She said, “I guess you can only eat the salad here?”
I said, “Pretty much.”
She said, “Is that what it’s like being a vegetarian in Dallas?”
I said, “Nah, it’s all right, there’s some nice spots around town”
What she didn’t know was the underworld, the door to door, the non-state-inspected kitchens, the aunties, The Brown Market.
You see, life finds a way. Even in a city like Dallas where BBQ and big hair reign supreme—aunties, Sri Lankan aunties, find a way to make and sell Sri Lankan delicacies on a mass scale. It’s word-of-mouth marketing: you call a land line, you get a disgruntled teen who hands a phone to an auntie, she takes an order, and, in a day or two, the disgruntled teen delivers a tray of food to your house.
Two quick notes about Sri Lankan food. One, it can be spicy. Like, clean-out-your-sinuses, tingle-the-tops-of-your-ears, sweat-beads-on-the-bridge-of-your-nose spicy. But not all of it. The second note is it’s a work of art. Like it should be in the Whitney Biennial stat. No other island brings it to you live like Sri Lanka. The textures, the full-spectrum taste palette, the tingling, the steaming, the frying, the slow cooking, the tea—my god, the orange pekoe tea. And of course, the 1.7-million-year-old man-made bridge you can see from space.
Alex Ebert tried to describe an orgasm in the song “A Million Years” when he said, “It’s a spun tongue/It’s a holy shit/It’s a loud cry from the heart/It’s a live death/It’s a big breath/It’s a no more we’re apart.”
I would argue the same description could be made for Sri Lankan food.
As a teen I delivered hoppers, Idiyappams, cutlets—but mostly hoppers. My mother’s hoppers were mouth-wateringly famous. Hoppers are a type of pancake made with fermented rice batter and coconut milk. It’s called aappam in Tamil, but it’s commonly referred to by its Anglicized name, hoppers.
There’s the plain, the egg hopper, and then the piece de resistance: the milk hopper. A spoonful of thick coconut milk and coconut cream are added to the doughy center. When cooked, the center is firm to the touch but remains soft and sweet on the inside.
Back to the disgruntled teen. En route in my father’s Delta 88, my 16-year-old brain would take over and I would peel back the tin foil covering of the dish containing the milk hoppers and I would lick the creamy sweet center and put it back in. Yeah, I know, Yikes. As Pusha T would say, “There’s diaper rash on my conscience.”
But, on this one particular run, I was traveling east on 635. My hunger pangs got the better of me. I reached over and grabbed a still-warm milk hopper. At the crinkle of the tinfoil, my taste buds tingled something fierce, I involuntarily licked my lips, the anticipation building. It was like that moment in The Man Who Knew Too Much before the cymbal crash.
I palmed the hopper, brought it to my tongue—and that’s when I was booby-trapped by the smartest woman I know. I had never felt such spicy heat on my tongue. My entire mouth was on fire. My sinuses drained, my ears tingled, sweat rained down, my brain short-circuited. As the Delta 88 went smashing into the water barrel barriers of the Josey Lane exit, I saw a cutlet float by my face right before the airbag deployed smashing said cutlet right into my nose.
With my jaw wired shut, it would be six weeks before my tongue tasted Sri Lankan food again. Instead of relating to Alex Ebert, I felt like I was stuck in a Kanye West song, “Somebody ordered pancakes/I just sip the sizzurp.”
Sai Selvarajan is a filmmaker and ballplayer. He makes films, edits commercials, and if you catch him with his back to the basket in the low post, it’s already too late.