03 Jul 2009
The first encounter between Dutch and Sri Lankan cuisines did not go well. It was 1602, and the first fleet to set sail under the Dutch East India Company had arrived in what was then Ceylon after the usual several months voyage from Europe. Vice Admiral Sebald de Weert and his crew had endured the hazards of the sea on a diet of salted beef and whatever they could pick up from the stopovers at Table Bay in the Cape of Good Hope and one or other of the islands in the Western Indian Ocean. They had been welcomed by Dom Joao, the recently Christianised Sinhala king. Dom Joao had fallen out with the Portuguese who were at the time ensconced in their fort on the coast of Ceylon, and was anxious to join with the Dutch in ousting them. In return for de Weert’s assistance, Dom Joao promised de Weert the Portuguese fort and exclusive trading rights to the highly prized spices readily available in Ceylon.
All was going well till the Dutch crew began to crave the fresh meat of the cattle and buffalo roaming the villages near their encampment. De Weert’s offer to buy some was declined by Dom Joao who pleaded that his people’s religion, Buddhism, prohibited the killing of cattle and eating meat and that this extended to selling the cattle to the Dutch for their consumption.
De Weert’s response was a tad insensitive. He allowed his men to go on a rampage, slaughtering, roasting and devouring whatever cattle they could lay their hands on. Dom Joao was in turns aghast, then furious at this sacrilege. De Weert, who seems to have suddenly discovered diplomacy, offered an apology and compensation. Dom Joao refused. The relationship turned putrid, as did the remaining salt beef. The relationship may have recovered in time had de Weert not been lax in allowing the Portuguese to escape the planned attack.
Dom Joao decided to take culinary revenge. He invited de Weert and his staff to a banquet. Both parties having become sufficiently drunk, perhaps on arrack, that most potent of South Asian liquors, Dom Joao began to verbally attack de Weert. De Weert responded with not a little haughtiness. Dom Joao gave a signal, swords appeared and de Weert and his staff were slaughtered like so many cattle .
Three hundred years later there was a rapprochement between the cuisines, and indeed the cultures. The table at which this occurred was that of the Sri Lankan Burghers, descendants of the early Dutch and Portuguese colonial misadventurers and the Singhalese and Tamils of Ceylon. My maternal grandmother, Ada de la Harpe (née Ferdinands) recorded this fusion cuisine in her personal domestic cookbook.
Ada’s cookbook is unusual in that it is not a haphazard collection of recipes inscribed as she created them or was given them by friends whose food she admired. Ada’s book is written as if for publication. The recipes are organised within categories: salads and dressing; main meals of beef, pork or chicken; puddings; chutneys, cakes, drinks. The recipes follow each other with no breaks left for later additions in the categories. It appears that at some stage Ada gathered together all her recipes, ordered them, and wrote them as an integrated cookbook. I’ve asked my mother about this, but she doesn’t remember Ada doing it. Still, the evidence for this process is at hand as I write this article.
Barbara Santich has written that, ‘Fusion cooking involves not so much the combining and blending of ingredients as the blending of cultures to create entirely new dishes’. She uses the example of pasta with tomato sauce, arguing this fusion could not have existed until tomato sauce itself was fully ‘evolved’ and until both pasta and tomato sauce had been ‘thoroughly Italianised’. This, she argues, happened when the Italian flavourings of garlic and parsley replaced the Mexican ingredients of onion and chilli, and when the new ingredients began to be cooked together as in Italian established practice and not simply chopped, mixed and served fresh as was the Mexican practice. For Santich, then, fusion food involves not only the bringing together of previously unrelated ingredients, but also their combination through techniques also unrelated to the way in which some at least of the ingredients have been traditionally used.
Sri Lankan Burgher cuisine, as represented in Ada’s recipes, demonstrates the criteria proposed by Santich. The obvious area of fusion is in the ingredients. It can be seen in something as simple as her recipe for tomato sauce, in which tomatoes are boiled down till soft and then mixed with a little vinegar and ground red chillies. Her recipe for tripe curry calls for honeycomb tripe to be cooked together with dry chillies, fennel, saffron, red onions (shallots), garlic, green ginger, rampa (pandanus leaf), serai (lemon-grass), karapincha (curry leaves), fenugreek, cinnamon, cardamoms, cloves, with coconut milk as the main liquid component, and the addition of lime juice for piquancy.
