Mas Paan: Perfection

One of my favorite snacks is mas paan (buns stuffed with beef and potato curry) and malu paan (buns stuffed with fish curry). It is very comforting, having a few dozen in the freezer, knowing that you can pull one out whenever you’re having a curry craving, and just toast it up in the toaster oven and enjoy with a nice hot cup of sweet milky tea. Perfection. I did develop a dough recipe for the cookbooks, but the truth is that I never actually make it from scratch. I just buy frozen bake-and-serve dinner rolls at the grocery store and use those. I recently had both beef curry and cabbage varai on hand, and I thought they might go well together — Dear Reader, they are DELICIOUS in a roll, and now you’ve got entire meal in there, with a veg. as well as the bread and meat. Perfection. I also tried cooking some carrot in with the beef and potato, and that worked great too. (I recommend at least two rolls for lunch. Three or four if you have a hearty appetite. If using the frozen rolls, follow the instructions on the package to let them thaw and rise. Then tear them open and stuff them with curry and shape it into a ball again, with the seam on the bottom. It’ll look lumpy, but don’t worry about it, and don’t feel like you need to let it rise again — just pop those in the oven for 15-20 minutes, and they’re good Hmm…I think I need some breakfast.

Holiday Party

Holiday party — I was so busy talking to people that I didn’t take any pictures of my guests during the party, which is a shame! Especially because we had a really nice crowd — about 50-60 people, I think, with a great mix of old friends from college, long-time friends, new friends and colleagues, adorable little children, grad students and undergrad students of mine, a bunch of Kavi’s high school friends, and even a smattering of local elected officials.

It felt more like one of our old parties than it’s felt in quite a long time — well, since December 2019, I guess. Stupid pandemic. I’d still say we were at maybe 75% of pre-pandemic party; a good dozen or so folks had to cancel at the last minute because of colds and fevers. I think people are being more conscientious about that than they were before COVID, which is a good thing — we all went to work and school and party too often when we were sick back then. But they were missed.

I also think I should really hire some help for these parties going forward — it feels a little weird to do so for a family party, but if I have a student worker who can be tasked with refilling trays as they empty, clearing the sink, and taking out the trash when it’s full, then I’d get to spend more time talking to my guests. My only regret for this party is that especially for the people who came early, when I was still finishing up tasks, I didn’t get to talk to them as much as I’d have liked.

Kevin does his share, of course, and the kids help out a bit, but for this big a party, it’d be nice to just have someone tasked with those jobs.

I did hire some help beforehand — Eliana and Gabriella came the day before and helped with all the outside decorating and hanging the garlands indoors, which was super-useful. And various of my students did help out before and during the party. I love having my creative writing students attend, and getting to introduce them to other writers and academics. 🙂 In retrospect, I wish I’d invited my lit. students too — next time! And I got to introduce two grad students I’m working with to each other, so that was nice.


A few food notes:

– the dish I got the most compliments on was the brinjal moju (eggplant pickle, but it’s not a pickle like an American pickle) — recipe in Vegan Serendib, but I will be very nice to you and post it here as well. People kept seeking me out to ask what it was and tell me how good it was. It’s SO tasty on toasted naan, I think I pretty much have to make it for every party going forward. And I should make a double batch, because it was entirely demolished by halfway through the party. Sorry, latecomers!

– another hit were the lemon snowball truffles — I don’t have a recipe for you yet, because these were a little tricky — I wanted more lemon in my ganache, and so I added citric acid, but that ‘broke’ the cream, and I had to fix it by warming another couple T of cream and whisking that in. Which all worked fine, but it’s fussy to write up for a recipe. Maybe I’ll make them again for our New Year open house potluck, if we have it, and see if I can write up the recipe in a coherent and reliable way. Little bites of lemon heaven.

– I also made an ice ring for the punchbowl for the first time, which I realize isn’t a revelation for anyone, but hey, it worked great, and I am absolutely going to do it again whenever we pull out the punchbowl. At least one of my bundt cake pans got some use! I had pomegranate seeds, sliced circles of lime, and cranberries in this one, which separated themselves into layers. The punch had to be refilled twice, so I guess people liked that too — very simple mix of cranberry juice, pineapple juice, and ginger ale, in roughly equal proportions.

