Sometimes it is a great release to go away from the familiar and the everyday. And travel a long distance to a new place, one that is a new geographical address and yet has been fed into one’s imagination by echoes from the past, occasional foods and flavours that have wafted by, to say nothing of the innumerable lessons from geography and history that have chiselled names and places into memory.
I travelled to Sri Lanka with Nayanjyot Lahiri, friend, historian, chronicler of ancient India and the author of a magisterial book on Emperor Ashoka. In Sri Lanka, when we got off a comfortable flight and landed in Colombo, the airport smelt of Chennai. Possibly because they share the same seaside air that fills up your nostrils as you travel from landlocked New Delhi, drinking in the clammy and calming air of this emerald isle.
We spent two days at Colombo, the lion capital, at the furthermost end of the island on the Atlas and visited the Large National Museum. We admired the lions and the elaborately carved and pillared Independence Memorial Hall in Cinnamon Gardens. We admired the elegant cityscape, with its picturesque buildings and modern constructions.
Colombo city is framed by the sea, with old colonial buildings, both Dutch and British. Some of these buildings are sensibly being put to use in ways that may not have been part of the original plan. The Ministry of Crab, apparently one of the 50 best places in the world for sea food, also serves wine and is located at the extreme end of an open inner courtyard of what used to be an old Dutch hospital complex in the 17th century. This has now been transformed into an upmarket shopping and dining complex.
Colombo has a bustling market place. Paradise Road sells a whole range of unusual products, ranging from textiles, ceramic, garments, jewellery and tea, all of which are packaged efficiently. Beautiful batik sarees and shirts can be bought at Shreedevi Batik, which is next door to the Barefoot Café and Retail Store selling clothes, fabric and other merchandise in a riot of colours.
Most people are polite and courteous. We rarely met anyone who was bad-tempered or uncivil. It was hot, but the magic of the coastal climate is such that by sunset the heat withdraws to give you a sense of calm, and the mango and coconut trees and abundant palms allow for the cool air to replace the day’s heat.
‘Kooyuz’ was made with rice flour and soaked sago palm beads, cooked with ground green chillies, salt and a lot of lemon juice in my grandmother’s homes in Tamil Nadu. ‘Kooyuz’ was made on busy days by grandmothers and it was their version of fast food, albeit far healthier.
Crabs are a sea food luxury in the island, which boasts of having the most amazing crabs. We lunched at the Ministry of Crab in Colombo where surprise, surprise, one of their more popular dishes is avocado stuffed with crab. So, over a mellow wine, my friend savoured a crustacean meal, whilst I sat opposite and tucked into an egg and green main course that could be stirred into a green herb rice. The meal wound up after a colonial recipe for a chocolate biscuit mousse that we both shared.
March is a warm balmy month and the streets of Colombo are verdant with gorgeous flowering trees and annuals. Mango trees are in fruit and at Ellen’s Place large red ants crawl in various lines on the private terraces to take possession of the fruit. “Somehow, on this island, they seem to have got it right,” a friend in New Delhi, who swears by the beauty and diversity of Sri Lanka, informed us. All the roads also seemed to be in great shape, through the length of the country that we travelled in.
A long seven hour journey from Colombo to Jaffna, with breaks for breakfast and pit stops, was uneventful. We hurtled along a road peopled by small towns, shops and residences, occasionally glimpsing stretches of swamp and lotus-filled water bodies and countless birds, serene and undisturbed. Also, the landscape is free of the scourge of the Indian roadscape, namely, the growing mounds of hideous, non- degradable plastic bags, that travel along with us on the innumerable roadways and highways that connect Indian cities and towns.
There are small wayside eateries where food moves briskly and is value for money. Little fruit, vegetable and coconut shacks dot the main road that runs through what is predominantly countryside, cultivated and wild. We tried out passion fruit, rambutan and mangosteen — delicious new flavours.
I eventually bought and ate durian, a fruit which looks like a misshapen pineapple but is akin to the jackfruit in flavour and smell. The durian is a victim of cultural and racial profiling and this lovely exotic fruit cannot be exported because of the supposed after odour. This is really unfortunate because at its worst it smells like rotten coconut water, unlike ripe cheese from the first world which actually smells of unwashed bottoms.
In any case, my friend and our driver Lakshan would not let me enter the van, with the fruit. I stood outside and womanfully consumed four large segments of the creamy fruit, with a large seed. It has a very delicate flavour, and is less sweet than the jackfruit.
March is also butterfly season because the air is dense with a lot of light coloured butterflies all along the highway to A9 as we moved towards Jaffna in a speeding car. Travelling in the same direction, they zigzagged along the highway, occasionally dashing against the windscreen. Small swatches of creamy white were also spread on the floor. Some of these were dead butterflies, while others seemed not to mind resting on the hot tarmac. Given that the average butterfly has a life span of around two weeks, from the moment that its wings dry after it emerges from its cocoon, this burst of winged energies in an otherwise long-distance ride was inspiring.
Jaffna is where Ashoka’s daughter Sangamitta supposedly landed at Dambakolapatuna carrying the Maha Bodhi tree which was housed in Anuradhapura. A stretch of sea simulates this landing with a statue of Sangamitta.
Jaffna is rustic and its buildings and architecture are very different from Colombo. Their traditional temples seem to have been drawn initially from Tamil architecture. The more recent ones are pretty much kitsch; shiny and with a riot of colours. There is a church, a museum, a vihara and a Dutch fort with amazing views of the lagoon. Jaffna University, built in 1974, is reminiscent of the newer structures that dot different parts of south India.
