Untold secrets of our food – Part I

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

“When he (Vijaya) said, ‘These men are hungry,’ she (Kuweni) showed them rice and other (food) and goods of every kind that had been in the ships of those traders whom she had devoured. (Vijaya’s) men prepared the rice and the condiments, and when they had first set them before the prince they all ate of them.”

—The Mahavamsa, Chapter 7

Rice, the staple food of Sri Lankans for more than 2500 years, has shaped the landscape, culture, economy, and society of Sri Lanka from the proto-historic times to today.

During the historic and medieval times, Sri Lanka was known as the Granary of the East, as a historic testimony of the island’s vast production of rice.

Rice cultivation was the main force that sustained the island for thousands of years during historic times and even later. The lush green ocean-like vast paddy lands were the main income sources that supported ancient Sri Lanka to build sky-hugging massive stupas, gigantic irrigation wonders, exquisite masonry, and brick constructions that still leave us speechless.

For thousands of years, rice which is a nutritious grain eaten with vegetables, fish, or meat, or eaten as sweets and snacks made out of rice flour, has given the strength to our ancestors to fight never-ending battles to keep the nation safe and the strength and mental power to build fascinating world wonders such as Sigirya and world heritage cities such as Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, shaping and developing the minds and bodies of Sri Lankans.

Earliest written records on Sri Lanka’s food history

According to Sri Lanka’s earliest historical records, the Pali chronicles, Prince Vijaya’s men cooked rice that was given to them by the local Yakka princess Kuweni. The Mahavamsa says that she also gave them other food along with rice, but does not specify these other food.

In a later narration, the Mahavamsa in the 10th chapter mentions a snack or sweet named Guda-Pu:

“When the princes, who had gone on deer-hunting in the Tumbara forest saw the maid woman they asked her: `Where art thou going? What is that?’

She answered: `I am going to Doramadalawa village; that is Guda-pu for my daughter.’ (Mahavamsa Chapter 10).”

The Pali chronicles use the term Gulapuwakan and it is translated to Sinhala as Guda-Pu.

The Mahavamsa Teeka, Vansaththappakasini says that Guda-Pu is Pani Kawum (a sweet cake made in Sri Lanka with rice flour and kithul treacle).

Kawum and Pani Kawum are a popular traditional Sri Lankan sweet still made and loved by Sri Lankans. It is a must-food in any traditional Sri Lankan food table and traditional auspicious occasion.

Many traditional Sri Lankan sweets are made of rice flour.

Earliest archaeological records on Sri Lanka’s food history

In the year 1969, the former Archaeology Director General Dr. Siran Deraniyagala excavated the Citadel area of Anuradhapura. People who were engaged in agriculture such as paddy (rice) cultivation lived in Anuradhapura during the time around 900 – 600 BCE. The research found evidence of early-urban settlers who were making pottery, knew the technology of iron production, used iron tools and equipment, used domesticated horses and cows, and was engaged in rice cultivation.

The Mahavamsa says that the people of Sri Lanka engaged in rice/paddy cultivation during the time of King Pandukabhaya (5th / 4th century BCE) and rice was cooked and eaten.

It is not only rice but other grains, vegetables, and fruits that were cultivated in ancient Sri Lanka and they weaved the culinary legacy of Sri Lanka. Spices play a vital role in the Sri Lankan culinary legacy as well as the island’s history, economy, and culture as a whole. Dairy products, fish, and meat also adorned the unique and rich Sri Lankan culinary legacy.

Understanding Sri Lanka through its culinary legacy

Food shapes a culture and culture shapes food. Cultural and religious beliefs impact a country’s food culture. Also, climate, geography, and trade are interconnected with a country’s food culture. Sri Lanka’s geography, climate, soil, and natural resources have shaped its food culture.

Starting from Sri Lanka’s oldest Pali chronicles such as the Deepavamsa, Mahavamsa, Vansaththappakasini and so on, and later Sinhalese and Sanskrit literature sources, folklore, and archaeological data vibrantly weaves the rich and fascinating tapestry of Sri Lanka’s culinary legacy.

Food reveals a lot about a culture and its people. Food also reveals untold secrets about a nation. Just as we read chronicles to understand our history and culture, food also could be read, understood, and interpreted to understand the legacy of our nation.

From today, Ceylon Today embarks on a breathtaking new journey to understand Sri Lanka’s culinary legacy through ancient chronicles, archaeological data, and folklore.

On this remarkable journey, we shall meet Sri Lanka’s notable chefs, and scholars who have researched the Sri Lankan culinary legacy, and meet locals from various parts of the island to learn about known Sri Lankan food.

On this adventure, as we voyage and dwell between the past and present, we shall reveal many lost recipes we have researched through ancient chronicles, archaeology, and folklore.  This journey will also reveal our lost and/or lesser-known food traditions and beliefs. We will also understand how these foods were prepared and how they were served and eaten.

To be continued…

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