Living Heritage of Sri Lanka

The Value of Indigenous Food

by Chandra Edirisuriya

Any country has its own indigenous foods that have evolved through time. The food of the Sinhala people who lived in the Dry Zone of this country during the early Anuradhapura period consisted of rice, other subsidiary food grains, beans, pulses, oil extracted from sesamum, sugar cane molasses, fruits like the mango, tender coconut, ghee curd and other milk products, honey collected from the forest as an article of food as well as medicine, fish both from the sea and inland waters and meat supplied by hunters to the people of the villages and towns.

Turmeric, ginger, pepper and spices used in the preparation of food were grown in the hilly regions of the country.

The ghee extracted from the cows milk was regularly taken with rice by everyone except the poorest.

The people who had migrated from the Dry to the Wet Zone had to adapt themselves to the conditions of life in their new homes and form new dietary habits. The ghee and the edible oil extracted from sesasum, to which they had been accustomed were no longer available in sufficient quantity and they had to acquire a taste for the coconut oil.

Large areas were planted with this useful palm; the coastal belt between Kalutara and Bentota was planted with coconut in the reign of Parakramabahu II (1236-1270 AC).
Sri Lankan Food: Leek Curry
Leek Curry
Sri Lankan Food: Snake Gourd Curry
Snake Gourd Curry
Sri Lankan Food: Fish Curry
Fish Curry
Sri Lankan Food: Carrot Curry
Carrot Curry
Sri Lankan Food: Pineapple Curry
Pineapple Curry
Sri Lankan Food: Breadfruit Curry
Breadfruit Curry

Such a large area being planted with coconut by the direction of the State indicates that it was not done solely to supply the local demand, but also to satisfy the requirements of external trade. It was in the Dambadeniya period that the island began to be famous in the world for its cinnamon.

In addition to rice, whether grown in wet or dry fields, the literature of the period refers to various other grains and cereals grown by the peasants. These are very much the same as those cultivated today in the villages.

Neat cattle and buffaloes were important items in the wealth those days and the five milk products (pas go rasa) were regular items in the diet of the well to do. A Chinese writer referring to the people of this country during the 15th century says "They take no meal without butter and milk; if they have none and wish to eat they do so unobserved and in private". The Venetian traveller Marco Polo says that the people of Lanka (towards the close of the 13th Century) had no other grain except rice. They made oil out of sesame and lived on milk, flesh and rice and used wines made from certain trees. Marco Polo seems to refer to people of the North.

Provisions for the bhikkhus mentioned in inscriptions included, besides rice, vegetables, fish, coconuts, young coconuts, jaggery oil for anointing, for cooking and for lighting, betel leaves, arecanuts, onions, pepper, salt, panic seeds and turmeric.

I learned that there was a manuscript in the possession of Dorakumbura Walawwa, Matale, a family who managed the Kandyan Royal Palace kitchen. A copy of this work has been obtained by the late Venerable Naulle Dhammananda Nayake Thera, of Karagastalawa Viharaya, Belihuloya. Now I had five copies. Examinations of them made me conclude that they were all copied originally from the same master manuscript, which fact shows that the book was a manual of cookery possessed as an heirloom by a particular clan of chefs and not one of common circulation.

The book deals with the royal repast of the Nayakkar kings of the Kandyan Kingdom. Recipes include inter alia different kinds of rice preparations, various dishes of curry and many varieties of sweet meats. Special attention is given to preparations of meat dishes which fact proves that meat was a favourite item of the royal victuals. But meat always came in the form of venison and no domestic animal appears to have been killed for food even to please the royal palate. No reference whatsoever is made to sea fish although Maldive fish is mentioned. Fresh water fish is referred to as aquatic meat (diya mas).

A large number of condiments used to season, flavour and aromatize curry dishes and to give an appetizing hue to them are listed under the common name vaiti. In place of the chillies, (capsicum) most commonly used now a days to season curries the book prescribed ginger and pepper. Ingredients such as asafoetida (perumkayam) which are not in use as condiments now also are recommended. All recipes are made in such a way that the combinations provide a well balanced, nutritious and health giving diet to the consumer.

Also given in the book are some extremely unusual preparations; one such is the dish made of margosa leaves mixed with olinda (liquorice) leaves and jaggery, and another is the wild boar hides made tender by soaking with olinda roots, wood apple pulp, gingelly/gingili roots and koora roots. According to this book food items very hard to cook are made tender and soft by cooking them with BO (ficus religiosa) leaves olinda leaves and sap of lotus. Such methods which were jealously guarded by the families of royal chefs and not even heard of these days are given in this work.

Nor is the book wanting in recipes for a great number of sweet meats of which some such as pani-kevum and lalu are seldom heard of these days. Methods of preserving fruits and making sugar also are found. Thus one may see that this is not a mere hand book on cookery giving the recipes for sumptuous and exotic dishes for the royal board, but also a source of history showing high degree of refinement achieved by the Sinhala race in the culinary art.

This edition is enriched by an appendice in which a large number of informative references on culinary art are given. They are collected from various sources and works of Sinhala texts extending over 1500 years. I have also included references to the food production and food habits of the people of this country made by the foreign writers in their works.

I heard about this unique compendium by Professor P. B. Sannasgala on food items of our people and went from the Public Library to the museum library and from there to the National Library in search of it. I was told that the book had been misplaced. Finally I telephoned the residence of the Professor not knowing that by then it was two years since he had passed away.

My father was used to rich food having been at the Denham Hostel named after the British Director of Education E. B. Denham at the Government Teacher Training College situated at the present Thurstan College premises where the Principal was an Englishman. Our care taker cum cook Peter Appuhamy knew how to cook to please the palate of my father. Meats such as beef, pork, mutton, chicken, wild boar and fish and eggs made into curries or fried, to eat with rice, were sine qua non in the daily diet.

