FORAY INTO THE SPICY WORLD OF SRI LANKAN CUISINE by Megan Shook and Thakshila Upasena

2015 May coLAB Theme - Food: The Ethics of Eating

FORAY INTO THE SPICY WORLD OF SRI LANKAN CUISINE by Megan Shook and Thakshila Upasena

Food, in the end, in our own tradition, is something holy. It's not about nutrients and calories. It's about sharing. It's about honesty. It's about identity.

~ Louise Fresco ~


Megan

There is an age-old understanding that the kitchen is the heart of a home. It is where meals are prepared, loved ones gather, and memories are made. Traditionally, family meals have been prepared and served with pride. In recent years, however, it seems that in the western world, meals have largely fallen to the bottom on the scale of important aspects of family life and culture. Through the major influx of processed, pre-packaged, and take out food sources, the necessity for careful meal preparation has lessened. With busy family schedules and a challenging economy, convenience and budget take priorty. I feel that through these changes, the influence of food in American culture has significantly declined.

My colleague, Thakshila, is from Sri Lanka and when we met, it quickly became apparent that the preparation and serving of meals is very important to her. I was intrigued by the significance of food to the Sri Lankan culture and was presented an opportunity to share a meal with Thakshila in an authentic Sri Lankan restaurant. Throughout our conversation, she passionately explained the details of not only the food itself, but its importance in Sri Lankan culture and how it has maintained that influence despite changing ways of life.

Thakshila

As a child I learned that food is an essential for human survival. As an adult I have come to understand that food is also a part of our individuality. The most wonderful occasions and celebrations of life are centred around food. I often wonder if a wedding would be as fabulous without the many tiered cake or if Thanksgiving would be complete without that fresh oven roasted tender turkey? Every culture and every religion in the world celebrates with food as the focal bonding method among communities.

As a recent immigrant to the United States, I experienced that food is not only vital in maintaining my identity in this melting pot, but it serves as the primary aid in building and maintaining relationships among the many different people I have met over the years. To further explore the significance of food, my colleague Megan and I decided to experience a meal from a different culture. Being a Sri Lankan, food has played an important part of my life where every event and day-to-day activity commenced only after breakfast, lunch and dinner has been sorted out! Therefore, what better way to experience culture than to take Megan to the only Sri Lankan restaurant in New Jersey and introduce her to the wonders of my culinary heritage?

The Food!

Sri Lankan food is full of flavour mixed with a myriad of different spices and fragrances that thrill the senses. The many different appetizers, entrees and desserts which make up Sri Lankan food are mostly vegetarian and the main ingredients are spices, coconut milk and rice. This is not meant for the faint-hearted! Here are some of the dishes that we tried at the restaurant!

·      Rice & Curry is the staple Sri Lankan meal. It is complemented with an assortment of side dishes varying from vegetables, meats, fish, and greens.

·      Kottu Roti is the most famous street food in the country and made with a special Sri Lankan roti called “Godhamba” mixed with vegetables, eggs, meat and spices.

·      Pol roti is a soft flatbread made with shredded coconut and wheat flour served with chili coconut salad and lentil curry.

·      Lamprais is a very popular Sri Lanka Dutch delicacy consisting of meat, vegetables, boiled eggs, and yellow rice wrapped and baked in a banana leaf.

Etiquette

Every country and region has different customs and ways of dining. It is of utmost importance that people are respectful of such customs. Most Western and East Asian countries use utensils such as forks, spoons, knives and chopsticks to consume their food. However, many countries in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia consume food using their hands and fingers. Sri Lankans, too, use their fingers to eat food. While living in the United States, I have garnered different reactions for my eating Sri Lankan and Indian food with my fingers. While a few have expressed their disdain at this custom, many of my friends have been very respectful and joined me in eating my traditional food the traditional way. As Megan soon found out, eating with the hands is an acquired skill that is not so easy!

To sum up, through this wonderful adventure into the spicy world of Sri Lankan food, we learned that food is a gateway to learning someone’s way of life and personality and it also provides a conduit to living in peace with one another.

Megan’s Thoughts

I have never tried Sri Lankan food before, and like many people from our area, I am several generations removed from Irish ancestors who immigrated to America. I deeply value food and its role in life and culture, but have never personally considered it to be more than a life-sustainer. Thakshila has fully immersed me in a culture that, as she said, holds food at its center.

From the minute I walked into the restaurant, I felt absorbed in a rich, beautiful culture that I wanted to know more about. Thak carefully explained the significance of food in her family’s life and how she has carried that passion and value for food and its role with her as she has become accustomed to life in the United States.

I so appreciate Thak’s openness and knowledge. Our dining experience certainly changed my perspective on food and the role that it plays in my life. From the actual meal to the extreme difference in etiquette, my eyes were opened to a culture that I had no prior knowledge of and in just over an hour came to appreciate and love – all through sharing a meal.