Chandra Edirisuriya wrote: The food of the Sinhala people, who lived in the Dry Zone of Sri Lanka during the early Anuradhapura period (377 B.C.-A.D.1017), consisted of rice, other subsidiary food grains, beans, pulses, oil extracted from sesamum (gingelly), sugar cane molasses, fruits like the mango, tender coconut, ghee, curd and other milk products, honey collected from the forest as an article of food as well as medicine, fish both from the sea and inland waters and meat supplied by hunters to the people in the villages and towns. [Source: Chandra Edirisuriya, WS, June 4, 2006]

The people who had migrated from the Dry Zone to the Wet Zone had to adapt themselves to the conditions of life in their new homes and form new dietary habits. The ghee and the edible oil extracted from sesamum, to which they had been accustomed were no longer available in sufficient quantity and they had to acquire a taste for the coconut oil. Large areas were planted with this useful palm; the coastal belt between Kalutara and Bentota was planted with coconut in the reign of Parakramabahu II (1236 – 1270). Such a large area being planted with coconut by the direction of the State indicates that it was not done solely to supply the local demand, but also to satisty the requirements of external trade. It was in the Dambadeniya period that the island began to be famous in the world for its cinnamon.

In addition to the rice, whether grown in wet or dry fields, the literature of the period refers to various other grains and cerials grown by the peasants. These are very much the same as those cultivated today in the villages. Neat cattle and buffaloes were important items in the wealth those days and the five milk products (pas go rasa) milk, curd, whey (butter milk or moru), ghee and butter, were regular items in the diet of the well to do. A Chinese writer referring to the people of this country during the 15th century says, “They take no meal without butter and milk; if they have none and wish to eat they do so unobserved and in private.” The Venetian traveller Marco Polo says that the people of Lanka (towards the close of the 13th century) had no other grain except rice. “They made oil out of sesame and lived on milk, flesh and rice and used wines made from certain trees.” Marco Polo seems to refer to people of the North.

Meals and Dishes in Ancient and Medieval Sri Lanka

Asiff Hussein, a Sri Lankam journalist and writer, wrote: Rice was prepared as a sweet dish with various ingredients such as sugar (phanita), honey (madhu) and butter (sappi). Savoury rice dishes with oil (tela) were also known. The Chulavansa records that King Silameghavanna (7th century) entertained the Buddhist clergy with milk-rice made with butter and syrup. An exquisite savoury dish comprised of rice prepared with the milk of the king coconut (sannira) and butter and fine spices (supehi). Black pepper (maricha), long pepper (pipphali), garlic (lasuna), ginger (singivera) and the three kinds of the medicinal myrobalan fruits (tiphalani), namely Amalaka (Emblica officinalis), Hari-taka (Terminalia chebula) and Akkha (T. belerica), were used as spices. Indeed such a hold had rice on the people, that rice and food were considered synonymous in ancient times. [Source: Asiff Hussein, Culled from the Mahavansa and other literary and epigraphic sources]

Chandra Edirisuriya wrote: Provisions for the bhikkhus [Buddhist monks], mentioned in inscriptions, included, besides rice, vegetables, fish, coconuts, young coconuts, jaggery, oil for anointing, for cooking and for lighting, betel leaves, arecanuts, onions, pepper, salt, panic seeds and turmeric. [Source: Chandra Edirisuriya, WS, June 4, 2006]

The late Ven, Prof. Dr. Walpola Rahula in his authoritative thesis ‘History of Buddhism in Ceylon’ says with reference to the Sinhala people of yore “Generally, well –to-do people ate three times a day. Besides rice which was the staple food of the people, meals usually consisted of various curries, curd, honey, sweets, butter, green herbs, paddy dried and pounded (puthuka) and even lotus roots and stalks (bhisamulala).

Various kinds of meat such as peacock-flesh (mayuramamsa), venison and pork (miga-sukara maddava), hare (sasa-mamsa and chicken (kukkuta – mamsa) seem to have been considered favourite and delicious dishes. Monks were often served with these dishes. There was also a preparation called honied – meat (madhumamsa). Certain people, most probably hunters, sometimes ate even monkey flesh (vanara mamsa). But beef eating as we saw earlier was a punishable offence. There is nothing to suggest that there was anything like popular vegetarianism in ancient Ceylon.”

