The Way Our Kings Ate
by S. Pathiravitane
Cookery is one of the 64 arts in which the accomplished person in a traditional Asian society is expected to show his competency. There is no difference then, as we see today, between the artist and the cook. Such a state of affairs prompted either Eric Gill, the British sculptor and typographer who gave us the modern Gill Sans type, or his good friend Ananda Coomaraswamy, to say that the artist is not a special kind of man but that every man who is not an idler or a parasite is a special kind of artist.
This is not the moment to sort out the mess we have made of our arts. But reading Dr. Punchi Bandara Sannasgala's scholarly edition of the only cookery book that has come down to us from the Kandyan period of the 17th century, the art of cookery is lots more than assembling some pieces of firewood together and placing a lot of something over it.
More lexicographer than cookery expert, Dr. Sannasgala got started on his work on this cookery book when the late Prof. D. E. Hettiarachchi asked him one day what iththum and ul palahum meant, informing him at the same time that they looked suspiciously like terms used in cooking.
That set Sannasgala off like a bound after a hare and when he returned twelve years later he had with him five copies of this cookery book, three from different temples in this country, one from Denmark and the fifth from the British Museum. All five were copies of the master copy which remains untraced.
To come back to iththum and ul palahum, these two terms tell a tale of their own. Both of them refer to two styles of cooking meant called godamas in Sinhala, which means the flesh of animals like sambhur deer, anteater, porcupine and wild boar, but not the flesh of domestic animals like cows and bulls, which were prohibited by law.
The two terms that Dr. Hettiaractchi wanted investigated refer to two barbecue styles that were used in Lanka. Ul palahum, for instance is how meat that has been marinated in curd or moru and treated with spices like ginger, suduru, maduru, pepper and salt and then cooked over live coals. The meat has to be repeatedly turned over and over the live coal while basting it with the marinate all the time.
Iththum, on the other hand, is also a technique of marinating meat and having done that frying it in oil. Of course not everyone in the country is like this. It must be said that this cook book is one written for the royal table, more specifically for the Telugu kings who ruled over the country in its declining years.
They also used spices like asafetida, which is widely used in India even today but not so commonly in Sri Lanka. The technique of cooking meat also reveals another interesting story. The earlier cooking styles in the preparation of meat and fish, not sea fish, by the way, which was not widely consumed then, depended on molasses and honey which were used to wash the meat and fish to remove its smells.
Those who like their fish arid meat free of any sweetness may think it odd that the Sri Lankans in the past used sweetness to flavour their meats. This is not quite an odd practice if we remember that Chinese cooking also depends to a great extent on sweetness to rouse the taste buds in all their glory
It is not only in sweet-sour dishes of the Chinese restaurants that we come across this but also in the snacks Chinese prepare with dried shrimps and squids. The Veddahs too use honey not only to preserve their meat but also to give it a special flavour. In fact in all great cooking both East and West sugar is the hidden ingredient cooks use to produce their marvelous dishes.
It was the Portuguese — if we take the word of Dr. Sannasgala — who ruined not only our temples but also our taste buds. It was they who brought a new cooking ingredient — chillies — into this country and a new food — beef — which was cooked in the Portuguese way. Earlier the spices used to tickle out palate were pepper and ginger; with the introduction of the chilli a new era in taste was born in this country bidding at the same time a farewell to the molasses and the honey.
The Cookery Book of the Kandyan Palace, as this book is entitled, is prefaced with a long scholarly essay which reflects on many areas in Sinhala culture that do not come under normal review. It touches on subjects like the quality and variety of rices used in the past, the kinds of utensils used in the Sinhala kitchens, the role of kola kanda in our culture, food as nutrition, medicine and poison, table manners and styles of eating and of course styles of cooking.
The book is also invaluable for the copious footnotes all drawn from the literature of the country going as far back as the 11th century and coming up to modern times including the writings of foreigners to complement the statements in the cook book.
But before you rush to buy this book I must warn you that like most of the great manuals and books produced in the East the Kandyan cook book is in Sinhala verse form. That may deter quite a percentage of my readers from consulting Dr. Sannasgala on how to cook lool mālu or the flesh of peacock.
But for the persistent enthusiast who wants to know how people eat and ate there are rewards. The discovery of the famous Chinese Winter Melon recipe, which is nothing more than our own Alu Puhul in Sinhala disguise, is one such pleasure that awaits the gourmet.
First published 27th April, 1993.
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