed to the chili-based burn of Sri Lankan cooking.
Then again, sometimes it won’t matter what heat level you request. The plate will arrive with its own agenda, which you won’t discover until the first bite.
Allow me to explain: Dishes such as the Sri Lankan appetizers are pre-made, their chili content already determined by Sheela Ramani Perera, half of the husband-and-wife team behind Shakthi. Ramani and her husband, Stanley, are Sri Lankan natives still trying to gauge their American customers, whose heat tolerance exhibits all the extremes of global-warming weather patterns. As such, one diner’s distaste for spice can damp the fire in a dish until the next diner pipes up for more peppers.
The first time I tried the mas roti, this precisely engineered square of lamb and vegetables wrapped in flatbread, the appetizer’s heat turned my head into a public fountain. My nose ran, my eyes teared up, my mouth pooled with water — all my body’s feeble attempts to contain the forest fire on my tongue. Despite the pain, I loved the dish, its burn tempered by the cardamom fragrance of the spice blend. Nearly two weeks later when I sampled the mas roti again, it was a purring kitten, perfumed but declawed.
I offer up my “Tale of Two Roti” as an example of Shakthi’s unpredictability, as chefs Ramani and Stanley wander this uncharted terrain. Their restaurant claims to be the first one in the area dedicated to Sri Lankan cuisine, and it may be (although Banana Leaf, with a location already in New York, is expected to open soon on Connecticut Avenue NW). As the pioneer, though, Shakthi’s chefs must determine the sweet spot between pleasing local palates and remaining true to their cuisine’s flavors and spice. I don’t envy their burden.
Fortunately, many of Shakthi’s dishes can be customized to your desired spice threshold. Ramani and Stanley offer four inexact heat levels: mild, medium, spicy and extra spicy. The last category is, essentially, “Sri Lankan spicy,” a term the owners prefer to avoid because, as they rightly note, some Americans have developed an affection for the masochistic pleasures of the chili pepper.
During the course of my multiple visits, I ordered a wide range of dishes, but largely stayed within the confines of Shakthi’s Sri Lankan menu, even though the chefs also offer Indian and Thai dishes (the latter a request of their landlord who owned the previous restaurant in this space, Po Siam). I encountered only one dud in all the dishes that passed our tables, a mutton curry, whose bone-in meat needed more time and heat to break down the connective tissues.
Sri Lankan cooking, the “last undiscovered cuisine of Asia,” as cookbook author S.H. “Skiz” Fernando Jr. likes to say, relies heavily on roasted spice blends, each individual to the cook. Shakthi’s blend leans on a wealth of ingredients, some imported from the homeland: cloves, cinnamon, pandan leaves, black mustard seeds, curry leaves, cardamom and even a paste made from the dried fruit rinds of the goraka tree, which grows in Sri Lankan rain forests. The latter element adds a small, identifiable sourness to Skakthi’s line of meat curries, including the chicken curry, whose coconut-milk sauce is thinner, but no less complex, than the gravies of northern India.
I noted one other interesting twist with the cooking here: the use of sliced garlic in some vegetarian dishes, as opposed to the garlic powders mixed into so many spice blends. The slivered cloves added a slight nutty aroma to the mid-grade burn of the dhal curry, while providing a touch of pungency to the musky and mild jack fruit that stars in the polos pehi entree.
Jack fruit also makes an unexpected appearance in Shakthi’s chicken lamprais, one of the Sri Lankan specialties available. Apparently a Dutch improvisation borrowed from the islanders of Java, Indonesia, lamprais is sort of the Brunswick stew of Sri Lankan cooking. You might find anything tucked into this neatly folded banana leaf: Chicken legs, eggplant, spicy fried fish cutlets, hard-cooked eggs and an onion relish called seeni sambol are all buried in this particular bundle of rice. It’s a scavenger hunt that rewards you with different sweet and semi-spicy bites every time.
Not all Sri Lankan cooking turns your mouth supernova. Example: The vegetarian appetizer rolls, simultaneously crispy and doughy, are pure candy compared to their mutton counterpart, those golden cylinders packed with fire-breathing goat, leeks and potatoes. Likewise, the string hoppers, small tangles of ultra-thin rice pasta, are paired with a mild and milky potato curry. Of course, as with any Sri Lankan dish of rice and curry, you can liberally garnish your string hoppers with fresh coconut sambol, a condiment that adds heat, texture and a general sense of human happiness to any plate it touches.
Okay, I invented that final quality. But as you sit in this tranquil space decorated with prints of a famous fresco at Sigiriya palace, you can’t help but feel grateful for the chance to sample street food such as the rich, pandan-scented kotthu roti while getting a small glimpse into a life far removed from our own. Even as you’re gobbling down more rice to quell that Sri Lankan fire in your mouth.
3807 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria.
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m and 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Crystal City, with a 2-mile trip to the restaurant.
Prices: Entrees, $6.95-$16.95.