Sri Lankan Food – what exactly is ours?
There have been a few trysts on Twitter about Sri Lankan food – is it good, bad, what exactly constitutes Sri Lankan food etc. And of course the many pundits online have a diverse range of opinions which they aren’t afraid to air quite aggressively at times.
Sri Lanka has been a trading island for thousands of years. Hence all aspects of our lives are heavily influenced by many external cultures. Which is fine. But of course in this quest for some pure Sri Lankan identity (which does not exist) we are now attempting to define a pure Sri Lankan cuisine.
I remember not too long ago the debate of the Burgher aunties on what exactly constitutes a lamprais. Personally I think the Dutch brought the lemper from Indonesia and we then somehow evolved it into our version – the lamprais. And of course each person claimed that theirs was the original. There cannot be an original per se unless we invented it – which we did not – we cannot lay an original claim to it. Hence it is an evolved item and it is what it is – with frikadels, eggs, chicken, vegan – whatever. It matters not in the grander scheme of things.
Similarly, Sri Lankan food – what exactly is the pure form of it? Kiribath is eaten in Indonesia. Rice and curry is eaten in the whole of Asia. Manioc is a staple in many countries. So we can’t exactly claim an exclusive cuisine. Kotthu was apparently invented in Sri Lanka so we can claim that as ours being the first. And the Pallandi chicken invented by the Pallandi family is of course another we can claim. Like this – there may be dishes. However each household does their own spice blends, their own pastes and mixes and it’s not easy to really give a definition of what is Sri Lankan cuisine in some pure form.
Each region of Sri Lanka also influences the foods we eat – the dhal curry in the East has more cumin than what people in the Western province eat. The North will include mustard seeds and dried red chilli into the dhal and make it more a dry curry. Thus the variations are great. But which is the most authentic will always be left as a question mark. Even written accounts can be ambiguous.
From a taste aspect – I personally find that people in Colombo have got used to firing all their curries with chilli and this kind of overtakes every other spice and flavour the curry has. It’s not great but people obsessed with the chilli love it. Another crime is putting tomato sauce into every dish – pasta, rice, noodles etc. It’s a travesty of epic proportions. I enjoy tomato sauce very much but not in every meal I consume. Another nightmare is the chilli paste mania. That thing again fires up one’s taste buds to a point where you taste nothing else. This is Colombo’s tragedy whereas most villages and even other parts of the country do have far better fare and variety in terms of taste. Possibly an urban issue with fast food and access to them.
Anyhoo, the issue with what is exactly ours can be debated. We have many cuisines of course and all these would be valid – be it a rice & curry, biryani, kiribath, thalapa, kola kenda, lamprais etc. As to whose is the most authentic will be debated too. Heck our sweet meats for the traditional New Year are a majority imports from other cultures. But what we have currently should be widely available and instead of looking for some pure cuisine (which is not possible) we should enjoy what we have and ensure that the more traditional ones are preserved and not lost to the tomato sauces and fast food-cation of cuisine.