The timing couldn’t have been more poignant. Here I was, spending the last few days engrossed in this wonderful cookbook-cum-memoir called Rambutan by Cynthia Shanmugalingam, hungrily taking in every superbly captured photograph that took me back to one of my most favourite places on Planet Earth i.e. Sri Lanka.And most importantly—in keeping with my self-imposed rule of reviewing any cookbook—successfully trying out a few of the recipes it held forth, every now and then.
And yet this was also a time when news of the prevailing, ever-tumultuous socio-economic and political landscape of the island nation was all but assaulting my collective senses from almost every direction. I was riveted to the goings on in the island nation and in awe of the indomitable spirit of the resilient Sri Lankan population who’ve already gone through so much. Be it civil war, dastardly terrorist attacks or economic strife.
Even today, as I sit at my desk and finally get down to penning this review, words and images alluding to the ‘common man’ of Sri Lanka boldly storming through the presidential residence in Colombo dominate my news feed. All this, in a symbolic reclaiming of what they believe is rightfully theirs in a democratic society that they hope Sri Lanka still stands for...
But, for me, there was always that very important, all-pervasive, singular sentiment that I gleaned from both the book and the people up in arms. And that is passion. Unbridled and heartfelt!
As the child of Sri Lankan parents, born and raised in Coventry in the UK, the author who calls herself a “British-Sri Lankan immigrant kid turned cook” channels this passion into her writing. Not once shying away from her country of origin’s “often painful history of war, colonial oppression, slavery, poverty and proselytising”, as she succinctly puts it.
She very rightly also describes Sri Lankan food as one of the world’s most unsung cuisines. One that often gets overshadowed and attenuated by its northern neighbour India’s much-hallowed multiverse of food. In reality, Sri Lankan cuisine is so much more than being the mere sum of its myriad influences. Be it the geographic Indian one, the trade necessitated Arab, Malay, Javanese and Chinese ones, or of the colonial British, Portuguese and Dutch ones.
To that end, we come by recipes for everything from a superb (and highly complex!) Dutch Burgher lamprais (pg.148) to the Chinese spring roll like mutton roll (pg.266). The island’s strong and ancient Muslim ties come to the fore with recipes for snacks like pasthols (pg.272), the prawn-topped issovadai (pg.264), and mains like the buriani (pg.214) made with the uniquely Sri Lankan fine samba rice. And perhaps the most famous of all Sri Lankan street foods aka. the stir fry-like kothu roti (pg.228) that gets its much-deserved moment of glory.
Sign ‘o times!
What I found most interesting about the book is that as much as it is deeply rooted in Sri Lanka’s ancient culinary legacy with its wide array of traditional dishes like the Jaffna crab curry (pg.108) and the simple, yet divine parippu dal (pg.36), it also has its pulse firmly on the current food scenario. Especially the burgeoning vegan food scene.
That’s perhaps why over half of the recipes in the book are vegan. And with almost 80 recipes found in the book, the very obvious math says it all. This means that there’s plenty of coconut milk-based vegan curries like the scrumptious (I tried it to great success!) breadfruit curry (pg.48), the tangy green mango curry (pg.50) and the dry beetroot varai (pg.54).
The hallowed coconut finds itself in its grated form in a phalanx of sambols. Not quite a salad, not quite a chutney, sambols are those quintessential uniquely Lankan condiments that can elevate even the simplest of dishes or meal to seventh culinary heaven. I particularly loved the recipe and story behind the king of all Sri Lankan sambols, the pol sambol (pg.156) and even to learn about hitherto unknown ones like the black sesame (pg.184) and the dill (pg.270) sambols.
Here is also where the author’s predilection for fusion comes to the fore with her (borrowed) recipe for the seemingly bonkers daikon, mint, carrot and kohlrabi coleslaw meets sambol she dubs ‘slambol’ (pg.164). Speaking of fusion,she makes sure to include her mother’s couscous puttu (pg.82) that was invented when the de rigueur, original rice iteration wasn’t enough to fill “a lot of hungry mouths” as she writes with honesty about her middle class upbringing in the UK.
But then, that’s just like the genesis of today’s Sri Lankan food. One that’s a glorious pastiche of myriad influences and born out of necessity. A cuisine that’s adaptable, malleable and not shy to borrow. All the while keeping its roots firmly in the place where it truly belongs.
(A wearer of many hats in the food and travel space, Mumbai-based Raul Dias is a food-travel writer, a restaurant reviewer, and food consultant)
About the Book
Rambutan: Recipes from Sri Lanka
336 pages; Rs 880 (kindle edition)