That’s it for party pics! Here’s the brinjal moju recipe:


Eggplant Pickle / Brinjal Moju

(20 minutes prep + 30 min. cooking time, feeds 8 as an accompaniment)

Eggplant was the one thing I wouldn’t eat as a kid — I had a visceral reaction to the texture. But I adore it now, due to preparations like this, which really transform the texture — the eggplant here is a little chewy, a little soft, and supremely flavorful. If you leave the onions whole, they’ll retain a little crunch when you bite into them; it’s also fine to cut them and let them soften and crisp up more.

We call it a pickle, but brinjal moju is a quick-pickle — you can eat it right away, though it’s even tastier after the flavors (sweet, spicy, tangy) have had a chance to meld for a few hours. It’s terrific on a sandwich too! Try brinjal moju with coconut roti and big slices of grilled portobello mushroom (oil and salt and grill for a few minutes) for a hearty and delicious vegan lunch; it’d also pair beautifully with grilled chicken or roast beef.

(Thanks to Samanthi Hewakapuge for tips on how her family prepares this!)

NOTE: Pearl onions can be a little tricky to find in America; I often buy mine frozen at the Indian grocery store. They thaw well for use in preparations like this. But shallots also work; you want that type of delicate flavor.

1 lb. eggplant (any kind), cut into thick matchstick shapes (about 2 in. long)
1/2 t. turmeric
1 t. salt
oil for deep frying
1.5 c. shallots or pearl onions (cut large ones down to about 1 in.)
3-4 green finger hot chilies (or 10-15 Thai chilies)
1 T ginger, peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1-3 t. cayenne (depending on how hot you want it)
1 T. ground mustard
1 1/2 – 2 T sugar
1/3 c. vinegar

1. Place eggplant in a bowl, add turmeric, salt, and enough water to cover. Leave for at least 10 minutes; if you need to leave it to sit for longer, that’s fine.

2. Take the eggplant out by handfuls and squeeze the water out, transferring to another bowl or plate.

3. Heat oil in a deep pan and fry eggplant in batches (to golden-brown), removing to a plate lined with paper towels.

4. Use the same oil to fry the shallots or pearl onions, then fry the green chilies, removing to the paper towel-lined plate.

5. Pound ginger and garlic together in a mortar and pestle (or combine in food processor).

6. In a large bowl, combine ginger-garlic paste with remaining ingredients, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Taste and adjust flavors.

7. Stir in shallots and green chilies, then gently stir-in the eggplant. Set aside for a few hours to let the flavors blend, then serve with rice and curry, or with bread.

NOTE: Brinjal moju will keep in the fridge for a few weeks, or follow proper canning procedures to store for longer. Makes a little over a pint for canning — eggplant cooks down quite a lot.



Holiday Party Prep

Holiday party:

• greenery hung, with the help of Gabriella and one of my students and his partner (cedar garlands from the Oak Park Conservatory Winter Greens market make my old Victorian feel very Victorian Christmas somehow)

• trifle (this year’s was pear, blackberry, strawberry, with ladyfinger cookies, Bird’s custard, a thin drizzling of ginger jam and a smidge of lemon curd, whipped lightly sweetened cream, and a topping of pomegranate seeds — no sherry for a change, so the kids could dig in freely, and I didn’t miss it) — all devoured by end of party

• ribbon sandwiches of beet, carrot, and spinach (Kevin made the spreads, Kavi and I spread the sandwiches Saturday and layered them with damp paper towels, two half-size sheet pan trays wrapped in plastic wrap and stored in the fridge overnight, and then we cut them just before serving at the party) went over well, per usual — very popular, all got eaten, and everyone agreed they were both tasty and pretty

• mango fluff was topped with plenty of frozen thawed mango, which is pretty much the best I could do in Chicago in the winter — also all finished by end of party, but we didn’t actually start the second tray that Kavi insisted we’d need, so I guess she’ll just be eating that herself for the rest of the week — she doesn’t seem sad at the prospect…

• Kavi and I are festive; Anand and Kevin were also suitably festive, but I spared them the agony of suffering through a photo this year, because I am the kindest

Recipes for ribbon sandwiches and mango fluff in A Feast of Serendib. (I didn’t include them in Vegan Serendib, but you can make both vegan by substituting in vegan cream cheese, agar-agar, etc. appropriately).