Ancient Foods and Crops in Sri Lanka

Asiff Hussein wrote: There can be little doubt that the ancient Sinhalese who migrated to Sri Lanka from West Bengal (Radha) around the 5th century B.C., brought their North Indian Aryan cuisine to their new homeland. Such fare, as borne out by the ancient hymns of the Rig-Veda (c. 1500 B.C.) would have comprised cereal, meat, milk and fruits. Although by later Vedic times (c. 1200 B.C.) the cow had become sacred, the flesh of other animals continued to be eaten with relish, being cooked in pots or roasted on spits. [Source: Asiff Hussein, Culled from the Mahavansa and other literary and epigraphic sources]

An alcoholic beverage, sura, distilled from grain, was a favourite amongst these Aryans. There is evidence to show that in pre-Christian era Sri Lanka, rice was extensively cultivated in the Raja-rata (The North-Central dry zone) where the first Sinhalese civilization came into being, with the aid of massive irrigation works.

This cereal which constituted the staple of the people during those times (as it is even today) was consumed in a variety of ways. According to the Mahavansa, the ancient chronicle of Sinhalese royalty written in Pali around the 5th century. and its sequel, the Chulavansa, a variety of rice dishes were known in ancient times. Two sorts of cooked rice (Pali. bhatta, Sinhala. bhat) were consumed, namely yagu (rice gruel) and payasa (milk-rice). Another kind of sweet rice, dadhibhatta, prepared with curdled milk was also known.

According to the Sunday Times: Other varieties of subsidiary food-grains, beans and pulses were grown on unirrigated fields; these products comprised an important and essential part of the people’s diet. The main edible oil was that extracted from sesamum,(‘tala’) also grown on high lands. Sugarcane was an important crop, and molasses formed an important item of the diet of the richer folk. The needs of clothing of the population were satisfied with the cotton grown locally. Varieties of fruit trees were grown, the mango receiving special mention. Coconut groves are mentioned in an early inscription as well as in literary works, and its nut was eaten when tender. [Source: Sunday Times, Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

Cattle-breeding was as important an occupation as agriculture. The ghee extracted from the cow’s milk was regularly taken with rice by everyone except the poorest. Curd and other milk products formed important items of food”.

Mention is also made that products like turmeric (‘kaha’), ginger (‘inguru’), pepper (‘gammiris’) and spices (‘kulu badu’) were grown in hilly regions. There were fishing villages in the coast and also fish in inland waters was an important item in the diet of the people. Honey collected in the field was both a food item and a medicinal item.

Ancient Rice Agriculture in Sri Lanka

According to the Sunday Times: Rice occupied a very special place in traditional Sinhalese society. It was a community based on rice. Everyone from the king downwards had an interest in agriculture. Each one was a cultivator. Every villager owned a piece of land as well as a paddy field. Even the richest man in the village would get down to the field and plough. Men and women, young and old, were in close touch with the soil. They never considered it a mean task to work in the field. On the other hand, they felt proud to be cultivators. Those who were involved in agriculture belonged to the ‘goigama’ caste just as much as others in different vocations belonged to a caste of their own. [Source: Sunday Times, Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

Historians say that agricultural methods as practised to this day had been introduced by the Indo-Aryans who came to the Island. They cleared the forests and converted them to fields. They used the services of the local people to clear the forests and then introduced improved methods of agriculture they knew. They saw to it that the people were self-sufficient in food. If a community did not produce the food they needed, they had to either perish or move to another area where they could get food. The staple diet even in those days was rice. The kings too began to show interest in agriculture since the people had to get their food.

In early times, rice cultivation took two forms. In one, forest land was cleared in patches and cultivated. These had to depend on rainfall, which was seasonal. The other was the cultivating of land, which got water from irrigation as well as rain. It was soon realised that water was needed for a proper and successful system of cultivation. There was thus a need to store the water to irrigate the paddy fields when there was no rain. The reservoirs came to be constructed in every important village settlement.

The great historian and archaeologist , Dr S. Paranavitana describing the agricultural practices in the early Anuradhapura period says: “Agriculture in ancient days, as it is today, was not confined to irrigated lands. Crops were raised during the rainy season on unirrigated land. Rice grown on such lands was more sought after than that from irrigated fields.

