Sinhalese Culinary Fare of Yore
Culled from the Mahavansa and other literary and epigraphic sources by Asiff Hussein.
There can be little doubt that the ancient Sinhalese who migrated to Sri Lanka from West Bengal (Radha) around the 5th century BC, brought their North Indian Aryan cuisine to their new homeland.
Such fare, as borne out by the ancient hymns of the Rig-Veda (c. 1500 B.C.) would have comprised cereal, meat, milk and fruits. Although by later Vedic times (c. 1200 BC) the cow had become sacred, the flesh of other animals continued to be eaten with relish, being cooked in pots or roasted on spits.
An alcoholic beverage, sura, distilled from grain, was a favourite amongst these Aryans. There is evidence to show that in pre-Christian era Sri Lanka, rice was extensively cultivated in the Raja-rata (The North-Central dry zone) where the first Sinhalese civilization came into being, with the aid of massive irrigation works.
This cereal which constituted the staple of the people during those times (as it is even today) was consumed in a variety of ways. According to the Mahavansa, the ancient chronicle of Sinhalese royalty written in Pali around the 5th century AC and its sequel, the Chulavansa, a variety of rice dishes were known in ancient times. Two sorts of cooked rice (Pali. bhatta, Sinhala. bhat) were consumed, namely yagu (rice gruel) and payasa (milk-rice). Another kind of sweet rice, dadhibhatta, prepared with curdled milk was also known.
Rice was also prepared as a sweet dish with various ingredients such as sugar (phanita), honey (madhu) and butter (sappi). Savoury rice dishes with oil (tela) were also known. The Chulavansa records that King Silameghavanna (7th century) entertained the Buddhist clergy with milk-rice made with butter and syrup. An exquisite savoury dish comprised of rice prepared with the milk of the king coconut (sannira) and butter and fine spices (supehi). Black pepper (maricha), long pepper (pipphali), garlic (lasuna), ginger (singivera) and the three kinds of the medicinal myrobalan fruits (tiphalani), namely Amalaka (Emblica officinalis), Hari-taka (Terminalia chebula) and Akkha (T. belerica), were used as spices. Indeed such a hold had rice on the people, that rice and food were considered synonymous in ancient times. The Mahavansa for example describes the Eating House built by King Devanampiyatissa (3rd century BC) as bhatta-sala (lit. rice-hall). Meat was not unknown and venison appears to have found an important place in the king's diet.
According to the Maha-vansa, King Pandukabhaya (4th century BC) established a line of huts for Vyadhas (hunters) in a suburb north-west of the capital Anuradhapura. It is possible that the king made use of the Veddhas, the countrys aboriginal inhabitants (whose name is incidently derived from the Pali word Vyadha) to hunt game for the royal kitchen. However, kings too went hunting.
History records that King Devanampiyatissa (3rd century BC) was out on a hunt and about to shoot a deer near the famed Mihintale hill when he met Arahat Mahinda, the envoy of the Indian Emperor Asoka who had been sent to propagate Buddhism in the country. Following Devanampiyatissa's conversion to Buddhism, along with his countrymen, hunting went out of vogue due to the Buddhistic emphasis on ahimsa (non-violence). Beside, the reigning king was considered the nascent Buddha Metteyya (successor to the historic Gautama Buddha) and hunting on his part would have been considered anathema by his subjects. We do not hear of the royal hunts again till the reign of King Parakramabahu 1 (12th century). However, this does not mean that royalty altogether abstained from eating meat. It is possible that the kings employed Veddha folk to do the hunting for them, as during Kandyan times. Robert Knox, an English exile who spent nearly 20 years (1660 - 1679) in the Kandyan kingdom, has noted in his book An Historical Relation of Ceylon' (1681) that the tamer sort of Veddhas who acknowledged the king's sovereignty, supplied his officers with honey and venison. Meat and fish were evidently considered a luxury. King Dhatusena (6th century) is said to have favoured chicken and bean soup. The Sinhala epic Kavsilumina which reflects the royal life-style as it existed during the time of King Parakramabahu II (13th century), its author, mentions ginger preserves being relished by the women of the harem. It sometimes happened that royalty's fondness for certain foods cost them their lives, as was the case with King Sanghatissa (3rd-4th century AC) who is said to have been extremely fond of the jambu fruit. Says the Mahavansa: ÒFrom time to time, the king, along with the women of the royal household and the ministers, retired to Pachina-dipa (according to the commentary of the Mahavansa, Vansatthappakasini, one of the islands between the northern point of Sri Lanka and peninsular India) to eat jambu fruits. Vexed by his coming, the inhabitants of Pachina-dipa poisoned the fruit of the jambu tree from which the king was to eat. When he had eaten the fruits, the king died then and there.
