On a camping trip to Gal Oya last year, driving on the network of roads that circle Ekgal Aaru and Senanayake Samudraya, the two large inland reservoirs in the region, we stumbled on a small sign outside a villager’s home. “Smoked fish,” said the sign, a tattered plank on which someone had haphazardly painted the words and nailed on to a tree outside the gate of the house. The discovery was an unexpected one as we had not encountered local smoked fish before. Whilst salt fish is common and very much a part of the Sri Lankan diet as the punchy “rice puller” that it can be turned into, smoked fish, put-together as a local produce and apparently very much part of the villager’s diet today was new to us.
“Today” is the key word here. Smoking food, after all, was an integral part of the traditional Sri Lankan kitchen. It directly linked to the fuel, wood, that formed the basis of the cooking, and to the form, the construction, of the wood stove. The stove, built on a platform and a latticed shelf constructed above it on which was laid out the items to be preserved, was a common sight in homes a few decades ago. On to the latticed shelf went the firewood and the food that needed to be preserved; the unhulled cashew nuts, the meat, the fish, jak seeds; the list varying depending on what was in season and of what there had been an excess.
With changing lifestyles, changing cooking methods and the traditional wood stove now marked forever with its association with poverty and rural living, we have lost a “a table of flavours and dishes” that were once a familiar and an everyday part of the diet several decades ago. While expecting these flavours to be part of our lives as they once were would be akin to living in a fool’s paradise, there are times I do wish we had what is supposed to be the natural result of the free market economy: consumer choice.
Consumer choice however, no doubt, is demand driven. And needless to say, it is a tad difficult to demand for what we do not even know exists. This is the problem with food and with good food in particular. If we, as consumers, are not aware of the choices that are possible, more importantly, the impact the production and consumption of a particular food can have on the environment, the producer and us, who finally take it into our bodies, we can be guaranteed mediocre food and very few options. It only takes a bit of reflection on the pandemonium created by milk products from China, to appreciate why a more “aware consumerism” of food really can be, in the extreme case, a matter of life and death.
The main point however is that good food and a meal that it allows for is not a lesson in sacrifice or frugality but rather one that should create a holistic experience of good ingredients and memorable flavours that invariably lead to a better gastronomic experience. The ‘better gastronomic experience’ is not necessarily one that needs an atmosphere of a fine dining restaurant, but rather one that creates conviviality, brings people together in an appreciation of food produced with quality ingredients without harming the earth or exploiting the people producing it and consuming it. These values lie at the heart of eco-gastronomy.
The smoked fish we discovered in Gal Oya came from the freshwater tanks in the region and was smoked in the garden on wooden racks. The quality of the fish and the flavours could proudly sit next to smoked fish from Norway. For us, the most memorable moment was the opportunity to taste the generous gift the woman-producer gave us of the red curry she had made with the smoked fish. In the style of typical Sri Lankan hospitality, while we paid for the uncooked smoked fish we purchased, she wouldn’t hear of us paying for the curry which she had prepared for her family. Sadly however, it is unlikely that we will have the chance to taste and readily purchase such food in the city. Unless of course, more and more people start searching for “a good food experience…!”
Reproduced with permission from Media Services, the publisher of lifestyle journal LIVING and Sri Lanka’s pioneering business magazine LMD.
Ramya Chamalie Jirasinghe is a writer from Sri Lanka. She may be contacted at: [email protected]