There is no surprise that when it comes to dishing out flavourful masterpieces, which your pallet happily laps up, it is most likely that the cuisine comes from the Indian subcontinent. Not only is this geographic belt blessed with natural beauty, with its warm tropical beaches, lush green rainforests and abundance in flora and fauna, their bountiful land lays place to an abundance of spices and the very earth from where they are harvested. Quite naturally, our ancestors over the millennia have learnt to make use of the resources at hand, and coupled with their curiosity and ingenuity, have left us, in these modern times with handicrafts that still find their place on the kitchen shelves of traditional Sri Lankan households.
The food we eat is a result of all participants in the preparation, from the beautiful fresh vegetables and meats, the flavour packed spices, and the very pots and pans in which they are cooked, all these actors come together to put on the most delicious show for your taste buds. And if you were to step into any Sri Lankan kitchen, you would be sure to find some, if not all the pots and pans this article will dip into.
The Curry Pot
Our astute ancestors were very aware of the qualities of the soil where they lived, playing with the clayey soil found close to river valleys they furnished clay pots, which lent its uses in the dishes cooked. Think Sambol and any Sri Lankan you know will be reminded of the days in their youth when this delicious ensemble of pulses and spices was cooking over in clay pots directly placed over the flame. Our ancestors believed the clay played its part in diffusing certain flavours that only enhanced the eating experience. This is a fact that can starkly be seen missing when the humble sambol is cooked in a metal or stainless-steel pot. This ubiquitous utensil or the walang lends its flavour to many popular curries, besides the traditional sambol, and has an added advantage, that the cooking utensil doubles up as serving dish as well. So don’t be surprised if you’re served a piping hot gravy that’s quite literally been taken off the stove and laid out in front of you.
The Grinding stone
Cooking, as we know it generally invokes a sense of homeliness where the food which is being prepared is often made with the intent of sharing amongst loved ones, be it family or friends. A lot of this appreciation for the food that is served on the tables also comes from the fact that precious time is invested into making the lovely spread we so often find ourselves gathered around.
To start with preparing curries and sambol in Sri Lankan food, the need for spices can never be ignored, and what better way to extract the true flavours of these spices than by grinding them fresh and adding to the explosive flavours of the dish. This is where the protagonist, the humble grinding stone or miris gala makes its entry. This heavy duty set of kitchen equipment consists of 2 stones, one flat, often rectangular slab, and one cylindrical stone which is used to do the grinding.
It is an act that simply can’t go amiss, as you’d see skilled men and mostly women, deftly convert whole pieces of spices, be it red chilies, pepper corns, coconut, ginger, garlic etc. with a dash of water and salt to get the grinding going. This repeated grinding results in a paste so fresh even the most cynical food critic would pause and appreciate the beauty behind such a transformation.
Hop on with the String-hoppers
All the while, attributing to being blessed by the plentiful rice fields, the culinary minds in the Sri Lankan Island figured out a way to represent and redo the humble rice into stringy noodle cakes, popularly known as String hoppers. These latticed vermicelli-like strands of rice are made by extruding the rice mixture through a metal/wooden tube which is then wound around in the shape that you see served to you. A carb that goes wonderfully well with our deliciously spicy curries, the string hopper press serves its purpose as a rather multispecialty tool in the kitchen, which can also be used to make delectable fried snacks. All you need to do is change the dough and adjust the holes through which the dough is extruded, and you’ve got yourself a nice tea-time snack.
For all the things to do with coconut in Sri Lankan cuisine, it got to make one wonder how the get all the good stuff out of the coconut. Technology and convenience of supermarkets have gotten us comfortable enough to have grated coconut sold to us straight out of the packets, but you can’t beat the true flavours that change the fate of the dish you just cooked if you grate the coconut freshly before cooking. To do this, one clever yet slightly tedious effort is required to get the best out of the nut. Available in various designs, the two most popular being a hand crank attached to a rotating blade, and one where the circular serrated blade is wedged into a long piece of wood for you to place your foot on, when you bend over to grate the coconut. Both result in extracting the creamy, freshy coconut which is then used to either flavour the famous sambol or used to get coconut milk which is had as is or added to curries just to give it that extra creamy texture and flavour to the dish. Rest assured, no matter how advanced technology might have gotten, this handy little kitchen tool will most definitely find itself in traditional Sri Lankan kitchens.
Clay Water Pitcher
Way back before there were refrigerators and owing to the high temperatures in the summer months, the local Sri Lankans figured out a way to store and cool food and liquid. These earthen pots, fashioned out of clay and sun dried to become hard, yet brittle containers were porous enough in nature to allow the contents within, which over time was primarily used for water, to stay cool over the course of the day. The multipurpose use of these containers also meant that, they were used to fetch water from wells and served as a reliable and sturdy container to help quench one’s thirst.
Owing to the true Sri Lankan style, it would go amiss to not mention that this practice is still common in many households, even though refrigerators are now a more common occurrence.
While most of these vessels and tools have found their modern equivalent which, at times makes the job easier, the authenticity that gives way to the experience is truly witnessed when one immerses itself in the traditions and the story-telling that often follows when families and friends get together to enjoy a meal together.