Reservoirs built in important villages soon came to be enlarged and our irrigation culture began to develop. Small tanks were being built supervised by the ‘uparaja’, the sub-king. ’Tissawewa’ originally known as ’Tissavapi’, was constructed by King Devanampiya Tissa in the third century B.C. By the first century B.C, the village tank was a well established feature in the Dry Zone.

Historical evidence points to the existence of two methods of irrigation. One is where small, permanent, stone dams as well as temporary dams out of timber and clay were built across streams to divert water to canals, which took the water to the fields. The other was the erection of village tanks directly irrigating the fields. The village tanks had been owned by individuals.

Royal Foods in Sri Lanka

The late Professor P. B. Sannasgala wrote a book on the food of the Sinhala kings, sourced on an original work, named Mahanuwara Raja Gedara Supa Sasthra Potha Ha Sinhala Supakala Sahithya (The Cookery Book of the Kandyan Palace). Chandra Edirisuriya wrote: The book deals with the royal repast of the Nayakkar kings of the Kandyan kingdom. Recipes include inter alia different kinds of rice preparations various dishes of curry and many varieties of sweet meats. Special attention is given to preparations of meat dishes which fact proves that meat was a favourite item of the royal victuals. But meat always came in the form of venison and no domestic animal appears to have been killed for food even to please the royal palate. No reference whatsoever is made to sea fish although Maldive fish is mentioned. Fresh water fish is referred to as aquatic meat (diya mas). [Source: Chandra Edirisuriya, WS, June 4, 2006]

A large number of condiments used to season, flavour and aromatise curry dishes and to give an appetising hue to them are listed under the common name vaiti. In place of the chillies (capsicum) most commonly used nowadays to season curries the book prescribed ginger and pepper. Ingredients such as asafoetida (perunkayam) which are not in use as condiments now, also are recommended. All recipes are made in such a way that the combinations provide a well balanced, nutritions and health giving diet to the consumer.

Also given in the book are some extremely unusual preparations; one such is the dish made of margosa leaves mixed with olinda (liquorice) leaves and jaggery and another is the wild boar hides made tender by soaking with olinda roots, wood apple pulp gingelly/ gingilly roots and koora roots. According to this book food items very hard to cook are made tender and soft by cooking them with bo (ficus religiosa) leaves, olinda leaves and sap of lotus. Such methods which were jealously guarded by the families of royal chefs and not even heard of these days are given in this work. Nor is the book wanting in a great number of sweet meats of which some such as peni kevum and lalu are seldom heard of these days. Methods of preserving fruits and making sugar are also found.

Royal Food in Sri Lanka in Ancient Times

Asiff Hussein wrote: The Mahavansa describes the Eating House built by King Devanampiyatissa (3rd century B.C.) as bhatta-sala (lit. rice-hall). Meat was not unknown and venison appears to have found an important place in the king's diet. According to the Mahavansa, King Pandukabhaya (4th century B.C.) established a line of huts for Vyadhas (hunters) in a suburb north-west of the capital Anuradhapura.It is possible that the king made use of the Veddhas, the countrys aboriginal inhabitants (whose name is incidently derived from the Pali word Vyadha) to hunt game for the royal kitchen. However, kings too went hunting. [Source: Asiff Hussein, Culled from the Mahavansa and other literary and epigraphic sources]

History records that King Devanampiyatissa (3rd century B.C.) was out on a hunt and about to shoot a deer near the famed Mihintale hill when he met Arahat Mahinda, the envoy of the Indian Emperor Ashoka who had been sent to propagate Buddhism in the country. Following Devanampiyatissa's conversion to Buddhism, along with his countrymen, hunting went out of vogue due to the Buddhistic emphasis on ahimsa (non-violence). Beside, the reigning king was considered the nascent Buddha Metteyya (successor to the historic Gautama Buddha) and hunting on his part would have been considered anathema by his subjects. We do not hear of the royal hunts again till the reign of King Parakramabahu 1 (12th century).However, this does not mean that royalty altogether abstained from eating meat. It is possible that the kings employed Veddha folk to do the hunting for them, as during Kandyan times.

