Meet The Cooks Reinventing Sri Lankan Cuisine

As you wound through the bustling Sri Lankan colourful markets, you will see a hundred of different varieties of vegetables, fruits, spices and many other things, but how many of us known how to use all of them and make delicious and healthy cuisines? E.g. Beetroot, Cabbage, Carrot, Potatoes, pumpkin, beans, leeks type of vegetable has become a part of Sri Lankan kitchen, but most of these are not native to Sri Lanka and they have English, Dutch or Portuguese inheritance. Vegetable such as Bitter guard, Hulan Keeriya yam, Rathu Sudu Buthsarana are typical Sri Lankan varieties but Sri Lankan cuisine based them are very hard to see in Sri Lankan restaurants.  

A large number of farmers are cultivating imported vegetable varieties because there is a big demand for them, however, they need special care and it is essential to use pesticide, fertilizer to grow them. These imported vegetables are widely served in every Sri Lankan meals, most cooks are very familiar with menus that make use of imported vegetables. The vegetables that invaded the country during the colonial era (1505-1848) had swept across the island over the last 500 hundred years and it has become a new staple in Sri Lankan kitchen.

But what has happened to the typical Sri Lankan cuisine varieties, vegetable, grains? Is a question I asked Dadison, a graduate of Sri Lanka hotel school, now working as a chef in a leading tourist hotel. Dadison said, ‘Well, we have learned a lot about the different menus and ingredients in the high school, but we used mostly the imported vegetable varieties such as carrot, cabbage during our practice, most menus are based on imported vegetable varieties. We followed the cookery books that published in foreign countries and they are depending on those vegetables that not native to Sri Lanka”.

Most indigenous food varieties are been slowly forgotten by the local people and demand for native food varieties is shrinking day by day. But, should we simply forget the native food varieties? Local ingredients are also as healthy as imported varieties and on the other hand, you need less fertilizer and pesticide to grow them, E.g Hulan Keeriya (an indigenous yam) you do not need any kind fertilizer and it does not have any natural enemy.

The native vegetable varieties are well adapted to our soil and weather, it is easy to grow them compared to imported vegetable varieties. However, with the increasing popularity for imported vegetable, Sri Lanka’s culinary identity is having been disappearing from the local food scene and the food is losing its distinct land-to-table flavour.

Indigenous rice varieties such as Suwandel, Kalu Heenati, maa-wee, Pachchaperumal are rarely produced and sold in Sri Lanka as the demand is very low. But, Agri scientist opines that these varieties of rice are very healthy and need hardly any pesticide and fertilizer against the newly improved rice verities such as semi-dwarf, which introduced in 1980 and now 90% of Sri Lanka’s farmlands occupied by the new varieties.

In the backdrop that most indigenous food varieties are been neglected, a group of housewives ventured on a new journey in order reinventing the Sri Lankan cuisines and making unforgettable food experience for local as well as foreign travellers that merged local ingredients, recipes with traditional cooking. These women have determined to demonstrate local people as well as foreign travellers that locally sourced Sri Lankan cuisines should not be solely defined by traditional dishes or casual presentation.

Started with the brand name of ‘Hela Bojun’, under the blessings of the agricultural department, in Gannoruwa near Kandy, now it has grown to a network of local food outlets. Hela Bojun has spread over many parts of Sri Lanka and now you can find Hela Bojun in many popular cities like Kandy, Sigiriya, Hambantota. Now, it has become one of the most popular food outlet networks on the island due to many reasons. It has never been so easy to eat and drink traditional Sri Lankan healthy foods, thanks to Hela Bojun food outlets.  

I had been to three of these food outlets in the recent past one in Gannoruwa, (next to the Gannoruwa agriculture research centre), Sigiriya food outlet (near the Sigiriya rock fortress), and Hela Bojun in Hambantota (just front of Agro Technology Park – Bata Atha). The Hela Bojun outlet at Gannoruwa has the best and widest collection of local food.    

Hela Bojun outlets have many cooks (5-10 cooks), who have in-depth knowledge in traditional cuisines and some of these traditional cuisines are restricted to one particular region. E.g. Some of the food sold at Hela Bojun restaurants in Kandy is not available in other places. It means if you like to eat typical Sri Lankan food, as well as the region based traditional cuisines, there is no better place like Hela Bojun.

“The food varieties sold here are very delicious and most of these cuisines could not be seen in common restaurants in Sri Lanka”, Said Simon Appuhamy, who is a resident of Colombo and on a one-day trip to Kandy tooth relic temple. “The food you get at Hela Bojun taste good, and they are traditionally verified for superiority, they are very healthy, most importantly they are very affordable. Foods like bread, fish bun, rolls, burgers, fried rice that we often eat in local restaurants are full of starch and contains a lot of oil, therefore they are not healthy. But what you get here are full of fibre and 95% of food has no added sugar or oil.”

The women that work as cooks are chosen from the particular region, and they own the knowledge of making traditional food varieties that trickled down over many generations. The food is traditional and made of local ingredients. Don’t go to Heal Bojun to eat burgers, pasta, pizza or meat items. The customers are able to consume food prepared with traditional ingredients such as ‘kos cutlet’, ‘hoppers’, ‘peni walalu’, ‘helapa’, ‘munguli’.

During the bitter, 3 decades-long conflicts, some of the ingredient required by traditional cooking did not come to form northeast Sri Lanka as the families have been separated from the farmlands. A lot of people of Sri Lanka stopped travelling during the civil war due to the security reasons, especially the civilian of northeast Sri Lanka. However, with the end of civil conflict in 2009 and improved security, now agricultural-based produces are now come from north and east are supplied to the local market without any scarcity. Sri Lankan families are also travelling more often than earlier, therefore the Hela Bojun food outlets receive more customers than earlier.  

A large number of local women have begun on an arduous task to both reclaim and revolutionize Sri Lankan cuisines. By returning to its roots and sourcing local, seasonal produce, these women are trying to champion this under-represented cuisine as its further blends with international cuisines.

Champa, who works as a cook at Gannoruwa Hela Bojun said, “The food culture of Sri Lankan people has gone far from its tradition over the last few centuries, and the deviation was accelerated with the introduction of an open economy in the 17s. The people are distancing themselves from Sri Lankan cuisine and more inclined to frozen food, a lot of fast food and a bastardisation of international food. Sometimes the Sri Lankan cuisines are being called ‘Indian cuisines’, however, there is a big difference between Sri Lankan cuisine and other Asian dishes.” Sri Lankan cuisines have a rich fusion, which resulted in many cultures and empires that settled on the island for many centuries.

Tamil invaders brought plant-based food culture and Portuguese brought bread and wine, other colonial rulers such as British introduced barbecued meats eaten with fresh oven-baked taboon flatbread. And ‘Kiribath’ or milk rice and chilly paste and grated coconut have its roots in the ancient Sri Lankan civilization. Yet, during the past several centuries, Sri Lankan has been able to make many branches from this culture fusion into a distinct cuisine all its own, including dishes like yellow rice, lamprise.