There is also a significant archaeological site with ancient Buddhist stupas of varying sizes and grisly folklore. Enshrined therein are relics of monks either poisoned or deceased during a famine.
Jaffna is also where Ashoka’s daughter Sangamitta supposedly landed at Dambakolapatuna carrying the Maha Bodhi tree which was finally housed in Anuradhapura. A stretch of sea at Dambakolapatuna simulates this landing with a boat and a statue of Sangamitta. This is a revered tourist attraction.
Jaffna’s beaches are extremely charming and clean. Standing on Palk Strait and looking at the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal leaking into each other was a Mary Poppins’ moment. Decades after colouring lines marking land and water on school maps, here I was, wondrously breathing in and absorbing the real thing in itself.
We stayed close to the Nallur Kandasami Temple at Jaffna. We tried out local cuisine — dosas, hoppers, puran poli and lodal halwa. At Colombo, we had been told about the famous ‘Jaffna Kool’, so we found a place that would serve it for dinner. Kool is an unfortunate anglicisation because this Tamil food comes from the word ‘Kooyuz’ which is pronounced with a pointed jab of the tongue when ‘y’ is reached. Simultaneously, there has to be a jutting forward of the lower jaw in order to evoke the ‘r’ and ‘s’ sounds.
‘Jaffna Kool’ is made with seafood, cooked with palm flour, rice, onions, garlic, ginger and chillies, and spiced with tamarind till they make one delicious unit that joyously glazes over the seafood which are added to it, and thereby minimally cooked. It makes for a spicy, sustaining meal.
‘Kooyuz’ was usually made with rice flour and soaked sago palm beads, cooked with ground green chillies and salt, and with a lot of lemon juice in my grandmother’s homes in Tamil Nadu. ‘Kooyuz’ was made on busy days by grandmothers and it was their version of fast food, albeit far healthier.
‘Kooyuz’ was also made in the hot summers when it was time to make ‘vadaams’ (crisps). The thick paste was pushed through sieves to make rice and sago pasta shapes that were dried on cloth or plastic sheets in the sun. These would then be stored in large tins from which they were extricated and fried in hot oil to make delicious crisps (‘vadaams’) at every meal. Some of the ‘Kooyuz’ was always retained, diluted with water and cooked into a thick stew to which sambaar, rasam, vegetables or curd could be added to make for a delicious meal.
‘Jaffna Kool’ is made with seafood, which is cooked with palm flour, rice, onions, garlic, ginger and chillies, and spiced with tamarind for some time till they make one delicious unit that joyously welcomes and glazes over the varieties of seafood which are added to it, and thereby minimally cooked. It makes for a hearty, rather spicy, but sustaining meal.
The ‘Kooyuz’ dinner was low-key, as we were the only visitors at a catering unit that served food a la carte only if it was given advance notice. Vegetarian ‘Kooyuz’ was not available. There was no time to prepare it because the sifting and soaking of the palm flour and the cooking of different flours into a smooth stew base, which is the most significant aspect of the ‘Kooyuz’, required much more time.
So I settled for delicious appams with coconut milk, which again is a Sri Lankan speciality that probably crossed over from southern India. I was treated to many appams made in the tiniest of kaarals (pans), including one with a sunny side up in the centre, as the proprietor Sundaresan very kindly factored in my protein requirements for the evening. The wrought iron appam kaaral is now an endangered species that has been supplanted by invasive hindolium and non-stick pans that have simplified the making of appams. Therefore, my search for wrought iron appam kaarals in the local markets was doomed to failure.
In Colombo and Anuradhapura, rice is the main staple and each meal is eaten with rice or fine rice noodles, yellow lentils, a variety of vegetables, fish and meat sambals. Sambals are a delicious preparation of moist, stir-fried vegetables or fish and mutton with gravy.
While leaving Jaffna I picked up some Jaffna candy, palm sugar mixed apparently with ground coral powder and then poured to set in miniature baskets made of dried palm. This too was a childhood memory and my sibling had wanted some to be posted to him in distant Minnesota, US. I also bought dried palm stems that I planned to grind and sift in order to make myself some vegetable ‘Kooyuz’ on returning home.
Before I could bring myself to recapture the idyllic travel through Jaffna, Anuradhapura and Colombo, newspaper accounts of the bombings in Colombo sent shockwaves that rippled through the Indian subcontinent and presumably the rest of the world. Blood and gore, a festival turned awry, prayers that were mocked at, buildings destroyed and lives lost and so much mayhem and such horror, for what?
Unlike India, where people are attacked over rumours on food preferences, Sri Lanka has been cosmopolitan and eclectic in its food choices. There is no evidence of eating patterns being controlled or monitored.
Why must this happen again and again?
It is barely a decade since peace came haltingly to Sri Lanka. Even today, Tamil, despite being an official language, remains foreign outside of Jaffna. What is it about religious differences that make co-existence so fraught?
How is it that centuries of prep time have not allowed people from different religions to mingle harmoniously, in the manner of the life-sustaining ‘Kooyuz’?
Unlike India today, where people continue to be lynched and attacked over rumours pertaining to food preferences, Sri Lanka has been extremely cosmopolitan and eclectic in its food choices. There is no evidence whatsoever of eating patterns being controlled or monitored.
Sadly, the diversity in food choices, and the plethora of available cultures have not been incorporated as important aspects of multi-community lives. A small, hideous faction of Sri Lankans have refused to respect everybody’s right to free choice in areas outside of food preferences. The ‘Kooyuz’ of human life has been desecrated and spilt and will take a long time to remake. Indeed, sadly, tragically, this is most ‘Un Kool’.
Written by Ratna Raman
Pictures by Nayanjyot Lahiri