It sometimes happened that royalty's fondness for certain foods cost them their lives, as was the case with King Sanghatissa (3rd-4th century) who is said to have been extremely fond of the jambu fruit. Says the Mahavansa: “From time to time, the king, along with the women of the royal household and the ministers, retired to Pachina-dipa (according to the commentary of the Mahavansa, Vansatthappakasini, one of the islands between the northern point of Sri Lanka and peninsular India) to eat jambu fruits. Vexed by his coming, the inhabitants of Pachina-dipa poisoned the fruit of the jambu tree from which the king was to eat. When he had eaten the fruits, the king died then and there.

Royal Food in Sri Lanka in Medieval Times

Asiff Hussein wrote: Robert Knox, an English exile who spent nearly 20 years (1660 — 1679) in the Kandyan kingdom, has noted in his book An Historical Relation of Ceylon' (1681) that the tamer sort of Veddhas who acknowledged the king's sovereignty, supplied his officers with honey and venison. Meat and fish were evidently considered a luxury. King Dhatusena (6th century) is said to have favoured chicken and bean soup. The Sinhala epic Kavsilumina which reflects the royal life-style as it existed during the time of King Parakramabahu II (13th century), its author, mentions ginger preserves being relished by the women of the harem. [Source: Asiff Hussein, Culled from the Mahavansa and other literary and epigraphic sources]

Later kings were not averse to harassing the common people to fulfill their gastronomic desires; one of the worst culprits being King Rajasinghe II (17th century). According to Robert Knox, the king preferred to have his meat dressed by women and secured beautiful young women from all over the country for the royal kitchen.

Knox says that poultry of the common folk were often seized by the king's officers, they being paid nothing or a pittance for it, while the rearing of goats was a royal prerogative. According to Knox, the king's chief fare was herbs and ripe pleasant fruits, especially mango which “sort of fruit the king much delights, and hath them brought to him from all parts of the island.” Says Knox of the king's eating habits: “Whatsoever is brought for him to eat or drink is covered with a white cloth, and whoever brings it, hath a muffler tied about his mouth, lest he should breathe upon the king's food.” “The king's manner of eating is this. He sits upon a stool before a small table covered with a white cloth, all alone. He eats on a green plantain leaf laid in a gold basin. There are twenty or thirty dishes prepared for him, which are brought into his dining-room. And which of these dishes the king pleases to call for, a nobleman appointed for that service, takes a portion of and reaches in a ladle to the king's basin. This person also waits with a muffler about his mouth.

Food of the Common People in Sri Lanka in Medieval Times

Asiff Hussein wrote: As for the fare of the common folk, it seems to have been quite simple. The Saddharma Ratnavaliya, written during the Dambadeniya period (13th century) states that the people were in the habit of taking rice for the morning meal. It refers to green herbs, ash pumpkin, turtle eggs, fowl eggs, kiri-kenda gruel mixed with coconut milk, rice roasted and beaten (habala peti) and sweetmeats made of flour and fried in ghee (pulub), which we may presume to have constituted the fare of the common people. [Source: Asiff Hussein, Culled from the Mahavansa and other literary and epigraphic sources]

The Pujavaliya, written about the same time, mentions barley, yam, lotus roots, melon gourd and me-eta (a variety of bean). It was only occasionally that the poorest folk had flesh. It is apparent from epigraphic evidence that animal food was permitted in devotedly Buddhist institutions, under certain conditions. According to the Medirigiriya pillar inscription (10th century) dead goats and fowls' should be given to the hospital attached to the vihara (monastery), which is to say those creatures that had died a natural death, killed by accident etc.

It occasionally happened that the wilder sort of Veddhas carried on a silent trade' with Sinhalese smiths, bartering flesh for arrowheads, as has been alluded to by Knox. Knox also mentions that the Kandyans of his time reckoned talagoya (monitor lizard), an excellent meat, the best sort of flesh'. He says of the common people: “If they have but rice and salt in their house, they reckon they want for nothing. For with a few green leaves and the juice of a lemon with pepper and salt, they will make a hearty meal.” He mentions that they had such vegetables like karavila (bitter gourd) vetakolu (snake gourd) and murunga (drumsticks). He adds: “They eat their rice out of china dishes or brass basins, and they that have not them, on leaves. The curries, or other sorts of food which they eat with their rice, is kept in the pans it is dressed in, and their wives serve them with it, when they call for it, for it is their duty to wait and serve their husbands while they eat, and when they have done, then to take and eat that which they have left upon their trenchers. During their eating they neither use nor delight to talk to one another.” He says of the more well-to-do categories: “The great ones have always five or six sorts of food at one meal, and of them not above one or two at most of flesh or fish, and of them more pottage than meat, after the Portugal fashion.