Later kings were not averse to harassing the common people to fulfill their gastronomic desires; one of the worst culprits being King Rajasinghe II (17th century). According to Robert Knox, the king preferred to have his meat dressed by women and secured beautiful young women from all over the country for the royal kitchen.
Knox says that poultry of the common folk were often seized by the king's officers, they being paid nothing or a pittance for it, while the rearing of goats was a royal prerogative. According to Knox, the king's chief fare was herbs and ripe pleasant fruits, especially mango which Òsort of fruit the king much delights, and hath them brought to him from all parts of the island.Ó Says Knox of the king's eating habits: ÒWhatsoever is brought for him to eat or drink is covered with a white cloth, and whoever brings it, hath a muffler tied about his mouth, lest he should breathe upon the king's food.Ó ÒThe king's manner of eating is this. He sits upon a stool before a small table covered with a white cloth, all alone. He eats on a green plantain leaf laid in a gold basin. There are twenty or thirty dishes prepared for him, which are brought into his dining-room. And which of these dishes the king pleases to call for, a nobleman appointed for that service, takes a portion of and reaches in a ladle to the king's basin. This person also waits with a muffler about his mouth.
As for the fare of the common folk, it seems to have been quite simple. The Saddharma Ratnavaliya, written during the Dambadeniya period (13th century) states that the people were in the habit of taking rice for the morning meal. It refers to green herbs, ash pumpkin, turtle eggs, fowl eggs, kiri-kenda gruel mixed with coconut milk, rice roasted and beaten (habala peti) and sweetmeats made of flour and fried in ghee (pulub), which we may presume to have constituted the fare of the common people.
The Pujavaliya, written about the same time, mentions barley, yam, lotus roots, melon gourd and me-eta (a variety of bean). It was only occasionally that the poorest folk had flesh. It is apparent from epigraphic evidence that animal food was permitted in devotedly Buddhist institutions, under certain conditions. According to the Medirigiriya pillar inscription (10th century) dead goats and fowls' should be given to the hospital attached to the vihara (monastery), which is to say those creatures that had died a natural death, killed by accident etc.
It occasionally happened that the wilder sort of Veddhas carried on a silent trade' with Sinhalese smiths, bartering flesh for arrowheads, as has been alluded to by Knox. Knox also mentions that the Kandyans of his time reckoned talagoya (monitor lizard), an excellent meat, the best sort of flesh'. He says of the common people: ÒIf they have but rice and salt in their house, they reckon they want for nothing. For with a few green leaves and the juice of a lemon with pepper and salt, they will make a hearty meal.Ó He mentions that they had such vegetables like karavila (bitter gourd) vetakolu (snake gourd) and murunga (drumsticks). He adds: ÒThey eat their rice out of china dishes or brass basins, and they that have not them, on leaves. The curries, or other sorts of food which they eat with their rice, is kept in the pans it is dressed in, and their wives serve them with it, when they call for it, for it is their duty to wait and serve their husbands while they eat, and when they have done, then to take and eat that which they have left upon their trenchers. During their eating they neither use nor delight to talk to one another.Ó He says of the more well-to-do categories: ÒThe great ones have always five or six sorts of food at one meal, and of them not above one or two at most of flesh or fish, and of them more pottage than meat, after the Portugal fashion.
