- A look at the vegan Sri Lanka restaurant making waves in Portland, Oregon
By Naveed Rozais
Last weekend saw the opening of Mirisata, a landmark restaurant in Portland, Oregon. Mirisata is a vegan Sri Lankan restaurant, the first Sri Lankan restaurant in Portland, and the first vegan restaurant in the world to serve exclusively Sri Lankan cuisine.
A worker-owned business, Mirisata is a three-person team consisting of Alex, Simar, and Rochelle. The Sunday Morning Brunch sat down with Mirisata mastermind and co-owner Alex for a look at this groundbreaking restaurant and how it came to be.
What’s the Mirisata origin story? How did it come to be?
Growing up in California, my dad, who is Sri Lankan, would cook Sri Lankan food very frequently. Growing up in the US as a first-generation immigrant, I didn’t feel a connection to Sri Lankan culture in many ways, besides the food. I started cooking my dad’s recipes when I moved away from home and went to college; as well as visiting Sri Lankan restaurants in the US, and learning more about Sri Lankan cuisine in general.
I’ve been vegan for 17 years, and I started veganising favourite Sri Lankan recipes like my dad’s chicken curry using vegan meat substitutes. There are many types of vegan chicken in the US; for curry, you need something that will keep its shape after being cooked in the pot for a long time. I used to cook rice and curry for my friends a lot and was frequently told I should start a restaurant.
I’m not a chef and I have no commercial cooking experience. I was a freelance journalist and then worked in communications with nonprofits. I decided to do a popup, and I found a vegan chef, Simar, who’d been working for over 10 years in commercial kitchens. We had our first popup in March before the Covid-19 outbreak where we served 65 people a formal, sit-down dinner. Simar lost his job during the pandemic, and we had extra time on our hands and decided to start another popup for takeout alone.
We found this little place that was willing to give us a low price and let us pay our security deposit over time, and we started the popup with $ 600, our own money, which is very low for start-ups in the US. We then had Rochelle join the team and deceived to make Mirisata more than a popup. We opened last weekend, and are now open four days week from Thursday to Sunday.
To design the logo, we commissioned our friend Suprabha Irugalratne, a vegan activist and illustrator from Kandy. Our logo isn’t actually a chicken – it’s the Sri Lankan jungle fowl, which is the national bird of Sri Lanka. Of all the amazing animals in the country, this one has special significance for a vegan restaurant. There are four jungle fowl species in the world and, while the other three were domesticated to become chickens, the Sri Lankan jungle fowl resisted attempts at domestication and is still only found living free in the wild.
Mirisata is a worker-owned business. What led to doing business this way?
In a worker-owned business, or a worker co-operative, the people who are working in the business have part ownership in the business as well. Simar, Rochelle, and I have equal ownership of Mirisata.
Working this way, for me, is a values thing. I don’t want to be anyone’s boss. I want to be their partner. People shouldn’t be working for just a wage or an hourly rate. If the company is doing well and eventually there are profits, I don’t see why the people who worked so hard to make those profits happen shouldn’t be able to share in those profits. Labour is what creates profit and that profit should be shared.
Mirisata is expanding and we are growing the team. When someone comes in brand new, they won’t immediately become an owner. There will be a trial period where we see how they fit and the value they bring to the business and how they can help it grow before we make them part owners.
Workers co-ops are popular around the world but not in the restaurant industry. There are several worker co-op supermarkets and other companies in the US and it’s also a form of business catching on in Europe. The multibillion-dollar Spanish company Mondragon is owned by its employees.
Is being vegan a challenge when it comes to creating authentic Sri Lankan cuisine?
Sri Lankan food is actually one of the most vegan-friendly cuisines in the world. You really only need to look out for a few things like Maldive fish in your pol symbol or seeni sambol and make small adjustments like that to keep things vegan-friendly. Other than that, it’s very obvious when a Sri Lankan dish is meat-based.
I’ve also been vegan for over 17 years, and have tried cooking with different types of vegan meats. It’s not very limiting. The biggest limitation is seafood. For example, you can’t make a crab curry because you can’t fake a whole crab or crab body parts. There is vegan shrimp which we use in our prawn vade. There isn’t really a great substitute for fish and crab yet, but we’re trying things out.
We’ve made vegan egg hoppers using a mung-based egg substitute and we’re introducing these egg hoppers as a brunch item on Sundays. We’re very excited about it as it will be the first time we introduce the egg hopper to our customers.
What’s the food scene like in Portland and where does Mirisata fit in?
Portland is a very vegan-friendly city in that respect; it’s like other vegan-friendly cities like London and Barcelona, except that it is a much smaller city. Being a vegan restaurant, we’re definitely in the right place.
Indian food is popular in Portland where there are some vegan and vegetarian Indian restaurants. We try to emphasise how different Sri Lankan food is from Indian food, although we do realise that there is some overlap, like the Sri Lankan fried rice being close to the Indian biriyani and similar. We try to stay away from that and give people a unique experience, with food like hoppers and string hoppers. Most Indian restaurants in the city offer North Indian cuisine, so you can’t get food like ours anywhere else in town.
The vast majority of our customers have never tried Sri Lankan food before and they love it. Mirisata also provides Sri Lankans in the area with a taste of home. There are no Sri Lankan restaurants in Portland, although we have a big Sri Lankan population in nearby Hillsboro. There is one company that does catering for events, but that’s about it.
I actually reached out to the Sri Lankan community in the area when starting out with Mirisata to see if any one of them would like to be involved, but it didn’t pan out. The community here have intensive jobs with bigger companies, so managing time can be difficult.
How has the pandemic affected Portland’s food scene?
With Mirisata, international travel being super restricted has been driving people to try new cuisines, because the next best thing to travelling is trying out a new cuisine at home.
There have been a lot of restaurants that have closed down, unfortunately. There were two types of restaurants that were impacted the most – the very large restaurants with big dining spaces and high rents are suffering because people don’t feel safe eating out in large settings anymore, and the downtown places too have been suffering because everyone’s working from home and the workday lunch is what they depend on.
There have also been people who have done very well, especially the people who had takeout and delivery as part of their sales.
In Mirisata’s case, we have a small indoor dining room which is currently closed that can accommodate about 16 people and an outdoor area that can accommodate between 24 and 30 people. More people like eating outdoors than in, and we have lots of space in the front that we can use for that. There are small improvements that need to be made, and we need to build a deck as well for added seating, which we will slowly do over time.
What’s the long-term Mirisata vision?
Eventually, once Covid-19 passes, we’d like to have a nice dine-in restaurant where we serve rice and curry family style. At the moment, it’s mostly takeout, which is fine given the time and also since rice and curry is something that can easily be served takeout style. But we do love the presentation of rice and curry served family style with bowls of curries on the table and people connecting over their food.
We’re expanding our menu, adding the egg hopper for brunch on Sundays, as well as honey hoppers, and we’re also introducing vegan beef rolls which we’ve been working on for a while. We’re also getting a beer and wine license and hoping to get in Lion Stout and make it available at Mirisata. It isn’t available anywhere else in the US, so we’re pretty excited about it.