This range of spices, root flavourings, the use of coconut milk and limejuice are the basis for a myriad variations in the preparation of meat and offal in Burgher cuisine. What’s interesting here is the bringing together of these two elements – meat and traditional curry flavourings – that for most of their co-existence in Sri Lanka would not have been brought together, given the Hindu and Buddhist prescriptions against the eating of meat.
The technique for preparation of the dish looks similar to the preparation of a tripe dish in a European context; the ingredients are basically placed in a pot and stewed together. However, just before serving, a Sri Lankan innovation is introduced. Some of the onions, rampa, serai and karapincha have been reserved previously. These are now fried in ghee and added to the curry in a process called ‘tempering’ which results in a transformation of the cooked dish as the fresh flavours of the tempering ingredients are incorporated as the curry is eaten. Tempering like this is a common practice in traditional non-Europeanised Sri Lankan cooking.
The other distinctive feature of the ingredients here and in all curry cooking in the Burgher household is the use of coconut milk as the cooking medium, a thickener, and flavouring. I’d argue that this ingredient along transforms the basic European stew into something that triumphantly answers Santich’s question ‘Does fusion cuisine represent culinary progress?’.
Another example from beef cooking is smoor. This is a traditional Dutch way of stewing a piece of meat and then making gravy from the scrapings of the pot with the addition of salt, pepper and perhaps nutmeg. In the Sri Lankan Burgher kitchen, the dish becomes complicated. The stewing process is carried out in the usual range of curry spices and flavourings, with the stewing medium again being coconut milk. The innovation here is the use of a particular kind of lime pickle as the distinctive flavouring. The pickle is either rubbed into the meat beforehand (the meat having been pricked over to allow flavours to seep in) or added to the gravy just before serving.
Sri Lankan lime pickle is a very straightforward affair. Limes are quartered and stuffed with sea salt. They are left in the sun to dehydrate for several days, a process that also encrusts the lime with salt. They are then packed into jars or bottles together with the brine solution that has exuded as they dry and a sufficient quantity of vinegar to cover the limes. This mixture is then left to age till the limes go a deep brown, their skin becomes soft, and the vinegar and lime juice have created a sharp, translucent jelly. I have an earthenware jar of this pickle that has been in my family for over 30 years. I add new limes to it each season, turning them under to mix with the aged pickle at the bottom of the jar. Like Santich’s tomato sauce with pasta, Sri Lankan smoor, again an example of delightful culinary progress, was not possible but for the meeting of the thoroughly Sri Lankanised lime pickle met on several occasions with the colonising Dutch smoor and created a new dish that became over the years uniquely Burgher.
But the greatest example of fusion in the Sri Lankan Burgher household is that of the celebratory dish lamprais. This is simply described saffron and cardamom flavoured boiled rice accompanied by four to five small servings of curries (both meat and vegetable), malungs (shredded leafy vegetables cooked with turmeric and fresh coconut) and sambols steamed in a packet made from banana leaf. The origins of the dish are thought to be from field workers or travellers making a simply packet such as this to take with them to eat when they are in circumstances where they cannot make or buy a meal. To what would originally probably have simply been rice and some vegetables with a little sambol, the Burghers added a curry made of four kinds of meat mixed together – pork, beef, chicken and mutton, and also added frikadells, meatballs flavoured with fennel leaves, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and garlic.
What happened as a result is that a simple and practical peasant dish became the pre-eminent festive meal of the Burghers, and arguably one of the pre-eminent examples of culinary progress through the inevitability of fusion where cultures meet and are open to inquiry and exchange.
Paul Van Reyck, a Sri Lankan Burgher, lives in Australia, where he works as a consultant, sometime actor and sometime writer.
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