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 Post subject: Lost indigenous Sri Lankan food
 Post Posted: Sun Jun 04, 2006 5:19 pm 
Lost indigenous Sri Lankan food

Written By: Chandra Edirisuriya
@ WS /04June2006

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 (gingelly), 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 in the villages and towns.

Food of Sinhala people

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

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

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


The people who had migrated from the Dry Zone 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 sesamum, 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). 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 satisty 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 the rice, whether grown in wet or dry fields, the literature of the period refers to various other grains and cerials grown by the peasants. These are very much the same as those cultivated today in the villages.

Pas go rasa

Neat cattle and buffaloes were important items in the wealth those days and the five milk products (pas go rasa) milk, curd, whey (butter milk or moru), ghee and butter, 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.

The late Ven, Prof. Dr. Walpola Rahula in his authoritative thesis ‘History of Buddhism in Ceylon’ says with reference to the Sinhala people of yore “Generally, well –to-do people ate three times a day. Besides rice which was the staple food of the people, meals usually consisted of various curries, curd, honey, sweets, butter, green herbs, paddy dried and pounded (puthuka) and even lotus roots and stalks (bhisamulala).

Various kinds of meat such as peacock-flesh (mayuramamsa), venison and pork (miga-sukara maddava), hare (sasa-mamsa and chicken (kukkuta – mamsa) seem to have been considered favourite and delicious dishes. Monks were often served with these dishes. There was also a preparation called honied – meat (madhumamsa). Certain people, most probably hunters, sometimes ate even monkey flesh (vanara mamsa). But beef eating as we saw earlier was a punishable offence. There is nothing to suggest that there was anything like popular vegetarianism in ancient Ceylon.”

Maha pali alms hall

The monks of ancient Lanka had to spend a considerable portion of the fore noon in connection with their food. There were common refectories attached to large monasteries like the Mahavihara, the Abhayagiriya and Mihintale. Thousands of bhikkhus went to these places for food. Fa Hien gives an eye – witness account: “They get their food from their common stores. The king, besides, prepares elsewhere in the city a common supply of food for five or six thousand more.” About two centuries later Hiuen Tsiang gives us an account on hearsay: “By the side of the king’s palace there is built a large kitchen, in which daily is measured out food for eight thousand priests.” The Rasavahini corroborates the accounts of these Chinese pilgrims when it says that from five great monasteries (pancamahavasa) monks and nuns assembled at Maha pali for alms. Bhikkhus went on pindapatha particularly for ghee and oil.

There was light refreshment, some times, between two meals, with some snacks called antara – khajjaka and consisted of such things as honey (madhu) and jaggery (sakkara). Sometimes even preparations of meat were included. A story in the Rasavahini relates how a setthi entertained monks three times in the fore noon with delicious preparations including hare (sasa – mamsa). A special preparation of hare was included in the antara – khajjaka as well as in the other two meals. We learn from the Tonigala Inscription that the diet of monks in the 4th century AC included among other things, curd (di), honey (miyavata), treacle (peni), sesame (tila), butter of ghee (bu(ja) natela), salt (lona) and green herbs (palahavata).’


The late Professor P. B. Sannasgala wrote a book on the food of the Sinhala kings, sourced on an original work, named Mahanuwara Raja Gedara Supa Sasthra Potha Ha Sinhala Supakala Sahithya (The Cookery Book of the Kandyan Palace) He says, 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 aromatise curry dishes and to give an appetising hue to them are listed under the common name vaiti. In place of the chillies (capsicum) most commonly used nowadays to season curries the book prescribed ginger and pepper. Ingredients such as asafoetida (perunkayam) 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, nutritions 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/ gingilly 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 a great number of sweet meats of which some such as peni kevum and lalu are seldom heard of these days. Methods of preserving fruits and making sugar are also found. Thus one may see that this is not a mere handbook on cookery giving the recipes for sumptous 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 appendices 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. Professor Sannasgala says “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 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 has been misplaced. Finally I telephoned the residence of the Professor not knowing that by then it was two years since he had passed away. Mrs. Sannasgala was gracious enough to gift to me the last three copies of the book, when I called on her, at her request.