Sweetmeats and Sweets in Medieval Sri Lanka

Sweatmeats is a term widely used in South Asia to describe confectioneries or sweet food. Asiff Hussein wrote: As for sweetmeats, a variety of them were popular from very early times. Solid food cakes (puva) were extremely popular, especially among children. A peculiar kind of such cake fried in clarified butter was the net cake' (jala-puva) which according to the Mahavansa was known during the time of King Dutugemunu (2nd century B.C.) and which is probably the same as the present day del-kevum (The Sinh. del net' derives from the aforementioned Pali word jala), a cake made of rice-flour and kitul honey and fried in oil. This cake is very much used during festive occasions such as the National New Year. [Source: Asiff Hussein, Culled from the Mahavansa and other literary and epigraphic sources]

The Saddharma-Ratnavaliya (13th century) refers to rice cakes with honey (peni-kevum) and those made of rice-bran (kudu-kevum). It also mentions atirasa (a sweetmeat made of flour in the shape of a disk), sundengiya (sesamum mixed with sugar and honey and rolled into balls, today known as tala-guli) and aggala (flour fried in oil and mixed with honey, which is then made into a ball and fried once again). During Knox's time, the last mentioned sweetmeat was embellished with pepper, cardamom and a little cinnamon.

However, none of these sweetmeats have been as popular as the delectable kevum, which as we have seen earlier has a very long history. Knox states that when the Dutch first came to Colombo, “the King ordered these caown' (kevum) to be made and sent to them as a royal treat. And they say, the Dutch did so admire them, that they asked if they grew not upon trees, supposing it past the art of men to make such dainties.” Another sweetmeat, aluva, made of milk, sugar and spices harkens back to the Moghul halwa which has its origins in Arabia. The Portuguese introduced a new type of confection made of fruit called dosi' (Port. doce).

Cinnamon, Spices and Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s spices have been one its main attractions for thousands of years. Cinnamon, which is native to Sri Lanka, was in use in Ancient Egypt in about 1500 B.C.. The Romans, Arabs and the western world traded with Sri Lanka in ancient times to obtain spices. years. Today Sri Lanka remains one of the foremost exporters of quality spice across the world.

The island’s dominance in the spice world is reflected in the fact that both cinnamon and cardamom are native to Sri Lanka and the country is also a major supplier of pepper, cloves, nutmeg and mace. At one time Sri Lanka supplied almost 90 percent of the world’s cinnamon — between 7,500 to10,000 tonnes annually. In 2008, it ranked third behind Indonesia and China.

Cinnamon is the inner bark of a tropical evergreen tree. In ancient Egypt it was used as a medicine, a flavoring for beverages and as a cavity filler in mummies. In ancient Rome it was valued more than gold. Nero reportedly burned a year's supply at his wife's funeral to express the extent of his grief. In the Middle Ages, it was used as a flavoring in a variety of dishes, including mince pie, which is still eaten today.

Cinnamon was one of the spices sought by early European explorers to Asia. Columbus was looking for it when he discovered America. The Portuguese invaded Sri Lanka after reaching India in 1536 and were able to secure a tribute of 110,000 pounds of cinnamon a year from the Sinhalese king. When the Dutch captured Sri Lanka in 1636 they introduced a system for cultivating cinnamon that is still used today.

There are between 50 and 250 cinnamon species depending in the botanical source. Two kinds are used as spices: 1) Ceylon cinnamon, or true cinnamon, light brown bark with a sweet, delicate flavor; and 2) cassia, which is darker, less sweet, thicker and courser than true cinnamon. True cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka. The best cinnamon is said to grow along the coastal strip near Colombo. Efforts to grow it outside of Sri Lanka were largely unsuccessful for a long time The Seychelles is one of the few places it has become naturalized. In North America, cassia is often sold as cinnamon. The cinnamon of ancient times was most likely cassia. The Cassia is native to Burma and is grown in China, Indonesia, the East and West Indies and Central America. There are many varieties of cassia.

