When her mother-in-law came to Ellsworth from Sri Lanka to visit this past summer, Menemsha Abeyasekera was very nervous about having her try Love Cake, something her mother-in-law had made most of her life. Abeyasekera tried to be very faithful to the family recipe for the cake — a Portuguese-influenced dessert comprising nuts, semolina, spices and pumpkin, made with much affection by generations of Sri Lankan mothers.
“I was waiting for her to come and school me on it. But she liked it, thankfully,” Abeyasekera said. “And then she helped out in the restaurant the whole time. She was in here helping every day, doing dishes. It was so sweet.”
Menemsha and Sanjeeva Abeyasekera opened Serendib, their cozy, cheerful Sri Lankan eatery, on State Street in downtown Ellsworth, last fall. While Menemsha Abeyasekera, 34, makes the Love Cake, Sanjeeva Abeyasekera, 33, who cooked in Bar Harbor restaurants for a decade before opening his own place. is behind the stove in the tiny kitchen, making everything else.
The pair met while they were students at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. Menemsha Abeyasekerais a Bar Harbor native, while Sanjeeva Abeyasekerahad at that time recently arrived to the U.S. from Sri Lanka to attend school. They’ve been married for eight years, have two children ages 14 and 4, and their own small business — something Sanjeeva Abeyasekera dreamed about for years.
“This has always been the dream. And then just one day, we knew it was time. I was never sure when we were going to open our own place, but it managed to happen last year,” Sanjeeva Abeyasekera said.
“We just opened the doors, didn’t tell anybody and waited to see what would happen,” Menemsha Abeyasekera said. “So far, it’s worked out really well.”
Fans of Indian cuisine will likely recognize many of the elements of Sri Lankan cuisine. Dishes such as Tikka Masala, Vindaloo and Palak Paneer are on the menu at Serendib, naan and chutney accompany most orders and spices cardamom, coriander and cumin are usually present. Where Sri Lankan cuisine differs, however, are in some of the ingredients — or lack thereof — and in the volume of spices used in each dishes.
“India, Pakistan, the whole area is like the U.S. There are always basic similarities in terms of what you’ll find in basic ingredients, but there are regional differences. And that’s true of Sri Lanka, as well,” Sanjeeva Abeyasekera said. “I think where Sri Lanka is different is that it can be a little more rustic. I think there’s a little more flair to it.”
“The spices are more bold. It is stronger in flavoring than you might find in other regional styles,” Menemsha Abeyasekera said. “It might be the same types of spices you’d find in Indian food, but there might be more of one spice than another. Different combinations.”
“It’s not hot, though. I think people hear Indian or Sri Lankan food and automatically think it’s hot. It has a lot of flavor, but it’s not burning hot. Not at all,” Sanjeeva Abeyasekera said.
“We are always surprised, though, by how many people come in that have some sort of connection to Sri Lanka,” Menemsha Abeyasekera said. “Just the other week a woman came in and said her grandfather was born in Ceylon,” referring to Sri Lanka’s name until 1972.
Sri Lanka is a majority Buddhist nation, so while beef is almost never found in Indian cuisine because of its overwhelming Hindu majority, in Sri Lanka, there’s no such prohibition, though vegetarian dishes are also commonplace. As an island, the country also has a rich fishing heritage, and yellowfin tuna or shrimp are protein options on several dishes at Serendib. The Sri Lankan-style curry in particular can be had with tuna or shrimp, served in a uniquely Sri Lankan coconut curry sauce.
“In Sri Lanka, if you order a chicken dish, you’re going to get chicken. You’ll order the vegetables on the side. They are their own order. Our rice and curry dish lets you have the veggies with the meat, but we have vegetable sides, as well,” Sanjeeva Abeyasekera said, referring to the eggplant, beet, coconut and lentil sides, each uniquely spiced.
As Sri Lanka experienced colonial rule by the Portuguese, Dutch and British at various points in its history, the country’s cuisine is a bit of a melting pot. Lamprais, served at Serendib, is a Dutch-influenced delicacy featuring fragrant suduru samba rice, meat and other ingredients, wrapped in a banana leaf and baked. The aforementioned Love Cake has its roots in Portuguese cuisine, though the Sri Lankan spices and nuts in the cake give it its own unique flavor profile. There’s also a cheesecake on the menu sweetened with kitul treacle, a South Asian sugar product made from palm tree sap, and Faluda, a cold treat made with Morton’s Moo vanilla ice cream, rose syrup and dried basil seeds.
In the first half of 2017, the Abeyasekeras plan to expand the restaurant into the adjoining space next door at 2 State St., offering more seating and the addition of beer and wine. They also hope to have occasional Sunday brunch offerings, including hoppers, a traditional Sri Lankan dish consisting of rice flour and coconut pancakes, filled with either sweet or savory ingredients.
Sanjeeva Abeyasekera is not terribly concerned about fancy plating or other trappings of upscale eateries. He just wants his food at Serendib to speak for itself.
“We want to take the fuss out of the food. We are concentrating on the food, and that’s really the total focus — making it totally fresh,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Serendib is open for eat-in or takeout from 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. For more information, like them on Facebook.