The trifle I just kind of make up every year, but if you google ‘berry trifle,’ you should be able to find some good starting points.


Brinjal Moju (Eggplant Pickle)

Brinjal Moju (eggplant pickle). Usually served as an accompaniment to rice and curries, but I love it as a little appetizer bite on some toasted naan. Savory / sweet / as spicy as you like it.

Recipe in Vegan Serendib — it’s one of the 40 new recipes I added for that cookbook.


Was really happy that people seemed to love the food; I got a lot of compliments. 🙂

Someone asked me what my signature dish was last night, and I was totally stumped. I don’t actually have one! But I do like all of these.

I wanted to keep this event vegetarian for the South Asia Institute, so I skipped some of the classic Sri Lankan short-eats – if it weren’t vegetarian, maybe mutton rolls would be the signature dish. I don’t like the typical vegetarian version nearly as well, though. Maybe I should try making it with jackfruit…hmm.

This layout worked pretty well for an event, so noting for the future:

• three kinds of frozen samosas – these I just baked / fried as instructed. Pumpkin samosas from TJ’s (which I haven’t tasted yet, so not sure if they’re any good), paneer-chili samosas (don’t remember the brand, but spicy, good), and potato & pea Punjabi samosas (Swad). I’m really glad I got a deep fryer, because it makes this kind of thing SO MUCH easier.

Set the temp. to 350F (or whatever is appropriate), and then it’s just popping them in, waiting five minutes, popping them out to a paper-towel-lined plate. Transfer to foil pans, pop in warm (low) oven to keep warm until ready to transport / serve. Easy-peasy. Would’ve been nice to serve hot, but they work fine at room temperature, served with tamarind chutney and coriander chutney (decanted from store-bought jars).

• ribbon sandwiches (beet / carrot / spinach) — Pepperidge Farm Very Thin bread is key

• mini naan rounds (quartered) from the grocery store, with four dipping spreads: jackfruit curry, potato curry, eggplant pickle, mango-ginger chutney

I forgot to bring cheddar cheese cubes, which go great with the mango-ginger chutney and naan, but otherwise, happy with the savory options.

SAI provided beverages, which made my life simpler!

Crepe variations

Crepe bar lends itself to many variations. I had quite a bit of ground lamb curry leftover from the curried lamb w/ curried spinach pizza I’d made Kevin for Valentine’s day, so I decided to turn that into classic Sri Lankan mutton roll filling. (Confusingly, ‘mutton’ rolls are often (generally?) made with goat meat in Sri Lanka, because it’s easier to source, presumably, but lamb does work just fine too.) It’s my absolute favorite party food, but so labor-intensive that I only get to eat it a few times / year.

Dice some potatoes small, sauté them in oil with mustard seed and cumin seed and salt, when they’re mostly cooked, turn in the leftover ground lamb curry and stir it in.

It came out fine, and Kev and I had a couple of crepes that night like this, but the lamb & potato curry filling was a little lacking in oomph. I ended up amping it up even more yesterday — I diced an onion (MOAR ONIONS), sautéed that, added some more seeds + cayenne + ketchup + salt, and turned the meat and potato mixture into that, stirring to blend. THAT was finally perfect. Sometimes it takes a few tries to get something right.  I filled twenty crepes with that filling and froze them.

One KEY thing that I think I have to add to the roll recipe in Feast if I do a second edition is that you *can’t* make the crepes, refrigerate them, and then try to roll them at a later date. I’ve tried that twice now for big parties, and both times, it was disastrous, because the crepes just kept tearing — once they’ve cooled down, they lose the elasticity they need to make a tight roll. SO FRUSTRATING, esp. in the midst of a big party and after days of prep. Never again.

Making batter and refrigerating it is fine. But once crepes are made, fill and roll immediately. Then you can freeze! (Stephanie, please add this note to the revision notes for Feast’s second edition — thanks!)

The next time I have a small party, I can pull those out, dip them in egg and bread crumbs and deep fry, and it will be delicious.

(There was a bit of filling left after I’d used up all the crepe batter, and I’ve been eating that with toasted pita for breakfast, lunch, snacks. SO GOOD.)

Experimenting with decorative tops on Mas Paan

One reason I’m more of a recipe writer than a cook is that the experimenting is the most fun for me; this is what I was playing with on Thursday. I was curious whether I could do mas paan with a more decorative top than is typical. Answer — sort of kind of.

