A winning menu with a down-home spin to celebrate the Run for the Roses? You bet!
I’m a Kentuckian by way of Sri Lanka. When I moved to Boston for college and then grad school, I missed both my mother’s bold, spicy cooking and the readily available Southern fare. I was astonished when I realized none of my Boston friends had ever attended a Kentucky Derby party to celebrate the horse race that takes place the first Saturday in May. So I hosted my first Sri Lankan-inspired Derby party, a practice I continued after moving back home to Lexington in 2012. Friends who loved the food and the vibe helped persuade me to open my pop-up restaurant, Tuk Tuk Sri Lankan Bites. I like to think that the spicy, savory dishes in this party menu—exotic to many, yet also familiar—pair well with what some call two of the most exciting minutes in sports.
Though the big race is scheduled for 6:50 p.m., a proper Derby party is an all-day affair. I like to kick mine off in the afternoon with a spread of snacks and a choice of drinks. In homage to my home state, I offer a take on Louisville’s most famous culinary creation, the hot brown sandwich. Mine are smaller bites of turkey, bacon, tomato and cheese and in an easy-to-make black pepper and turmeric-spiced pastry that will shine as an hors d’oeuvre. Salmon croquettes are another Southern favorite. You’ll find versions of this breaded, fried fish cake all over Kentucky (though not with the curry and fresh ginger). For a fresh bite to counter the heavier apps, I do crunchy crudités with Benedictine dip, a riff on the classic Kentucky sandwich of cucumbers and cream cheese on white bread.
Of course, you need some refreshing (and preferably boozy) drinks to pair with your Derby hors d’oeuvres. While the mint julep is the official cocktail of Churchill Downs, I prefer to show off another of Kentucky’s claims to fame (namely the bourbon made here) in a Boulevardier. Equal parts whiskey, vermouth, and Campari, it offers the perfect balance of bitter, boozy, and sweet. I also offer my guests a refreshing berry lemonade, complete with fresh fruit and a hint of mint that folks can enjoy with vodka or booze-free.
An herb-crusted pork tenderloin paired with garlicky green beans as the main course is not only a crowd pleaser but also can be done mostly ahead so that you can enjoy your day at the races. The Sri Lankan influence is a little more subtle here, but you’ll find it in the turmeric, the zing of citrus, and the bright, fresh herbs. For dessert? More bourbon, this time in a caramel sauce and whipped topping for a delicious bread pudding. Such a sweet end to a festive meal will leave everyone—no matter if their horse came in first or last—feeling like a winner.