Living Heritage of Sri Lanka

The Rite Way of Cooking: Food For Thought

The Ritual Practice of Traditional Cooking

by Patrick Harrigan

"Why does this food taste so much better?"

Traditional cooking is an art and a rite Traditional rice and curry, Sri Lanka

Among the modern imports currently enjoying popularity in urban Sri Lanka, one is that of ‘fast food'—commercially-processed foods requiring minimal preparation or delay for busy housewives, students, office workers and others willing to exchange taste and nutritional value for ‘image' and convenience. A large part of the increased cost of these seductively-marketed modern foods—which require little or no skill in preparation—goes into expensive advertising and packaging. To anyone who has tasted a well-prepared country meal, the difference from our city fare is phenomenal. And yet hardly anyone questions why it is that traditionally-prepared foods are so much more satisfying then their more expensive modern counterparts. Or, as one English visitor to a Sri Lankan village put it, "Why does this food taste so much better than the same food in Colombo?"

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

There are many possible obvious reasons why traditional cooking tastes better and is more satisfying than modern-style cooking. Various people have cited ‘country-food's pure ingredients, seasonal and regional character, delicate variety of seasonings, and the fact that country families tend to save the best produce of the garden for domestic consumption. Others point out that food tastes better when cooked in pots not of aluminum but of clay, or that the type of cooking flame also seems to make a difference. But all these taken individually tend to disguise what must be considered to be a basic underlying pattern of all traditional schools of cooking: their ritual character.

Modern pragmatism takes a dim view of the hours ‘wasted' in preparing traditional dishes that are consumed and gone in a matter of minutes. Old-fashioned cooking is laborious, time-consuming and altogether impractical when seen from the modern perspective. Villagers retort that city food is insipid, unbalancing, and sadly lacking as a source of nourishment for mind and body. But how then is one to account in terms of tradition for this alleged inefficiency of traditional cooking?

In traditional cultures, women are engaged in cooking and related activities for a large part of their lives. To most moderns, for whom cooking yields little satisfaction, this represents valuable time wasted in a repetitive and meaningless cycle of drudgery. However, it is meaningless only for those who fail to find levels of meaning in it. In any case, this division of time into ‘work' and ‘leisure' is not very helpful for an understanding of traditional holistic cultures in which work and play are both expressed in terms of ritual activity. Similarly, there is no division of life into religious and secular spheres in traditional cultures. There, every activity done ‘right' is a ‘rite'. Indeed, karma (‘work') in its original sense means ‘ritual activity'.

The objection is often heard that traditional vocations—and modern—are dominated by men, and that women have to endure bondage to tasks of cooking and child-raising, as though these were mean and debasing activities. And yet this objection betrays its own modern origins, for it cannot admit that these two fundamental human activities lie at the very core of traditional culture and that they embody ritual activities of the highest order woven into the fabric of everyday life. That these critical functions of cooking and child-raising are entrusted to women is scarcely an accident of nature.

In traditional cultures—and to a lesser extent in modern society— cooking as a practical art is passed down from mother to daughter, and those families which have preserved their culinary parampara do so with great pride. It is a sad commentary on modern life that part of the price paid for being ‘modem' is a steady erosion in the quality of the foods we eat, despite vocal partisan claims to the contrary. Indeed, some villagers have gone so far as to argue that the long-term result of eating foods poisoned with pesticides and chemical additives Is visible to us today in the form of youth whose greed, hatred and delusive violence characterize them as hungry demons, The senseless human carnage and blood-lust so rampant In Sri Lanka today, they argue, is a direct consequence of living on such tainted foods.

Life for the traditional villager is around of cycles within other cycles, such that food production, festivities, and the life processes are tied together, insuring the community's continuing survival as a living culture. The tradition itself tells us that the maintenance of these cycles—that Is, the very survival of a culture—calls for the practical application of universal principles to the sphere of everyday life. Any disruption of the equilibrium that exceeds a culture's ability to adapt will bring suffering and even cultural extinction—a fate that has already befallen many cultures great and small just in the short span of modern recorded history.

Thus, food production—whether farming, fishing, or hunting—goes in a natural annual cycle, while food preparation follows a daily cycle that is equally rich in symbolism when conducted according to the parampara or tradition. What is essential is not that the parampara be verbally expressed—let alone found in books—but that it be performed in the right way at the right time. In this respect cooking is not just similar to ritual—it is ritual. The traditional cook does not merely do what is quickest and easiest; she does what is right.

One fails to appreciate the ritual dimensions of traditional cooking unless it is regarded in the context of larger cycles involving the community at large, life-sustaining rains, and the pivotal role of the king, whose responsibility it Is to maintain the justice and fertility of his realm. This interdependence of culture and environment is also expressed in microcosmic terms as a fire sacrifice, where all is ultimately driven by the sun; however one may understand the term.

By analogy, the lady of the traditional household is also its queen and priestess, whose life-long vows include preserving the purity of the family hearth and all that comes from it. By fulfilling her pure intention she also maintains the life forces and mental balance of everyone in her household. Indeed, to a remarkable extent it is she who rules the household, for her husband only reigns. Thus the husband and wife are, in traditional terms, the King and Queen who together maintain the happy balance of their Realm. If one or the other fails in this duty, it spells danger for the entire household, or realm. Thus, it is not by accident of nature that to woman is entrusted the sacred hearth as well as the reproduction, sustenance, and basic training of the human species. Even modern English law must concede the natural priority of mother over father in child custody cases.

It would belabor the point to describe in detail the parallels between cooking and ritual as tradition understands them. Many rituals, like ordinary temple pujas, not only resemble the act of cooking and offering food to a king, but are symbolically just that as well. Small wonder that the traditional cook is also doing just that—prepare food for a king. In principle, every Sri Lankan family is of royal blood—Sinha-le—and every old-fashioned couple is King and Queen.

What we moderns find most discomforting about traditional villagers is that they act as though they actually believe such abstractions. In other words, the principles under discussion number among the traditional villager's assumptions that are unarticulated in common speech but fully expressed in practical activities. But again, what has always mattered Is not how a society talks about its principles, but how it expresses them practically as, for example, in cooking. A society unguided by principles is a society lost, as any glance at the newspapers or television will remind us. Even if most villagers do not grasp the profound depth of the traditions they are following. What really matters is that they still embody these traditions in practice.

Finally, then, the reason why village cooking tastes better than city imitations may be precisely because real traditional cooking is meant for royalty, and because country cooks do not prepare food for anyone less than kings and queens like themselves. However simple, the same food is always more satisfying when it has been prepared according to the full traditional procedure, which means making it worthy to offer to a king or queen, to a bhikkhu, swami or fakir, or to any beggar or guest who might like to accept well-prepared food, for in traditional lore all these figures are divine in character.

So is there a lesson in all this that we can apply to modem cooking? Not, in all likelihood, without our first troubling to study traditional cooking as it is done in the village. May be it is time for us to stop telling the villagers what we think they are doing wrong and find out what it is that they have been doing right for so many centuries. Surely, for instance, the cook of the family deserves our deepest respect for a job well-done, even if it is but little understood.