The Green Eden of Grenada Hills
One Woman’s Crusade To bring the Taste of Sri Lanka to the Valley
Novella and Photography By Aaron T. Lyles
With 9,000 miles between them, Sri Lanka is a long way from Los Angeles, but for Sujatha Weragoda, her native country is as close as the delicious cornucopia growing in her backyard.
It’s spring in Los Angeles. For most that conjures up images of swaying palm trees, beach parties and some garish red convertible traversing the Hollywood hills. But in USDA Hardiness Zone 10a (aka Grenada Hills), that means sweet fruits and farm fresh veggies galore.
As I enter my mother-in-law’s garden—yes, this green thumbed virtuoso is my mother in law—I see the true scope of her culinary genius. Up until recently, I’ve only tasted the sweet fruits of her labor. And while I always knew she gardened, I naively tucked that away as a right of passage—something people of her generation simply did at a certain point. I failed to connect the explosion of taste with the origin of its ingredients. But today I see the workings of something much greater and much more personal.
Grape leaves drip over an arbor as tomatoes and green chilies nudge up against fledgling orange trees. White and red chard, eggplant, cilantro, basil, spinach, leaks, and dozens of other fresh, ripe fruits and vegetables shimmer in the warm California sun. Even native Sri Lankan produce like Gotu kola and curry leaves grace her back garden. But this bountiful harvest is not just the result of one of the nation’s most productive growing climates (California has 9 of the top 10 producing counties in the country). It’s a testament to Sujatha’s masterful eye for all things delicious.
Utterly inept at gardening myself, I wonder what, if anything, is missing to which Sujatha quickly snaps, “Papaya, Banana, Tea…” She stops short of a laundry list, but makes sure to shoot me a look—the kind of look you get when you know you’ve just asked a stupid question. Of course there is more to grow! So I ask another instead. “What made you start?” As if trying to prune her answer as flawlessly as the produce she grows, she rehearses a few replies.
“I started it about 4 years ago, because I like gardening. I like plants, because when I’m in the garden, it’s relaxing and the time goes by. I enjoy being out there. I love seeing everything grow and bloom; it’s like looking after a child. You have to talk to them, feed them and look after them…”
And then her attempts at perfection melt into an animated and passionate divulgence. I watch as she catches herself falling in love right in front of my eyes. And I don’t blame her. Her garden is an extension of her family and she cares for it much in the same way. Over the years it has become more than a place to pick vegetables, but instead the source of meaningful culinary gatherings for friends, family and even the occasional Buddhist monk. So much comes from this one garden, that Sujatha hasn’t purchased a vegetable in at least three years and as of late; most of her friends haven’t had to either. Some of it even ends up at the luxurious Le Montrose hotel in West
Hollywood, courtesy of my father in-law and Comptroller of the hotel, Wilfred Weragoda.
But to better understand why these homegrown ingredients are so vital to the dishes she creates, you first have to understand Sri Lankan food.
If you’ve never had it, Sri Lankan fare is a dynamic amalgamation of Thai, Indian, and even notes of Dutch and English pedigree that once reigned supreme over what used to be called Ceylon. Yes there are curries, rice, and lentils, but Indian fare this certainly is not. Instead, Sri Lankan cuisine rests its laurels on the abundance of natural produce and native spices like cinnamon, cardamom, and turmeric. It’s unlike other Southeast Asian cuisine due to the use of coconut milk as opposed to oil in order to round out flavors. Some dishes include items like: hoppers (bowl-shaped thin pancakes made from fermented rice flour), kiribath (milk rice), wattalapam (coconut custard dessert), vadais, (savory lentil fritter), rottys (vegetables, egg, meat), and lamprias. And no meal would be complete without traditional sambols, which are spicy condiments made with a variation of chilli, coconut,
dried fish, and adaptations of sweet-and-sour mixtures.
Sri Lankan food is an incredible combination of fire and distinction and Sujatha makes that combination come to life directly from her garden and onto the plates of those who have had the fortune of eating the nourishments of her harvest.
For me, it’s something I’ve taken for granted. I’ve developed a tongue for spice and fancy myself a connoisseur of nearly everything she cooks up. I no longer squirm when I eat with my hands and I can drink
Arrack with the best of them, but up until the moment my wife and I moved from this green Eden to New York City, I never realized what it all meant.
Her garden—her sanctuary—is a shrine to the origins of produce and community, but at the end of the day, Sujatha’s garden is really a birthplace of food, conversation and self-sufficiency in a world overrun by the packaged ease of god-knows-where and god-knows-what produce. Her love of gardening has blossomed into a way of life that supplies a vital food source for her family and today, I’ve finally made the connection that has connected so many for so long.