A plate of sweets, a palate of tastes

Every country has its own sweets which reflect a combination of its available seasonal ingredients, methods of cooking and the cultural influence on that particular cuisine. In addition, we have tasted and seen sweets adapted through various inroads into this cuisine, often through the influence of a wider region, (i.e., Asian), immigrants and even invaders. In the case of Ceylon, the latter influenced our cuisine. The most prominent being the introduction of bakery items during the rule of the Portuguese, Dutch and the British.

Today we will focus on the sweets which are deeply rooted in Sri Lankan cuisine, and a few which over the decades have been amalgamated and duly embraced by us as “authentic Sri Lankan sweets”. All of us know the alluring taste of the top echelon - konda kavum, halapa, aggala, kalu dodol and bibikkan. Some of the lesser-known and appreciated ones are mung kavum, athirasa, aasmi, weli thalapa and wandu appa (which is not hopper but a muffin-like sweet baked in a leaf).

Following the outbreak of COVID-19, I received many Whatsapp messages about housewives (former executives/managers) who were starting their home-based bakery businesses, into which most of their husbands were involuntarily sanctioned as stakeholders. The products proudly advertised were cupcakes, cookies, cakes and desserts. Some sold curries and pickles as well. This is a good sign in the process of economic recovery. I was surprised that not a single Sri Lankan woman advertised that she was making bibikkan (coconut cake) or kalu dodol. You may ask “so what is the big deal? These food items are for aluth avurudhu (April New Year)”. Within this question lies the real answer.

The truth is our traditional sweets have been relegated. They are supposed to be made by village women who cannot speak English and do not have twitter accounts. Interestingly, many Colombo divas who claim they do not know how to make kalu dodal and bibikkan are actually from the same provinces where these sweets are made. Oh! we speak of tradition infused with patriotism, but this has eluded Sri Lankan women in their culinary quest. So should we wait annually to eat kavum and kokis only in April? If this is the case, we were deprived of these sweets last New Year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and did not even get to buy these rasa kavili.

In a commercial context, there are only a few venues that make these items throughout the year. This is mainly for tourists and visiting Sri Lankans to take back overseas. With a focus on organic cuisine and a healthy lifestyle, one is subject to a feeling of guilt when indulging in these tempting goodies. May I remind you that almost the same amount of calories can be found in cream-filled cupcakes, chocolate brownies, kavums as well as in a slice of dodol. Living in crowded cities and taking on a busy working lifestyle, do our women have time to keep this tradition alive? Well, if you can find time to bake cinnamon buns and red velvet cakes, you can spend the same amount of time to cook anything.

Konda kevum is the alluring queen who reigns supreme. Her “konda” has a class of its own! She is always soft to the touch, and my mother used to warn me not to succumb to her charms!! But I fail. Kalu dodol is the grand duke of Sinhalese sweets. The dark brown exterior gives way to a warm consistency. Making this with jaggery and coconut milk is an art. Hambantota is famous for this wonderful sweet. Halapa is another favourite we used to eat at sunset drinking a glass of ginger-infused tea. Today many city kids do not know what halapa is, they might think it grows on a tree. The green kande kola adds to the aroma of this healthy snack. We loved athirasa and mung kavum - sweets that are loaded with nutrition. The crispy kokis has a unique taste, although it is believed to be of Dutch origin. Rosette cookies from the Scandinavian region is very similar to kokis. The kiribath (milk rice) plate is like a loving grandmother who embraces all these sweets under her shadow.

Sweets made by Tamil families include laddu, paitham paniyaram, sugar-coated sippi and mothakam (soft dumplings filled with coconut, crushed green gram and sugar). Some of these recipes can be traced to South Indian kitchens. Finding clean banana leaves to place on plates is another challenge for the denizens of Colombo city during traditional sit-down meals. I am not rejecting fast food or foreign cuisine. Fast food is ideal when on road trips or during a very busy day at home. Consuming international cuisine adds zest to life, when you can afford it. We must enjoy all global cuisine and connect to those beautiful cultures, but be prudent to maintain our local culinary identity.

All Sri Lankan chefs and hoteliers have a responsibility to promote our own cuisine, especially these sweets. European tourists do not come here to eat tiramisu, lamingtons, custard tarts or crème brulee. They want Sri Lankan delights. At times undue focus is given to fusion cuisine. We must create new presentations when plating our Sri Lankan food. A simple garnish can alter the guest’s perception.

It is sad to see that these timeless culinary traditions are being replaced in Colombo and other major cities. To a certain extent a valid reason is that people living in high rise apartments cannot be pounding and deep frying as the neighbours’ would be disturbed, which is true. However, many flour-based ingredients come in packets today. At times, you cannot buy good jaggery in the city. Some ingredients are a bit expensive - a common element in any regional cuisine. Eating sweets will gradually induce some weight, and most city folks will either drink green tea or enlist in a weekend aerobics class! The bottom line is in this COVID-19 period - we must focus more on eating our own homegrown products. It is true that every housewife cannot make kavum. But mothers can smilingly take an interest in making things like aggala and samaposha which only require mixing by hand. If using turmeric was old fashioned why has it now become a valuable product in the kitchen? When we eat local food, we support local cooks and traders and also teach children to be Sri Lankan in a deeper sense.



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