WEST NEWTON —Tucked behind a line of stores on Washington Street, L’Aroma Café is the local go-to place for coffee, imported teas, breakfast, salads, soups, and sandwiches. Upstairs, in a space furnished with plush sofas and tables, Newtonites skipping a trip to the office congregate with their laptops, soaking up the congenial, warm atmosphere.
But what has really put L’Aroma on the map, attracting loyal customers from Newton and beyond, is a daily lunch special of authentic Sri Lankan dishes. The cafe’s Sri Lankan owners and chefs, Ysuff and Haleema Salie, introduced the special in 2014. Sri Lankan food is hard to find in the Boston area, and now people come to L’Aroma from far-off towns for their Sri Lankan curry fix.
L’Aroma Café first opened in the late 1990s on the ground floor of a Newbury Street building whose second floor housed the offices of the Salies’ import business — Sri Lankan teas, handicrafts, and gemstones. When a Starbucks-run cafe on the ground floor closed, the couple decided to rent the space and open their own cafe, something they’d been wanting to do for a while.
“We both love cooking and wanted to expand so we could make our own food and baked goods,” says Ysuff, 70. “But space was hard to find on Newbury Street.”
When they found a vacant, dilapidated 8,000-square-foot building in West Newton, the Salies bought and renovated it, putting in a 2,000-square-foot kitchen and bakery. They moved L’Aroma to West Newton in 2008. Now they prepare all their food with fresh ingredients, from scratch.
It is 8:30 a.m. and the cafe is bustling with the breakfast crowd. Parents drop their children at school and stop by to grab coffee or get breakfast with friends. Local businessmen meet with clients and vendors to talk shop, and some head upstairs to work or relax with a beverage and a book.
While the kitchen staff work on the breakfast orders, Ysuff and Haleema start on their daily special. Today’s Sri Lankan meal includes kukul mas (chicken) curry; eggplant and potato curry; parippu (lentils); brown rice; sambal, a coarsely ground chutney of fresh coconut, shallots, jalapenos, and chile powder; and pappadums.
“I come here at 4:30 a.m. every day to do the baking,” says Haleema, 65, who went to the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts.
“And I am the prodigal cook,” Ysuff says with a laugh. “I come and go as I please. No one can tell me what to do.”
Ysuff starts with the chicken curry. He puts the washed and dried chicken thighs in a large mixing bowl and adds cumin, coriander, and turmeric powders, grated ginger, minced garlic, and sliced onions, rubbing the spices into the meat. He lets it stand for about 30 minutes.
He has saved the grated end of ginger and, with a mortar and pestle, grinds it into a paste with cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, and peppercorns. Grinding with a mortar and pestle brings out the flavors better, Ysuff explains. This paste, which he keeps aside to use later for the chicken curry, is typical of Sri Lanka and the basis of many recipes.
“My hands get tired doing this,” he says. “So now I will do something else.”
Haleema, meanwhile, is dicing the eggplants and potatoes for the vegetarian curry. She places the cut vegetables in separate baking dishes, drizzles them with olive oil, sprinkles some salt and pepper, and puts them in the oven. Ysuff is the head chef for the Sri Lankan fare; Haleema helps him, getting the ingredients together, as every curry is spiced differently. There is one item Ysuff doesn’t let her, or anyone, go near.
He pulls out a jar from the back of a shelf and holds it up. It says, “Property of Ysuff Salie.”
“This is my salt,” he says. “The kitchen staff are always putting salt where I can’t find it so I hide mine away.”
The chicken is marinating, the vegetables are cooking, and the Salies start on the lentil dish. A variety of lentils are used in Sri Lanka; split red lentils (masoor dal) are very popular. Ysuff, just as his mother did, cooks them with chile, turmeric, cinnamon, black pepper, coconut milk, and water until tender.
He says Sri Lankan cinnamon is the best in the world, holding out a jar of powder to smell — and, indeed, its sweet, spicy, woody aroma is stronger than cinnamon from anywhere else in the world. No surprise as Sri Lanka is one of the world’s leading cinnamon growers.
