Sri Lanka Diaries: Rice and Curry

Tourism brings in a lot of money. It also enables the meeting of diverse cultures. But it has been my experience that it also reduces the complexity of different cultures into simplistic terms. Cuisine is one such area which is reduced to trivialities by the use of terms or labels to make them accessible to different travelers. In India, for example, we have South Indian snacks in Udupi restaurants. The point is a dosa, while definitely originating south of the Vindhyas, has a complex story itself and varies from village to village, town to town. Similarly, the so called “Punjabi dishes” are, to be frank, a simplistic label to any Indian dish which is not South Indian. So, for instance, we have something called Mutton Masala. Any foodie worth his or her salt will know that the make-up of the “Masala” changes every 100km you go in India. Here’s one recipe for Mutton Masala from Kerala. Compare it with this from Malvan. The subtleties of variations in spices, the cooking styles, the way they are served, etc are lost in such labels.

The same travesty, in my humble opinion, has been done to Sri Lankan cuisine with the generalised term of “Rice and Curry” used to describe everything that is crafted in the kitchens of the island. Even a popular cookbook is called that. In the 15 days I spent in Sri Lanka, I had many a lunch and dinner. And every dish that I had right down to the sambol had its own individuality in terms of ingredients, taste and quality. About half the meals I had were at home-stays / family run cafes. Meals were not ordered from a menu card. One simply requested the lady of the house for dinner and she decided what to feed you. So one day it would be thick black lentils, lightly fried baby aubergines, light potato gravy with fried onions and a sticky raw mango red chillies dish that was sweet, tangy and hot. The next day it is sweet pumpkin, stewed red lentils, potatoes cooked with tomatoes and a kachumbar spiked with powdered dried fish.

From Sri Lanka Holiday

The above picture is from a lunch (a late lunch at 4pm after a day spent doing nothing) at Trincomalee. The rice was lightly cooked in ghee with peas and carrot shavings. The sweet pumpkin was boiled into a pulpy mass and then lightly sauteed with bay leaf, cumin, red chillies and cardamom. The potatoes were pan fried with tomatoes – the water of the tomatoes aiding the cooking of the potato. The red lentils were thick and cooked with black mustard seeds using coconut oil. The only ingredient common to all the four dishes was the use of curry leaves and powder (but used for taste like salt and not as the active spice).  So every dish, one could taste the vegetable without the curry flavour getting in the way.

From Sri Lanka Holiday

This is lunch at a restaurant opposite the new bus stand at Anuradhapura. Fried chicken and fried rice with a sambol of dried fish, grated coconut and red chillies and topped with a pineapple. The fried rice, small broken rice grains, was cooked with peanuts, ginger, rampe and fried onions. It was dry and there was gravy (rasa for Indians) to mix with the rice.

From Sri Lanka Holiday

This is lunch at a restaurant in Sigiriya. I went to a slightly upmarket place which was serving a buffet. There’s chicken, fish, potatoes and large green peppers. The chicken was cooked with black pepper, tamarind, onion paste, rampe besides a standard sprig of curry leaves, garlic and cinnamon. The fish, kingfish, was steamed in a white sauce (I thought it was an European concoction) and was quite bland. There was masoor (red lentils) dhal (in Sri Lanka, they spell it with the “h”) cooked with coconut milk, turmeric and unroasted curry powder and tempered with a mix of onions, curry leaves, garlic, mustard seeds, cumin seeds and rampe. The staple was good old white steamed rice.

Now how can one dismiss all of this as “Rice and Curry”? Well, it is understandable why restaurants, hotels, etc call it by the generic label of “rice and curry”. Majority of tourists coming to Asia have no idea how to deal with the intricacies of Asian food – the spice, the oil, the unfamiliar ingredients, etc. So to avoid confusing them, it makes like easy for the person to simply order a Rice and Curry dinner (with a choice of the meat or fish).

Of course, I don’t expect the world to change. But hopefully, at least a few people will appreciate the complexity of each dish and discern the difference between what they ate for dinner from what was served for lunch.

Anyway, all this has made me hungry. I am off to find some, well, rice and curry 🙂

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Following Fish – A personal view

This is not about the book by Samanth (which I have yet to read even though it has been lying on my unread book shelf for quite some time). I have some of my own experiences in Indian fish land, which incidentally, is not restricted to the coastal regions. The most recent experience was in Chilka. This was not a tourist visit in any way. Rather, a project in financial inclusion which our client decided to do with the fishermen of the area. This particular village near Balugaon town was one representative community of these people who have been surviving for generations on the natural wealth of the lake’s ecosystem.

Village near Balugaon on the banks of the Chilka. From Traveling in India

The economic, ecological and social information that was collected and presented by the project team along with personal observations in the field suggests a potential humanitarian and ecological crisis in the not so near future.  The immediate impact is the lower revenue realisation of the fishermen. While their cost of operations continues to increase, their catch and the corresponding revenues does not increase proportionately. This has led to vicious cycle of debt – from organised and unorganised sources. Proliferation of micro-finance institutions has also increased the cycle of debt with the average household shelling out 125,000 every year in debt repayment (including interest).

The Chilka prawn (and there are five main types), as any aficionado will tell you, is probably most tasty of all prawn types found in India.  Commercial prawn culture is banned as it involves certain practices which upset the overall ecosystem. However, illegal prawn culture continues. The prawns that you get on your dinner table usually comes from these illegal operations.

The best way to have these prawns is to grill them. Normal Indian cuisine usually tends to overcook them but the taste of the prawn is such that one needs to just hold it back slightly – along with some mild spices, it is a wonderful meal.

The Chilka Lake as viewed from Balugaon Jetty. From Traveling in India

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There is a dividing line among fish eaters – the sea fish (saline) eaters and the river fish (fresh water) eaters. Bongs usually make up the majority of the latter group. Very few people I have met who seem to eat both with equal relish. In Hogenakkal, there is a fish corner where the local lunch stalls serve you fried fish. Garishly red in colour, the oil a funny brownish-yellow, these supposedly delicious fried pieces are of fish from the Cauvery river i.e. fresh water. But I have my doubts. Of course, the colour itself made me shy away from them and so I don’t really know how they taste. But as a fish gourmet friend told me, it is always better to be safe than sorry when it comes to fish.

Fish stalls in Hogenakkal, on the banks of the Cauvery. From Traveling in India

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Finally, in Goa i.e Baga, there is place I saw which kind of exuded so much French pride that one felt unworthy of entering it.

There’s nothing like a good fishy story.