Curry Diva will change the way you think about curry

By Mecca Bos · Published by City Pages · Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Heather Jansz is a frenetic woman with about five pounds of gorgeous dark hair twisted into a loose bun at the top of her head.

She wears a Bluetooth on one ear while slinging several curries at a time, with speed and alacrity. She’s an ageless goddess of positive energy, glowing from within. She’s spent decades working with healthful Sri Lankan cooking, her clear skin and vigorous energies putting truth to the health benefits of fresh turmeric and curry leaves.

She wants more than anything else to share it with you. But the unfortunate thing she hears time and again from would-be diners is, “I don’t like curry.”

“And I say, which of the 20,000 spices is it that you can’t have? Is it about turmeric, coriander, cumin, black pepper, what?” Once she can identify people’s misconceptions or perceived dislikes, she can start to deconstruct it, and reconstruct a curry they’ll fall in love with.

In Sri Lanka, the question “Are you hungry?” or “Have you eaten yet?” roughly translates to: “Have you had your curry?” It’s a social word. Instead of saying come on over, you would instead say, “Come on over for a good curry.”

Curry is a way of life, not a pile of yellow dust that you grab off of the grocery store shelf.

Jansz made the unlikely trek to Minneapolis after she “followed a man” to the Twin Cities, who was following his sister, a Montessori teacher. “Apparently, they were importing Montessori teachers from Sri Lanka at the time.”

By 1976, she had opened Sri Lanka Curry House at the corner of 18th and Central Avenue in Northeast, right next door to the notorious massage parlor Central Sauna Bath.

“The joke was that there were hot things happening at the sauna, and hot things happening at the curry house.”

In the ’70s, Minnesota had professional soccer, including the Minnesota Kicks soccer team, described in Wikipedia as a “cultural phenomenon.” The team had players from around the world, and they and their families were in dire need of curry.

“They were saying, ‘Why do we have to live in Minnesota? How do we live without curry?’” By word of mouth, they all wound up crowding into Jansz’s house for a fix.

“My house got to be filled with all of these beautiful men!” Behold, the power of curry.

She went on to run restaurants through the ’90s, until she ultimately left her marriage and had to leave the restaurant world to raise her daughter as a single mom. But she never left cooking, or curry, behind.

Today she runs pop-ups out of the diminutive Our Kitchen on Wednesday and Saturday nights, dazzling eaters with aromas and flavors that go way beyond the short-order bacon and eggs that the wee diner is known for by day.

In India, every chef has her own curry blend. “Your blend will be different from me, my mom, my aunt’s, from everybody else’s.”

Jansz’ mom, a working mother of five, would dash home and start grabbing pandan leaves, curry leaves, and lemongrass out of the garden, and quickly roast and grind them on the fly before adding the other ingredients to complete the curry.

The household servants (even though her family was on the poor side of middle class, it’s customary for many households to have servants in Sri Lanka, who often become like family members) would make a “curry ball” of lemon, lime, coriander, cumin, and turmeric, taking scoops from it whenever they needed it.

Both styles are totally legit, says Jansz, and the difference in technique only serves to illustrate a tiny iceberg tip of what curries can be.

A curry from Jansz’ kitchen could be almost white, with coconut milk as the bottom note, singing with citrus and bright herbs. Or it could be dark as coffee, with toasted black peppercorns and the pungency of mustard seed and cumin. And all things in between.

Curry has brought Billy Crystal and Black Sabbath to her doorstep. “When you’re from England, you need curry,” she explains. The longtime colonizer of India filched curry, and now it’s a necessary part of any self-respecting Brit’s day.

Want to get on board with what Ozzy Osbourne, the beautiful soccer players of the world, and smart foodies already know? Get to know your curry.

Or, get to know Jansz’ curry, by attending a Curry Diva pop-up, or or a monthly curry pickup meal, or attend a curry class. The full schedule is available here: thecurrydiva.com.

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