Food in Colonial Sri Lanka

Asiff Hussein wrote: Bread (Sinh. pan) was a relatively recent introduction by the Portuguese who called it paon. Before its introduction, the mainstay of the inhabitants was rice, which was consumed at all three meals. The Dutch introduced Breudher (a kind of cake) and Kokis (a hard and crunchy sort of fried biscuit made of flour). [Source: Asiff Hussein, Culled from the Mahavansa and other literary and epigraphic sources]

The Dutch and the Portuguese left their stamp on the local cuisine. For example, lamprais — rice boiled in stock with a special curry — accompanied by "frikkadels", or meatballs — were introduced by the Dutch. One Sri Lankan touch is that they are wrapped in banana leaves and baked. The Dutch and the Portuguese also bequeathed a number of recipes for various sweets which continue to be made to this day. There are British and Malay influences as well. Roast beef and roast chicken are enjoyed by many Sri Lankans and "Wattalapam" — a steamed pudding made with coconut milk, eggs and jaggery (a sort of solidified treacle extracted from the kitul palm) has become a Sri Lankan dessert, although first introduced by the Malays.

Lamprais is a popular Dutch dish of Dutch origin in Sri Lanka. Rice boiled in beef stock, then added to vegetables and meat and baked in a low oven after it is wrapped in a banana leaf. Baking the rice in a banana leaf gives a special flavour to the rice. Lamprais has a unique flavour and an appetizing aroma.

British rule on the island also witnessed a vast change in the people's dietary habits. Beef-eating became widespread. During Knox's time, Europeans were derogatorily referred to as Beef-eating slaves' (geri-mas gulamo). Today beef is much relished and folk commonly refer to beef-steak as bis-tek'.

Colonial-Era Cakes and Sweets in Sri Lanka

In the 17th century, Knox stated that when the Dutch first came to Colombo,” the King ordered these caown' (kevum, cakes) to be made and sent to them as a royal treat. And they say, the Dutch did so admire them, that they asked if they grew not upon trees, supposing it past the art of men to make such dainties.” Another sweetmeat, aluva, made of milk, sugar and spices harkens back to the Moghul halwa which has its origins in Arabia. The Portuguese introduced a new type of confection made of fruit called dosi' (Port. doce).

"Breudher" (also spelled as "Brueder" or "Bloeder") is a sort of cake that is a made and consumed by people from both the Ceylonese Dutch Burgher community and the Malacca Dutch Eurasian community.A traditional mould is used to bake the "Breudher." It is usually a heavy brass mould with deep groves and a sort of pike in the center, so that when the cake is baked, it comes out in a grooved ring shape with a hole in the center.

Each family has their own adaptation, but generally the recipe contains butter, sugar, lots of eggs, bread dough, milk and sultanas. The end product is a bread like cake with a slight yeastyness in its taste. For serving, it is cut into slices, spread with butter and topped with Dutch Edam cheese. It is usually made during the festive season, like Christmas.

Ceylonese Dutch Burgher families have been making "Breudher" for generations, since their ancestors were the "Vrijburgher" community in Dutch Ceylon. The difference in the "Breudher" recipe between the Ceylonese Dutch Burgher and the Malacca Dutch Eurasian community, is the Malacca "Breudher" uses toddy (fermented sap from the flower of the coconut tree) instead of yeast. Toddy was probably used as a local substitute when yeast was difficult to find.

The Malacca Portuguese Eurasians claim it as originating from their community as they also have their "Blueda" which is said to be a traditional Malacca Portuguese cake. The Dutch from The Netherlands have never heard of the cake called "Breudher" but if its recipe and the description of its peculiar shape is described, the Dutch will immediately know it as the "Tulband", which means "Turban" because of its shape. Therefore, it can be concluded that "Breudher" originated from the Dutch and probably the Portuguese "Blueda" is from the Dutch version. Also, "Breudher" probably comes from an ancient name that have now even been lost to the people of The Netherlands.

