The auspicious rice (Part VI)

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

Milk rice has an ancient history in Sri Lanka. According to the Thupavamsa and the Mahavamsa King Dutugamunu (161 – 137 BC) had offered milk rice to the monks on many occasions for many years. The milk rice he made was referred to as Diyanumusu Kiribath, which means milk rice made with pure milk. 

King Kavanthissa (205 – 161 BC) prepared a grand ceremony for the ‘Feeding of Rice’ (Bath Kavana Magula) for the young princes Gamunu and Thissa. The princes were fed milk rice for the first time at this ceremony. The king offered milk rice to the monks first and then fed the rest to the princes. 

Kiribath or milk rice is a simple recipe and easy to make, just like most of Sri Lankan dishes. Except for some sweetmeats, generally, Sri Lankan main meals are easy to prepare. The recipes and cooking process is simple, compared to many traditional food recipes of the world.

Milk rice 

Milk rice requires rice (white or red), coconut milk, water, and salt. Traditionally, milk rice is made of red rice or the variety known as ‘Rathu Kakulu’ or ‘Rathu Haal’. However, today, milk rice is made of white rice too. After the rice is cleaned and washed the rice is cooked in coconut milk. Some prepare the rice in pure coconut milk, which means coconut milk that is not mixed with water (known as Diyanumusu Kiribath). A pinch of salt is added for taste. Once the rice is cooked, it is placed on a plate and then after dried; it is cut into diamond-shaped blocks. 

Usually, milk rice is eaten with lunumiris (a spicy Sri Lankan onion and chili sambol) while some prefer to eat milk rice with kattasambol or seenisambol (a sweet and spicy onion sambol). Milk rice can also be eaten with jaggery, banana, or any Sri Lankan curry. 

Milk rice with tempered potatoes is eaten by villagers in the Southern province. Milk rice is also eaten with game achcharu (local village pickle. This is different from Malay pickle).

Varieties of milk rice

Some prepare milk rice with green grams or mung beans which is called Mung Kiribath. This is a filling and heavier rice recipe than normal milk rice. Also, it can cool the body due to the added mung beans and coconut milk. Boiled green grams are added to the milk rice while it is being cooked. Mung or green grams were a commonly grown crop in ancient Sri Lanka. These were cultivated in chenas. 

Another favourite milk rice variation in Sri Lanka is milk rice cooked with coconut or kithul treacle mixed with scraped coconut. This is a sweet variation of milk rice and it is called Imbul Kiribath. 

In ancient times, sometimes milk rice was eaten with ghee, jaggery made of sugar cane, and pol pani (a mixture of scraped coconut and kithul treacle). The ghee and jaggery were mixed with the rice while the rice was being cooked or it was served with the rice after it was cooked. Either way, it surely was a rich, sweet, and creamy delicacy. 

However, it can be assumed that ghee was only available for the royals, the wealthy, and the clergy, but not for the commoners. Sugar cane jaggery and treacle and kithul treacle were perhaps common and widely used products by many. 

Kithul jaggery and treacle are still popular in Sri Lanka and bear a rich legacy of their own. 

Sugar cane jaggery and treacle are commonly used in Sri Lanka to date. 

On some occasions, milk rice was also prepared by mixing olu seeds and meneri seeds into the rice while it was being cooked with milk. These were known as Oluata Kiribath and Meneriata Kiribath. Olu seeds are the seeds of the Olu flower plant. Meneri was another common crop cultivated in ancient Sri Lanka.

Olu seed rice is still consumed by some in Sri Lanka and is considered a highly nutritious and medicinal food. Meneri, although not so popular now among Sri Lankans, has been cultivated widely in ancient Sri Lanka. However, both of these Olu seeds and Meneri seeds have lost their popularity among Sri Lankans by now. 

There are thousands of instances in ancient literature and folklore about rice, rice porridge, and milk rice being prepared, consumed, and offered to monks by ancient people living in Sri Lanka. 

Rice flour was used to prepare various sweets such as; kawum (oil cakes), athirasa, mung kawum, aluwa, dodol, and so on. Kawum or oil cakes are an ancient sweetmeat of Sri Lanka that hails from the Anuradhapura Period. The first known reference to kawum is from the time of King Pandukabhaya. 

Oil cakes of kawum

King Dutugamunu had offered two types of kawum which were deep-fried in oil and ghee to monks. Usually, today, kawum is deep fried in coconut oil. However, as historians say, coconut oil was not commonly used in Sri Lanka until the 13th century. Instead, sesame oil (Thala Thel) was commonly used by ancient Sinhalese before the 13th century. Ghee was also commonly used to prepare food and to add taste and richness to food in ancient Sri Lanka. Therefore, we are not quite sure in which oil ancient kawum were fried. There are two varieties of kawum; one fried in oil and the other one known as Maha Kawum that was fired in Ghee. 

Rice and rice flour products have been evolving in Sri Lanka for more than 2500 years along with its culture. Today, Sri Lankan rice recipes are prepared in many ways with the influence of various global food cultures while authentic Sri Lankan rice recipes have earned a notable place in the global food world. 

Meneri or Proso Millet 

Known as Meneri in the Sinhala language, Proso Millet (Panicum miliaceum) is a crop that is mentioned in local folklore as well as ancient literature. 

As archaeological research suggests, the earliest archaeological evidence for domesticated Proso Millet is from northeast China, which dates back to around 8000 BCE.

There is Sri Lankan folklore that mentions Meneri chenas in villages. As we do not know the exact dates of these folklore, it is difficult to conclude about the periods; yet, however, we understand that Meneri was a crop that was cultivated in Sri Lanka during historic and/or medieval times. 

(To be continued)

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