The moment could not have been more poignant. There I was, spending the last few days engrossed in this wonderful memoir-cookbook called Rambutan by Cynthia Shanmugalingam, avidly taking each superbly captured photograph that took me back to one of my favorite places on planet earth, namely Sri Lanka. some of the recipes he suggested, from time to time.
And yet, it was also a time when news of the island nation’s prevailing and still tumultuous socio-economic and political landscape nearly assaulted my collective senses from nearly every direction. I was fascinated by what was happening in the island nation and in awe of the indomitable spirit of the resilient Sri Lankan people who have been through so much already. Whether it’s civil war, despicable terrorist attacks or economic conflicts.
Even today, as I sit at my desk and finally get down to writing this review, words and images alluding to the “ordinary man” of Sri Lanka boldly storming the presidential residence from Colombo dominate my newsfeed. All of this, in a symbolic claim of what they believe to be theirs in a democratic society which they hope Sri Lanka still represents…
But, for me, there has always been this very important, pervasive and singular feeling that I gleaned from both the book and the people in arms. And that’s the passion. Unbridled and sincere!
As the child of Sri Lankan parents, born and raised in Coventry, UK, the self-described ‘British-Sri Lankan immigrant child turned cook’ author channels that passion into her writing. Without once shirking the “often painful history of war, colonial oppression, slavery, poverty and proselytism” of her country of origin, as she succinctly puts it.
She also rightly describes Sri Lankan cuisine as one of the most misunderstood cuisines in the world. One that is often overshadowed and dimmed by the much-loved food multiverse of its northern neighbor, India. In reality, Sri Lankan cuisine is more than just the sum of its countless influences. Whether it was geographic Indian trade, trade required Arab, Malay, Javanese, and Chinese traders, or British, Portuguese, and Dutch settlers.
To that end, we offer recipes for everything from a superb (and very complex!) Dutch Burgher lamprais (pg.148) to a Chinese spring roll like a mutton roll (pg.266). The island’s strong and ancient Muslim ties are highlighted with snack recipes like pastels (pg.272), the prawns garnished issovadai (pg.264), and dishes like buriani (pg.214) made with the only Sri Lankan fine samba rice. And perhaps the most famous of all Sri Lankan street foods. the kothu roti (pg.228) resembling a stir-fry that gets its much-deserved moment of glory.
Sign ‘o times!
What I found most interesting about this book is that as much as it is deeply rooted in the ancient culinary heritage of Sri Lanka with its wide range of traditional dishes like Jaffna crab curry (pg .108) and the simple, yet divine parippu dal (p.36), he also has his pulse firmly on the current food scenario. Especially the burgeoning vegan food scene.
Perhaps that’s why more than half of the recipes in the book are vegan. And with nearly 80 recipes found in the book, the very obvious math says it all. This means there are plenty of vegan curries made with coconut milk like the delicious (I’ve tried it with great success!) breadfruit curry (pg.48), tangy green mango curry (pg.50) and dry beetroot. will go (page 54).
The sacred coconut is found in its grated form in a knuckle of samboles. Not quite a salad, not quite a chutney, samboles are those quintessentially Lankan condiments that can elevate even the simplest dishes or meals to culinary seventh heaven. I especially liked the recipe and the story behind the king of all Sri Lankans sambolesthe pol sambol (pg.156) and even learn about previously unknown sambols like Black Sesame (pg.184) and Dill (pg.270) sambols.
This is also where the author’s predilection for fusion kicks in with her (borrowed) recipe for seemingly bonkers daikon, mint, carrot and kohlrabi salad that meets sambol she dubs “slambol ” (pg.164). Speaking of fusion, she makes sure to include her mother’s couscous puttu (pg.82) which was invented when the strictlythe original iteration of rice was not enough to fill “many hungry mouths” as she honestly writes of her middle-class upbringing in the UK.
But then, it’s like the genesis of today’s Sri Lankan cuisine. One that is a glorious pastiche of a myriad of influences and born out of necessity. An adaptable, malleable kitchen that does not hesitate to borrow. While firmly keeping its roots where it truly belongs.
(Wear many hats in the food and travel space, Mumbai-based Raul Dias is a food travel writer, restaurant reviewer and food consultant)
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About the book
Rambutan: Recipes from Sri Lanka
336 pages; Rs 880 (kindle edition)
July 13, 2022