As for sweetmeats, a variety of them were popular from very early times. Solid food cakes (puva) were extremely popular, especially among children. A peculiar kind of such cake fried in clarified butter was the net cake' (jala-puva) which according to the Mahavansa was known during the time of King Dutugemunu (2nd century BC) and which is probably the same as the present day del-kevum (The Sinh. del net' derives from the aforementioned Pali word jala), a cake made of rice-flour and kitul honey and fried in oil. This cake is very much used during festive occasions such as the National New Year.
The Saddharma-Ratnavaliya (13th century) refers to rice cakes with honey (peni-kevum) and those made of rice-bran (kudu-kevum). It also mentions atirasa (a sweetmeat made of flour in the shape of a disk), sundengiya (sesamum mixed with sugar and honey and rolled into balls, today known as tala-guli) and aggala (flour fried in oil and mixed with honey, which is then made into a ball and fried once again). During Knox's time, the last mentioned sweetmeat was embellished with pepper, cardamom and a little cinnamon.
However, none of these sweetmeats have been as popular as the delectable kevum, which as we have seen earlier has a very long history. Knox states that when the Dutch first came to Colombo, Òthe King ordered these caown' (kevum) to be made and sent to them as a royal treat. And they say, the Dutch did so admire them, that they asked if they grew not upon trees, supposing it past the art of men to make such dainties.Ó Another sweetmeat, aluva, made of milk, sugar and spices harkens back to the Moghul halwa which has its origins in Arabia. The Portuguese introduced a new type of confection made of fruit called dosi' (Port. doce).
As for alcoholic beverages, we know that drinking liquor was not very popular with the ancient Sinhalese once they became Buddhists during the 3rd century BC. Buddhism, it should be noted preached temperance, although alcoholic drinks (sura) such as toddy and the fermented sap of the sprouts of certain palm trees were known.
The higher classes generally abstained from drinking. King Sena V (10th century) tempted by his lower class favourites is said to have indulged in drinking sura after which he is said to have been like a wild beast gone mad. The clergy were of course prohibited liquor, their thirst being satiated with sugar-water (sakkhara-pana) provided by generous laymen. Knox says that the Kandyans greatly abhorred drunkenness, Òneither are there many that give themselves to it.
He also noted that the Kandyans had a saying: ÒWine is as natural to white men, as milk to children.Ó However, this was not the case in the low-country after the 16th century. With the advent of the Portuguese, their robust red wine (vinho) which the Sinhalese initially mistook for blood (as stated in a later Sinhalese chronicle, the Rajavaliya) caught on fast, and with it other alcoholic beverages such as Arrack' produced from the distilled toddy of the kitul, coconut or palmyra palm.
The Dutch who succeeded the Portuguese in the low-country, also encouraged the consumption of liquor, from which they derived a considerable revenue, the renting of taverns being a state monopoly. With the advent of British rule in the Kandyan highlands during the early 19th century, arrack taverns were opened up in every district and were much patronized by the peasantry and others. The influence of the European powers on the people's culinary habits cannot be underestimated.
Bread (Sinh. pan) was a relatively recent introduction by the Portuguese who called it paon. Before its introduction, the mainstay of the inhabitants was rice, which was consumed at all three meals. The Dutch introduced Breudher (a kind of cake) and Kokis (a hard and crunchy sort of fried biscuit made of flour).
British rule on the island also witnessed a vast change in the people's dietary habits. Beef-eating became widespread. During Knox's time, Europeans were derogatorily referred to as Beef-eating slaves' (geri-mas gulamo). Today beef is much relished and folk commonly refer to beef-steak as bis-tek'.