Curry Diva has built devoted following over long career

Bag of goodies
Chef Heather Jansz arrives at the Highland Grill in St. Paul, Minn., on Jan. 27, 2014, with what she calls her "bag of goodies." She never shows up without fresh curry leaves.
MPR News/Nikki Tundel

If you're going to take on the title of Curry Diva, you'd better be able to back it up with your cooking.

For Heather Jansz, that's not a problem.

Over the last 30 years, she's launched Sri Lankan restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul and cooked for everyone from renowned doctor, author and scholar Deepak Chopra to the rock group Black Sabbath. She may be the only chef to ever execute curry lutefisk.

"My curry leaves, those are my little pieces of heaven," said Jansz, a Sri Lanka native who moved to Minnesota in 1974. "There should be potpourri made out of that."

Jansz has been a curry ambassador since her arrival and is credited with bringing curry to Minnesotans. In her early years, her Sri Lankan-style cuisine was one of the few ethnic offerings on the Twin Cities food scene.

"People get concerned as soon as they hear the word curry," said recently. "They think that must mean hot. I think hot is a preference."

Although the word "curry" is commonly used to describe a specific dish, Jansz explains that the term actually refers to a style of cooking. That style uses fresh spices and curry leaves, not a curry powder.

"Forget the word curry and just know that it involves a world of magic," she said.

These days, she brings her magic to places like the Highland Grill, a St. Paul diner known for its banana waffles and sweet potato fries. As line cooks whipped up hollandaise sauce on a recent Monday, Jansz plated fish curry.

Once a week, Jansz is the featured chef at the neighborhood restaurant, where manager Patrick Dow originally was hesitant to offer Sri Lankan curries alongside regular menu items like macaroni and cheese and the Elvis Burger.

"But given her following, it was just gangbusters from the get-go," Dow said. "A normal special we might sell 15 of, but when Heather's here, we sell about 40 to 50 of them. So she does about three to four times more than our normal special."

Between orders, Jansz takes time to chat with new curry customers, like Molly Bird.

"The Curry Diva came over and explained to us what everything was and how we're supposed to eat it," Bird said. "So that was helpful."

Jansz also likes to slide into the booths of curry night regulars like Kerry LeClair so she can catch up on their lives.

"Oh, she's funky," Leclair said. "When she's talking to you about her food, you want to actually dive into curry."

As a child in Sri Lanka, Jansz was obsessed with cooking. She'd collect wood, then stack it on a foundation of stones. With the strike of a match, she'd have her own outdoor kitchen.

"I would have a little clay pot and try to get some lentils and rice when my mom had it and I would experiment," Jansz recalled.

It wasn't just the taste of food that captivated her. She was also fascinated by the fact that spices had health benefits.

Diva Dinner
Twice a month, Heather Jansz offers what she calls Diva Dinners. They're held at the Minneapolis diner Our Kitchen. On Jan. 31, 2014, eighteen customers cram into the tiny space to enjoy a four-course dinner prepared by the Curry Diva.
MPR News/Nikki Tundel

"I always thought that when I got older I would heal people through my food," she said. It's a dream she's held onto for decades.

On another recent night Heather Jansz commanded the stovetop at the tiny Minneapolis breakfast joint Our Kitchen, where there are 11 barstools along the counter.

"When you see your curry leaves, please eat them!" she told waiting diners "They are such good anti-inflammatory. So eat it."

The diner doesn't do dinner. So twice a month, the owners let Jansz take over the space for what she calls Diva Dinners. The evening's saffron and coconut curry included lime leaves from the tree in her living room.

As Jansz served a four-course meal, she explained the importance of each ingredient. Turmeric, for example, is a powerful antioxidant. Cardamom prevents blood clots. And ginger can help with muscle pains and migraines.

"Is everybody doing OK?" she asked.

Some of the diners call themselves "groupies." They've followed Jansz — and her food — from one restaurant to another.

Long-time customer Alan Spaulding arrived with a Minnesota perch, fresh from his latest ice fishing expedition. He and his wife Melissa felt the Curry Diva could put it to good use at home.

"She could make any bland, unsexy Minnesota fish taste like an exotic, sought after fish from a fancy restaurant," Melissa Spaulding said.

Dinner wraps up with coconut ice cream covered in crystallized ginger and spicy pumpkin seeds, followed by lots of compliments to the chef.

"Oh, my soul is satisfied. I love it," said a beaming Jansz. "There's nothing more precious than taking care of your body with good things, like food."

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