My father was used to rich food having been at the Denham Hostel named after the British Director of Eduction E.B. Denham, at the Government Teacher Training College situated at the present Thurstan College premises, where the Principal was an Englishman. Our caretaker not allowed 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 chicken and fish 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 such as luffa or ribbed gourd (wetakolu), snake gourd (pathola), ash plantain (alu kesel), ladies fingers (bandakka), cucumber (pipinna), drum sticks (murunga), pumpkin (wattakka), leeks, carrot, cabbage, beans, beet root, karavila (bitter gourd) and winged bean (dambala), potatoes and pulses like dhal and green gram were prepared as white curries with very little ground chillie paste, turmeric and condiments and cooked in coconut milk. 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 ie with roasted scraped coconut ground into a paste with chillies, condiments and garlic. Kekiri was cooked peeled as a white curry like cucumber or unpeeled with a little more chillies and goraka added. Greens like mukunuwenna and kankun were made into mellum or tempered with oil.

Dried fish

My mother liked dried fish more than she liked fresh fish. Seer (thora), paraw, moralla, habarali, pulunna, mee wetiya, karalla, shark (mora), sprats, mullet (gal malu) and other kinds of dried white fish, were cooked the way vegetables were cooked using less chillies and condiments, in coconut milk. Dried blood fish such as kelawalla (tuna), balaya (bonito), salaya (sardines), hurulla (herrings), kumbalawa (jack mackerel) and black ray fish (kalu maduwa) was usually tempered (thelen thambala) with coconut oil, using only chillie paste, onions, green chillies, curry leaves 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. Maldive fish was an essential ingredient in pol sambol so much so Professor G. P. malalasekera is known to have failed a girl student at the viva voce test for university entrance for not mentioning it when asked how to make a pol sambol. Our cook Peter Appuhamy added garlic and even the root of murunga (drum sticks) to the pol sambol.

Various kinds of porridge lunu kenda, kiri kenda, kola kenda (herbal porridge) were taken with kitul jaggery in the morning. Kiri buth (milk rice) and imbul kiri buth (milk rice stuffed with scraped coconut cooked in treacle) were favourites among the Sinhala people.

Desserts consist of fruits like the mango, bananas and plantains, curd and treacle, habala pethi etc. Beverages taken are boiled ranawara, beli mal, pol pala, iramusu (sarasaparilla) water with jaggery. Palmyra fruit, kirala fruit and wood apple juice mixed with coconut milk and jaggery are other favourite drinks, also taken as desserts.

Polos curry

I am reminded of a tasty and nutritious polos (tender jak) curry prepared by 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 thin 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 polos curry to cook overnight to be consumed at all three meals the following day.

Other indigenous or naturalised foods such as ripe jak fruit, boiled or curried mature jak fruit, bread fruit, manioc and other yams like kiri ala, hirgurala, wel ala, rajaala are of high food value and health giving.

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.

A patriot, in a letter to the editor of a newspaper, had mentioned recently that rather than consuming food items made from imported wheat flour, it would be wise to eat kiri buth (milk rice) for breakfast. This is indeed food for thought as it would uplift the living conditions of our farmers and save much needed foreign exchange too. It is a myth that kiri buth makes people lazy, for not even kiri buth can stop an indefatigable worker.

Kiri buth

Kiri buth (milk rice) cooked with white raw rice can be enriched by cooking it with cows milk as done in ancient times and/ or by adding green gram, gingelly seed or split undu (oorid dhal) soaked in water over night. Sugar cane jaggery (uk hakuru) and ghee may also be added occasionally for a change. When cooked with red raw rice it needs no addition except coconut milk. A katta sambol with a liberal quantity of Maldive fish is all that is needed to make it a complete meal for breakfast. Getting back to kiri buth for breakfast it is beneficial in many ways and can restore our nation to its pristine glory.

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