The smell of the cooking lentils fills the kitchen, wafting out into the cafe. There is something comforting and nostalgic about this smell for anyone who has grown up in Sri Lanka or the Indian subcontinent, where lentils are a staple and a must-have with every meal.
A customer buying coffee asks what “delicious” food is cooking, and Afkham Salie, 47, son of Ysuff and Haleema who manages the cafe and takes orders, calls out, “Mom, what’s on the daily special?”
Haleema leaves the kitchen to explain the menu to the customer and spends a few minutes chatting. Meanwhile, Ysuff starts cooking the chicken curry. The first step to making any curry is making the sauce, or, if the curry is dry, without a gravy, cooking the spices before adding the meat or vegetables. Ysuff’s chicken curry has a gravy, and he is heating a few tablespoons of oil in a thick-bottomed pot for the sauce. To the heated oil he adds sliced shallots and cooks them, stirring, until they are slightly brown using a traditional Sri Lankan spoon, made of coconut shell, that won’t scratch the pot.
“The shallots and spices shouldn’t burn,” Ysuff says. “Or stick to the pot.”
Next he adds the ground paste made with the ginger and curry leaves, giving it all a quick stir.
“I forgot to chop the tomatoes,” he exclaims suddenly. “Haleema, chop some quick or the spices will burn.”
Haleema quickly chops the tomatoes and tosses them into the pot. Ysuff mixes in the tomatoes, then adds the chicken and coconut milk and lets it simmer for 40 minutes.
The secret to a good curry is this step, adding the gravy base, which could be tomatoes, yogurt, or cream, at the right moment, when the spices are cooked and at their most aromatic. Over-cooking spices gives them a burned smell, and some, like mustard and fenugreek seeds, turn bitter.
Ysuff and Haleema work in synch — it is almost as if they can read each other’s minds, and it isn’t surprising; they married when Ysuff was 21 and Haleema 16. The atmosphere in their kitchen, even at its busiest time, is calm, just like the couple who owns it.
“The vegetables are ready,” Haleema announces, taking them out of the oven. Ysuff cooks the vegetables with the ingredients Haleema has laid out — seeded and chopped jalapenos, minced garlic, sliced shallots, several dry spices, and coconut milk.
“Sri Lankan chiles are very hot,” Ysuff says. “So we use seeded jalapenos, which are less spicy.”
It is 10:30 a.m. and the meal is ready except for the coconut sambal and pappadums. Sambal, a hot sauce, is served at every meal. Ysuff makes a tangy-spicy coconut sambal that will complement today’s curries perfectly.
The plated food is a colorful patchwork — the dull red chicken curry garnished with cilantro, the deep purple and cream of the vegetable curry, light orange lentils, brown rice, and a crisp, white freshly fried pappadum carelessly placed on the edge. The smells of blended spices, cooked coconut milk, and spicy chile mix, make mouths water.
A Sri Lankan special costs $14.50, $12 for the vegetarian version. Ysuff says people call him sometimes asking him to make a particular curry, and he does.
“I like people. I like feeding people,” he says. “It gives me indescribable pleasure to see people enjoying my food.”
Ysuff and Haleema grew up in large families, and meal preparation was a long process because, in Sri Lanka, you not only feed your family but also the gardener, the cook, the driver, and any unexpected visitors.
“Our house was like a cooking school,” Ysuff says. “My 11 sisters were always cooking.”
Ysuff was responsible for the food shopping, which he did on his bicycle, and for catching a hen from the family’s coop when needed. (He remembers having to chase the chicken around the yard.)
Their love for cooking and feeding people is not the only reason the Salies are passionate about their cafe. It was always the dream of their deceased daughter, Rahma, to buy her parents a cafe. Rahma was on one of the planes, with her husband, that crashed on 9/11.
“She was outgoing, motivated, and had a head for business,” Ysuff says. “Our success, in part, is because of what we learned from her.”
“She loved food,” Haleema recalls with a fond smile. “Not cooking it but eating it. She is definitely cheering us on.”