February 24, 2021
At her open-air stall in Independence Square in Colombo, Uzma Yoosuf served me beef kebabs, crispy chicken samosas, and a cup of home-brewed masala chai. Yoosuf wore a long floral kurta and her hair in a neatly-combed ponytail. Next to her was a large banner with the words “Memon Food.” “Samosas are our hot seller. It’s also our favorite snack at home,” she said, smiling.
Yoosuf is a third-generation Sri Lankan Memon, a community that accounts for just over 6,000 people on the island of nearly 22 million. She speaks to her mother in Memoni — a language closely tied to Sindhi, Urdu, and Gujarati. The Memoni community on the island might be small, but they are close-knit: they have their own magazine and continue to preserve their heritage through the Memon Association of Sri Lanka.
During their journeys from Sindh to Gujarat, then onwards to Jaffna and Colombo, the families of Memons living in Sri Lanka have called many cities home. Along the way, they mingled with various communities and cultures, adapting their own dishes and dietary habits. But Memon families also held their culinary legacies close. This, Sabrina Yoonus, an entrepreneur who sells homemade sauces and who comes from a Memoni family, believes, is the reason Memoni food is largely absent from eateries in Sri Lanka or from Sri Lankan cookbooks. But now, Memoni women like Yoosuf want to bring their cuisine to the wider Sri Lankan public.
Though Memoni food might feel familiar to northern Indian and Pakistani cuisines, it’s very different from Sri Lankan cuisine. Yoosuf’s Memon biryani, for example, uses long grain basmati rice. Most Sri Lankans prepare biryani with samba rice, a smaller grain, which cooks in an oil-layered pot with herbs such as curry and pandan leaves; they then plate the rice with grilled or fried chicken. Yoosuf serves her rice with chunks of juicy curd-and-spice-laden chicken, buttery potatoes, onion raita, and a garnish of chopped cilantro. Sri Lankan Memoni meals begin with snacks, like crunchy samosas and beef kebabs, accompanied with a cup of masala chai. Most islanders, however, prefer plain black tea with sugar or powder-milk tea.