First Food Rituals for an Infant in Sri Lanka in the Old Days

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: Kiribath, rice cooked in coconut milk, is part of nearly every ceremonial occasion in Sri Lanka. Kawum (sweet oil cakes) and other special snacks are also popular at special events. Alcoholic beverages do not play a role in the formal rituals of Sri Lanka, being condemned by Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism alike. Alcohol is, however, a ubiquitous part of men's social gatherings, where beer, toddy (fermented palm nectar), arrack (distilled palm nectar), and kassipu (an illegally distilled beverage), are consumed in great quantities. [Source: Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Asiff Hussein wrote in the Sunday Observor: “ The fist birth rite performed on the newborn today is the ceremony of rankiri kata gema, the application of breast milk touched with gold on the lips of the infant. [Source: Asiff Hussein, Sunday Observer Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

That the practice is an old one, there cannot be any doubt. It is similar in many respects to an ancient Hindu rite prescribed in the Ashvalayana Sutra where it is stated that the father of the newborn should make it suck the ghee and honey rubbed in gold by placing it in the mouth of the child, before it is taken away. The bat kevima or first feed of rice is another important childhood ritual among the Sinhalese and has to take place during the 6th, 8th, 10th or 12th month in the case of boys and in the 5th, 7th, 9th or 11th month in the case of girls. The task is usually performed by the father or paternal grandfather and although tradition prescribes that the first meal be a variety of al hal, nowadays hinati hal is often used along with kitul jaggery.

The custom could be considered the equivalent of the Hindu annaprashana which finds mention in ancient Hindu ritual texts. The Ashvalayana Sutra for instance prescribes that the child be fed cereal in its 6th month and that he who desires his child be intelligent should feed it cooked rice mixed with ghee and honey. That the ritual figured among the ancient Sinhalese is borne out by the Chulavamsa which has it that King Manabharana had the ceremony of the first feed of rice (annapasana) performed for his son Parakramabahu according to custom. The Dhampiya Atuva Getapadaya of the 10th century also refers to the custom of feeding the child rice gruel (hambu povana).

Traditional Monk Foods in Sri Lanka

Chandra Edirisuriya wrote: The monks of ancient Lanka had to spend a considerable portion of the fore noon in connection with their food. There were common refectories attached to large monasteries like the Mahavihara, the Abhayagiriya and Mihintale. Thousands of bhikkhus went to these places for food. Fa Hien gives an eye – witness account: “They get their food from their common stores. The king, besides, prepares elsewhere in the city a common supply of food for five or six thousand more.” About two centuries later Hiuen Tsiang gives us an account on hearsay: “By the side of the king’s palace there is built a large kitchen, in which daily is measured out food for eight thousand priests.” The Rasavahini corroborates the accounts of these Chinese pilgrims when it says that from five great monasteries (pancamahavasa) monks and nuns assembled at Maha pali for alms. Bhikkhus went on pindapatha particularly for ghee and oil. [Source: Chandra Edirisuriya, WS, June 4, 2006]

There was light refreshment, some times, between two meals, with some snacks called antara – khajjaka and consisted of such things as honey (madhu) and jaggery (sakkara). Sometimes even preparations of meat were included. A story in the Rasavahini relates how a setthi entertained monks three times in the fore noon with delicious preparations including hare (sasa – mamsa). A special preparation of hare was included in the antara – khajjaka as well as in the other two meals. We learn from the Tonigala Inscription that the diet of monks in the 4th century. included among other things, curd (di), honey (miyavata), treacle (peni), sesame (tila), butter of ghee (bu(ja) natela), salt (lona) and green herbs (palahavata).’

Eating Customs of Kandyans 100 Years Ago

T. B. Parnatella wrote in 1908: “When relatives meet together and sit at meals at a festival it is wrong to begin to eat, although food is served in full, without permission from the company. One should not ask for rice, or for certain curries, whilst feasting. It is the work of those who wait to watch carefully and to supply the wants, whether rice or other things. Whilst feasting only the respected members of the company may speak, and it is unbecoming to say anything disagreeable. Water should be served round before calling for the repast. Without doing this, it is very wrong to invite the guests, saying in a homely style. " Api itin bat kamu" "Now let us eat rice," as is usual in the household on other days.

“While partaking of food the individuals composing the assembly should be spoken to as respectfully as possible. Whilst in company it is uncivil to get up and walk away after meals before others. One should wait without washing, his hand, even if he has finished before others, till they also finish eating. On all important occasions the ladies should be fed first. It is also becoming to feed the pingo-bearers who have accompanied the guest beforehand in an outhouse. When they are served with water, the chief among them should be served first. Even if one should attempt to serve the wrong person, whether among gentle or common folk, by mistake, it should not be allowed by others, but the proper person should be pointed out.

