I had an interesting conversation with a food producer friend the other day where she was asking me about Sri Lankan and Asian baking. That conversation sparked a lot of emotion for me. It got me thinking about my heritage, the plight of minority women in the food and media fields, and how our voices are more important than ever right now. In the last couple of years, movements of women, minorities in particular, have powered through that glass ceiling that once held us back. Yes, we can make an impact. And I intend to do so with passion and empowerment.
This is my journey through baking, TV, and how I found my voice through food.
The Joy Of Food
I have a complex past that impacted who I was, what I became, and who I strive to be. I don’t always talk about this. But it’s an important story that I’m ready to share.
My parents immigrated from Sri Lanka before I was born. We lived a middle class life and I remember that even at a young age I tried to be a happy spot in my family’s life. I was eight years old when my father, the one I adored more than anything, dropped me off at school and never came back. He took everything from us, our money, jewelry, our dignity and joy. And the happiness, fancy feasts, and our house and car faded along with the rest of it. My mother, sister, and myself were left with nothing except each other and our imaginations to bring us back to a functioning state.
Presents were non existent unless we were receiving canned food donations from a local church. Through those canned goods came the first spark of food life I had in me. What I realized long ago was that food is more than just about fulfilling our appetite and feeding our body. It makes people happy. It has the ability to bring people together around a good meal and uplift you from the darkest moments through conversation and laughter.
So I began to create to bring more of those joyous moments. Food became my way to bring smiles and conversation.
As I grew older my mother worked three jobs while getting her PhD. That meant she left before sunrise and didn’t get home until almost midnight. But I stayed up every evening waiting for her with a home cooked meal over candles and freshly picked wildflowers. Because that made her feel loved. It picked her up from her overworked and exhausted life for 20 minutes. And I knew that if I didn’t feed her she wouldn’t eat. And I knew that if I didn’t show her the care she deserved she wouldn’t know it even existed anymore. Food became my way to show care.
I always say that Grant saved my life. And he did. When I met him he changed everything, how I viewed men and marriage, what loyalty and love is. And within one week of knowing him I made him cupcakes. I really won him over through his stomach! Food became a way to show love and admiration.
Once I became a mother food became a lesson of focus and subjects that broadened young minds. And baking with the girls has been a bonding experience of different generations.
And then food became my voice to show minority women, daughters of single mothers, and stay at home moms that you can do anything you set your mind to. You can be who you want and you can change the world if you try.
People often ask me why I am so joyful. My energy and gusto can be confusing without knowing why I am so happy. It’s because of my past that I wake up everyday with a grateful heart for what I have today. I am thankful for my life, my loves, my knowledge of pain and how to move forward. I went from a housewife to a fierce female on a mission fast. And truth be told, I haven’t even accomplished my real goals yet!
How TV Changed Me
When I first started my journey into TV baking I was constantly challenged by people as to why I didn’t bake more Sri Lankan. The answer was never simple. I would try to explain how Sri Lankan culture doesn’t have too many bakes, but that usually fell flat.
What they wanted to hear from me was the long list of cultural dishes that my mother taught me how to make and I was ready to share with the world. But what I ended up stuttering out was that I grew up American and I do more fusion. What I adamantly stated was that I taught myself all about baking and my own hard work, hustle, and experimentation is how I went from stay-at-home mom to TV chef in less than a year. And that’s definitely true in a sense. However, there is so much more to that question of being true to your culture that stung me. Just because I couldn’t show Sri Lanka in a way that was bold enough to prove my background I felt so unauthentic. It made me question who I really was, what my baking meant, if I had anything unique to offer the food world.
Growing up we had plenty of a Sri Lankan butter cake, Christmas cakes and love cake. My Mom made meat filled buns and patties galore. But the root of baking had a lot of European influence, especially Dutch and English. Furthermore, if you immerse yourself in Asian desserts you will find how many dishes are steamed, grilled, made over a cook-top, or jellied.
Would you believe that I only became a “real baker” two years ago? Yes, I have been part of the family cook club since before I could walk. And I explained how cooking was a journey for me throughout my life. But the truth about Sri Lankan cuisine, along with many Asian cultures, is that there isn’t much core baking associated with the country.
I came to some realizations as I delved more deeply into my heritage and what makes my baking unique. I found that I did indeed have a food voice that represents Sri Lanka’s influence from within. The culture rich in flavor and spices combined with my inner knack for innovative baking and the use of unique ingredients is what makes me the baker I am today.
What I absorbed from my culture is that flavor, spices, traditional ingredients all add Sri Lankan flair to my dishes. Hence my love of homemade spice mixes and the ability I have to self develop recipes without any guidance but my inner voice. Additionally, I am a unique and strong woman that has found a way to combine my love of food with media in an enthusiastic manner. I have become a food educator, a voice behind the food I create, and a proud woman of color.
The Great American Baking Show gave me a platform to showcase my special approach as a minority woman fusing Sri Lankan and American food. The show for me was all about amateur bakers teaching themselves how to grow their perspective and hone in on what makes them stand out in style and function.
It’s interesting to see what people take from their whole experiences, cultural and otherwise, to shape their voice in their field.
How I found my voice through food was a culmination of heritage, a childhood that pushed me to gratitude, self reflection, love and passion for what I do, and dedication to my craft.
The road to success is not an easy one. There are setbacks, ups and downs, long waiting periods, and moments of self doubt. Especially for women of color. I have been fortunate enough to know women who strive to build up other women in the fields I am immersed in. And women empowerment is vital right now. I look forward to what the future holds as a minority woman in the food and media industries. My voice is strong, loud, and proud. My passion for what I do is unending and I hope uplifting for those reading this.