However my mother ate only fish and chicken and that too in small quantities. I consider the food that my mother liked to eat as the most suitable for everyone in this country. She often advised the cooks or herself prepared the curries to be put on the hearth. Vegetables like luffa or ribbed gourd (wetakolu), snake gourd (pathola) ash plantation (alu kesel), ladies' fingers (bandakka), cucumber (pipinna), drum sticks (murunga), pumpkin (wattakka), leeks, carrot, cabbage, beans, beetroot, karavila (bitter gourd) and winged bean (dambela) potatoes and pulses like dhal, green gram were prepared as white curries with very little ground chillie paste, turmeric and condiments, in coconut milk.

Spices were hardly used. But Maldive fish (umbalakada) was an essential ingredient in the preparation of these curries. The leeks curry cooked with Maldive fish added is very pleasing to the palate. However ash pumpkin (alu puhul) was cooked as a kalu pol maluwa i.e. with roasted scraped coconut ground into a paste with chillies, condiments and a garlic. Kekiri was cooked peeled as a white curry like cucumber or unpeeled with a little more chillie added. Greens like mukunuwenna and kan kun were made into mellun or tempered with oil.

My mother liked dried fish more than she liked fresh fish. Seer (thora), paraw, moralla, habarali, pulunna, mee vetiya, karalla, shark (mora) sprats, mullet (gal malu) and other kinds of dried white fish, were cooked the way vegetables are cooked using less chillies and conditments in coconut milk. Dried blood fish like kelawalla (tuna), balaya (bonito), salaya, (sardines) hurulla (herrings), kumbalawa (jack mackerel) and ray fish (kalu maduwa) was usually fried or tempered with coconut oil using only chillie paste, onions, green chillies, curry leaves (karapincha) etc but not condiments.

Rice and curry was eaten for both lunch and dinner and the breakfast of the Sinhala people consisted of heel buth or diya buth and boiled rice with kiri hodi (coconut soup) or pol sambol. Various kinds of porridge - lunu kenda, kiri kenda, kola kenda (herbal porridge) was taken with kitul jaggery in the morning. Kiri buth (milk rice) and imbul kiri buth (milk rice stuffed with scraped coconut cooked in treacle) favourites among the Sinhala people.

Desserts consist of fruits like the mango, bananas and plantain, curd and treacle, habala pethi etc. Beverages taken are boiled ranawara, beli mal, polpala, iramusu water with jaggery.

Palmyrah fruits, kirala fruit and wood apple juice mixed with coconut milk and jaggery are other favourite drinks. The indigenous simple food habits of the Sinhala people should be revived and maintained. The latest medical opinion of medical men of the calibre of Dr. D. P. Athukorale who love this country and the people proves that the food habits of our forefathers have been conducive to good health and longevity. Dr. Athukorale had recently stated that coconut oil is superior to all other oils and fats for nutrition and health.

He had also stated that butter which is one of the five milk products consumed by the Sinhala people is better than margarines which contain hydrogenated fat.

My guru J. R. P. Suriyapperuma had recently pointed out the value of indigenous food. He had emphasised the need to include green leaves like mukunu wenna in the diet and said that nutritious leafy vegetables are abundant in this country.

I am again reminded of the tasty and nutritious polos (tender jak) curry prepared by our caretaker cum cook Peter Appuhamy. He used the milk of one coconut to cook a tender jak fruit and added the kernel of one more coconut cut into strips to the curry along with chillie, turmeric and condiment paste, a few cloves of garlic, curry leaves, sera, goraka and Maldive fish.

The clay pot was put on the hearth for the curry to cook overnight to be consumed at all three meals the following day.

Other indigenous or naturalised foods like mature and ripe jak, bread fruit, manioc and other yams like kiri ala, hingurala, rajāla etc. are of high food value. As J. R. P. Suriyapperuma says our indigenous foods, available cheap, are superior to sausages and other junk foods. In an article published in The Hindu on 05-09-2003 titled 'Junk food: Quick route to diabetes the writer R. Prasad says calories from junk food when not burned lead to a state of being overweight or even obese. And the net result is the environment abetting the genes to an onset of diabetes even at an early age.

The Sinhala people used ginger and pepper (gammiris or honda miris) to season dishes and not red chillies.

It is said that chillies in various stages of maturity are harvested and laced with sulphur dust before drying to get a uniformly red colour. When produced on a commercial scale. Excessive consumption of dried red chillies can lead to liver disease and even cirrhosis of the liver.

It is well known that Philip Gunawardane did not like dried red chillies and liked gammiris or honda miris as it is called by the villagers in Kurunegala area. Once when he was Minister of Food and Agriculture people complained of the high price of dried red chillies and he who had joined Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake to serve this country, is reported to have retorted miris neththan nai miris kanawa.

I couldn't agree more with my guru J. R. P. Suriyapperuma that the Sinhala people alone of all the races in our country do not have a way of eating peculiar to them. History shows that the Sinhala people of the maritime provinces of this country upto the time of the Portuguese invasion and of the Kandyan Provinces up to the time of the capitulation to the British in 1815 had an indigenous way of eating.

It was after these events that the food of the Sinhala people got enriched in some ways and got corrupted in many ways. The situation has got compounded during the last 55 years i.e. since Independence that while the Tamil, the Muslim, the Malay and the Burgher people have their own food habits the food of the Sinhala people has become an achcharu. This is indeed food for thought.

Courtesy: The Ceylon Daily News of Thursday, 18 September 2003