“Soon after meals every one must be offered a quid of betel. This is done by placing the betel leaves, chopped arecanuts, chunam, catechu, niyadandu, tobacco, and spices (cloves, &c.), neatly on a kind of tray (of metal or wood. sometimes highly ornamented), which is passed round so that even one may select according to his taste. Three different trays must be got ready: the one for the ladies' chamber should either be handed to, or placed near, the chief lady of the company; the other should be placed near the chief man of the gentlemen s' party; and the third handed over to the head servant for distribution among them.”

Insects as Food in Sri Lanka

Netolitzky (1920) reported that the longicorn beetles, Batocera albofasciata Deg. and B. rubus Linn. are eaten in Sri Lanka and Indonesia.. Gourou (1948) reported consumption of Rhynchophorus ferrugineus Oliv., and Ghesquièré (1947) mentions that Calandra chinensis is a widespread species that is consumed by people from Sri Lanka to China. [Source: Insects as Food, by Gene DeFoliart]

According to Knox (1817) Xylocopa and other large bees are eaten. When a bee swarm is discovered on a tree, a burning torch is held under it to make the bees drop (Knox 1817, p. 48). They are carried home, cooked and eaten. Also, when a tree containing a bees' nest is felled, the bees are collected along with the honey. When cooked they are an esteemed dish.

Spittel (1924) and others mentioned by Bodenheimer (1951, pp. 245-253) discuss honey-hunting by the Veddas of Sri Lanka, and more briefly, by other Asiatics.

Wijayasinghe and Rajaguru (1977) conducted tests to determine the effects of silkworm pupae (SWP) as a replacement for various levels of the local fishmeal on the performance of broiler starters, broiler finishers, and laying hens. They used a dry, mechanical and manual method for removing the chitinous exoskeleton, in order to avoid the loss of soluble nutrients that can occur with wet methods. The pupal residue was not defatted although the pupal oil contains nearly 75 percent unsaturated fatty acids, which imparts a peculiar odor, and some previous investigators have reported that the flesh and eggs of animals fed undefatted SWP have an unpleasant odor. Others have not observed this effect and it was not observed in this investigation. The authors note that the pupal oil, with its high unsaturated fatty acid content has a number of valuable industrial uses, and there are a number of patented biological and chemical methods for deodorizing the pupae. They also note that a large quantity of SWP can be expected to be available as a byproduct of the rapidly expanding sericulture industry in Sri Lanka.

The results of proximate and amino acid analyses are shown in Sri Lanka Tables 1 and 2, respectively (authors' Tables 1 and 2 also). Compared to the local Grade I fishmeal, the SWP were high in dry matter, protein and fat content, and relatively low in total ash and in calcium and phosphorus. In the feeding trials, experimental rations were balanced according to 1966 recommendations of the U.S. National Research Council. The investigators summarized their study as follows: "The results indicated that SWP could successfully replace local fish-meal in poultry rations. The presence of an unidentified growth factor in SWP for chicks was also observed. Improvement in reproductive performance in terms of hatchability of eggs and weight of chicks at hatching time were observed when SWP was included in layers rations. A favourable alteration of the sex ratio in chicks towards femininity was observed." The authors note that SWP rations need supplementation with calcium and phosphorus. They also mention that the price of SWP must be more reasonable if farmers are to use it as a high-protein feed supplement.

Maitipe (1984) suggests that one area of promise in trying to meet problems of tropical malnutrition is the exploitation of certain insect larvae. One candidate, Maitipe believes, is the larva of the swallowtail butterfly, Papilio polytes (Papilionidae), which feeds on certain alkaloid-rich leaves and completes the fourth instar within 17 days at 28C. The larva accepts different alkaloid-containing leaves, but the growth rate is faster on some than on others, for example, citrus leaves as compared to "woodapple" leaves. Maitipe suggests that high food conversion efficiency, such as is the case with leaf-eating caterpillars, should be an important criterion in looking for future sources of protein. This insect has no history of consumption by humans, insofar as this author is aware.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (srilanka.travel), Government of Sri Lanka (www.gov.lk), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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