S.H. Fernando – Skiz to his friends – has spent years quietly amassing a following on his blog and youtube channel. Online at http://www.riceandcurry.wordpress.com, he serves up an eclectic mix of reviews and recipes. On youtube, this amateur cook stars in the self-produced series ‘Pan Asian’ where he dishes up some of his favourite recipes for an audience. His repertoire covers “every country in Asia” along with other cuisines including Iranian, Jamaican, Trinidadian, Japanese and even African. Now with the publication of his cookery book ‘Rice & Curry’ (which earned him an honourable mention in the New York Times last week) and his own line of curry powders, he is closer than ever to being able to do what he loves for a living.
Skiz says he began blogging in 2008, after he spent three months guiding the crew of ‘No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain’ around Sri Lankan cuisine. He first caught Bourdain’s interest when the latter read a cook book Skiz had self published on Blurb.com the year before.
(He lives in Baltimore but is currently on tour, promoting the book which was published by Hippocrene Books in New York. A full colour paperback was released last month.) The experience was an interesting one and when Skiz started his own blog he decided he wanted it to be a tribute to rice and curry. Over the years, it expanded to include the author’s other great passion – travel. “I go all over the world to Europe, Japan, Africa, and I love to check out really local spots in these places – what I like to call ‘Off the Eaten Path,’” he says in an email.
Skiz is careful about identifying himself not as a chef, but as a proud ‘home cook’. “Chefs cook for a living. I cook purely out of love and also because it’s another way to express my creativity, and believe it or not, to relax. For him it all boils down to immediate gratification – I can pour myself into making a dish, and when it’s done, I can sit down and devour it. What can be more satisfying than that?”
He inherited his love of cooking from his mother, and says that as an American immigrant he found that food represented the “main connection to your culture.” The book serves as an introduction to the tastes of the island but for Skiz it’s also an offering that’s intended to help other young Sri Lankans living abroad master the traditional cuisine of their parents. “Second generation kids, like myself, can be proud of their Sri Lankan heritage and share it with those around them through this amazing food we have called rice and curry.”
The 208 recipes in the book are for most part family property, given to Skiz by his parents, aunts, uncles and cousins but there are also a few provided by friends. “I spent several hours a day cooking when I was living here (in 2006), and then taking the finished dishes to various relatives houses for lunch. From people like my 85-year-old Aunty Dora, who is sharp as a tack and not afraid to voice her true opinion, I was able to get good criticism and thereby develop the recipes in the book,” he tells me. His cooking philosophy appears to be anchored in simplicity. His menu is composed of dishes from many different cultures – not just Sri Lankan – but they’re all straightforward in preparation as well as ingredients. “Why make things complicated?” he asks.
In keeping with this philosophy, he’s also created ‘Skiz’s Original Spice Blends’. ”I realized that most Americans would not have the patience to make their own roasted curry powder, which is used to make many of the dishes in the book, so using a family recipe, I decided to make my own and market it.” He actually began by selling it to friends and family, and their positive feedback gave him the courage to turn it into a commercial operation. He currently sells his powders through two gourmet food sites in the U.S., but is hoping to begin supplying some retail outfits as well.
The whole business represents a professional sea change for Skiz. After graduating from Harvard and the Columbia University School of Journalism, he worked as a music journalist. He was the author of ‘The New Beats: Exploring the Music, Culture & Attitudes of Hip-Hop’ (Anchor/Doubleday, 1994). He followed his foray into writing by starting his own label WordSound Recordings, in December 1994. He describes the WordSound catalogue as composed of 64 “diverse and eclectic” releases which run the gamut from dub and hip-hop to drum ‘n’ bass and electronica.
As a filmmaker, Skiz wrote, produced and directed the ‘Crooked’ in 2001, a behind the scenes docudrama about the music industry, and in 2004, he released ‘The Greatest Thing You Never Heard’ a ‘dubumentary’ about WordSound, to coincide with the label’s 10th anniversary. His latest, ‘Made in Brasil,’ about the music of Brazil, is touring the international film festival circuit.
Skiz is now gunning for television stardom. He hopes to take his youtube videos up a notch and to actually star in his own show on cable T.V – he’ll settle “either for The Food Network, Cooking Channel, or Travel Channel.” While he’s very much the one man act with the Pan Asian – he’d love to get the backing of a reputable studio. “I do everything myself – write, produce, shoot, edit – in my very own kitchen. I also use just a tiny Flip camera. Can you imagine if I had a real budget and a crew to help out? I could produce some top notch TV.” Skiz has filmed around 30 episodes over the two years since he began and the series now boasts a modest fanbase – the episode on chicken curry, his most popular, has over 14,000 hits. The demand for spicy food aside, Skiz thinks that American T.V with its all-white host of celebrity chefs could use “some colour in the mix.”
In the meantime, he’s intent on leveraging the full might of each of his platforms: “I’ve set everything up to cross-promote everything else. For example, the book will promote the website, and the website will promote the curry powder, etc. etc. I’ve united all my interests into this food thing and hopefully something will come out of it because up to now I’ve put everything I’ve got into it and have been operating out of pure love,” he says, keeping his fingers crossed.