(The first two photos are mine — the four pretty ones that follow are inspiration images found online.)

Our standard curry filling is robust and moist enough that if you try to do the thing where you slice the buns on top to create a cross or star pattern, and actually slice through, it’ll have a very good chance of basically just bursting open at the cuts. Still tastes delicious, not so pretty. If you wanted that, I think you’d need to make more of a paste, like what I assume they used for the red bean filling buns (photo 3). So I wouldn’t recommend that.

If you’re very careful, you can slice just lightly enough to create a cross or star pattern of indentations, but that is a *lot* of finicky work for many little buns. Honestly, I would have to love you a whole lot to go to that much trouble, esp. since I’d expect some wastage along the way. (Some people are more skilled with delicate knife work than me, so they should feel free to go for it, though. The results are lovely, as in photo 4. Be sure to sprinkle seeds first, then slice, to get that effect.)

MAYBE I’d do scoring for a wedding or similar major occasion — I could make a triple batch, and plan to freeze the ones where I accidentally sliced through, and then eat those for my own snacks (happily) in months to come. But I wouldn’t really recommend the slicing approach either for our curry buns, unless you are quite persnickety. (If you watch the Great British Bake Show, you may remember the episodes where some contestants came to grief attempting their “artistically scored decorative loaves”…).

If you abandon scoring, though, you still have the option of sprinkling seeds. I don’t think that’s typical for mas paan in Sri Lanka — I googled, and only found one image with seeds sprinkled on top, and I don’t remember seeing it when visiting. But it works great.

After filling the bun, turning it over so the seam is on the bottom, and brushing with beaten egg (skip that last if allergic, but otherwise, it adds nice color and sheen to the bun), just sprinkle the seeds of your choice.

This was particular useful to me as I had three different kinds of buns, and I wanted to be sure I could tell them apart easily. (In Sri Lanka, fish buns are typically triangular, but I think most of the other buns I’ve seen are round?)

I ended up with:

– beef curry buns topped with black chia seeds
– spicy caramelized onion buns (seeni sambol) topped with sesame seeds
– jackfruit and chickpea curry topped with organic hemp seeds

The seeds add a lovely crunch element too, so unless I have someone seed-allergic at the table, I think I’ll be making all my curry buns topped with seeds from now on.

Rose bun photo added for inspiration — I may try that someday! And isn’t that last one, perfectly scored and seeded, just gorgeous? Mmm…

Love is slicing eight onions

Love is asking if he can slice four medium onions for you, and then realizing that aside from the slicing, it’s just as easy to do a double batch, and asking if he’d mind slicing eight medium onions instead, and he may sigh a tiny bit, but when you come back downstairs, there they all are, waiting. SO MANY ONIONS.

And now I have enough seeni sambol to make plenty of buns for Bite Nite next week, with probably a fair bit left over for just eating too. Seeni sambol on buttered toast = such a satisfying breakfast.

(It was a little sad leaving the Maldive fish out of this batch, but I did want them to be vegetarian for Bite Nite. There’ll be plenty of fishy goodness in future batches.)

Link to Seeni Sambol Recipe

My gosh, they do feed us well here

At the commencement welcome, one of the conference chairs of SALA made a joke about how we’re going to talk well and eat well. I’m not sure I’m talking all that well (still tired and a little out of it!), but my gosh, they do feed us well here.

Breakfast & lunch for two days are included in your registration, along with a very hearty closing reception that they said could easily be your dinner that night; coffee and tea service is also laid out throughout, which has been very handy for me, as I duck out of my room, grab some hot coffee, and duck back in to work a little more.

But just look at what they’ve served us so far! (I forgot to take photos of the avocado tartine and the fig tartine at breakfast, but they were very pretty.) One slight tweak I’d suggest for the hotel — I love that they used chicken thighs instead of breast, in terms of flavor, but personally, I wouldn’t have served it on the bone for a buffet like this. Too difficult to eat while sitting on low couches, managing drinks, etc. Nothing that requires knives!

I think my favorite, flavor-wise, was the combination of the curried salmon w/ the roasted sweet potatoes. Mmmm… I liked it so much I decided to skip dessert and go back for seconds of that instead. The roasted potatoes were also perfectly done, and delish.