The amazing variety of our indigenous food from ‘apé-kama’ to ‘apé-kaama’

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Our multicultural diversity on this little Island in the Indian Ocean has given us an amazing variety of food that is healthy to consume and appropriate to our specific ecosystem and natural environment. Much of what we consume raw, steamed, or cooked by boiling or frying, is supportive of the natural healing process inherent to our bodies. Many are specific herbal cures for a variety of common ailments that afflict us during our lifetimes. When we find rural dwellers extremely healthy and virile much like the Adi-vasi or Veddha aborigines we learn that their secret is their diet and lifestyle. When we marvel at peasants labouring from dawn to dusk in the paddy fields and under an unrelenting sun we find out once again that it is due to what they eat and drink and how they live free of the stress of modern, urban life. Today, it has become very, very fashionable to promote everything natural and herbal including indigenous medical therapies, clay pot cooking and even cotton garments as ‘cure-alls’ for the diseases generated by the widespread emulation of the Westernized life-style and its associated rat-race. We have up-market resorts, clinics, hospitals, health spas, beauty parlours, hair oils, soaps, toothpaste and places offering meditation all touting the ‘health’ label along with ‘natural’ and ‘herbal.’ If all of it is genuine and properly regulated by the relevant authorities, it is well and good for all concerned. What hardly anyone is willing to admit is that none of what has been described above is a cure-all for the noisy, nerve-wracking, polluted modern lifestyle! For the food and drink and therapies to really do their magic lifestyle has to change. However, even marginally, some benefit could accrue.

The predominant benefit in these times would be a lowering of the high cost-of-living made more costly because of imported food items that have become unaffordable to the greater majority of the people. When positive action is taken to rationalize the production and distribution of indigenous food varieties we’ll all begin to breathe more easily. If there is any problem that stares government in the face, day-in, day-out, it is the cost-of-living. It is a problem that brings governments down, particularly in countries where the vote is exercised in a free manner. Therefore, it is in the best long-term interests of the People that this problem (or rather, basket of problems) be addressed with the seriousness it deserves. We would then be able to really savour and enjoy the amazing variety of our indigenous food.

Indigenous food preparations are entirely based on natural, unrefined flour made from: Black gram (undu/ulundu); Chickpea or Bengal gram (konda-kadala, kalai); Country rice (haal-pitti, arashi);Green gram (moong-ata, pasi-pyru); Indian millet (Meneri, pani-chamai); Little millet (heen-meneri,samai); Manioc (maññyokka); Palmyrah-root (thal-mul, panna-maram); Whole corn/maize (bada-iringu, cholum); Whole rye millet (Kurakkan, nacher); and Whole wheat (atta-pitti,).

To preparations made of these flours is added palm sugar of which we have three indigenous varieties: Jaggery (or palm candy, hakuru, karapoti) made from the Toddy [Kithul] palm, kithul-hakuru, Coconut [pol, tennai] palm, pol-hakuru and the Palmyrah [Thal-gus,Panna-maram] palm, thal-hakuru which are all infinitely preferable to the unhealthy refined white sugar.

Local ingredients basic to Sri Lankan food

Sinhala, Tamil, Sonahar, Malay, and Burgher delicacies could all be made from what is available locally and could replace all the refined white wheat flour and refined white cane sugar food items. The general popularity of refined white wheat flour and refined white sugar and the products made there from is due to affordability, availability and convenience. These three factors should now be applied to the alternative food items if they are to become more popular than bread, buns, cakes and pastries which also contribute to growing juvenile obesity and the onset of childhood diabetes and related diseases.

Several Sri Lankans, particularly Hilda Deutrom, Lorna Wright, Charmaine Solomon, Vinodini de Silva, Doreen Alles, Manel Ranatunga, Chandra Dissanayake, Juliet Fernando, Deloraine Brohier, Mallika Joseph, Doreen Peiris and Master Chefs Publis Silva and Lloyd Opatha have done much to popularize local recipes through their cookery books, newspaper articles and demonstrations via TV programmes. However, since the country can now ill-afford the ever-rising prices of imported food items and the harmful effects on health via diabetes, cholesterol and other ‘modern’ diseases, matters should be taken in hand to popularize indigenous food on a widespread basis that would reach every nook and cranny of the Island.

Nevertheless, some serious impediments still exist that have to be overcome through concerted action: One is the production of the flours described on a widespread scale. Two is the Island-wide distribution of those flours in packeted form, and three, these items should be affordable to the greater mass of the people. For example, 400 gms of red rice flour is Rs. 78:00 and 500 gms of atta flour is Rs. 85:00. Apparently, some items such as whole wheat flour (atta-pitti) and Black gram (undu/ulunndu) are being imported from the Subcontinent. Why are we feeding the bran the whole wheat-germ to cattle, poultry and pigs when these constitute the nutritional elements in the grains we convert to flour? These are important matters that require the immediate attention of and remedial action by the relevant authorities. This also means coordinated action by several different ministries and departments acting under an executive directive. If not, our bureaucratic compartmentalization would hardly permit any meaningful steps being taken because of the rivalries, jealousies and turf-wars that often exist in different branches of government. The attitudinal change so strongly urged by President Rajapakse on the part of public servants is an absolute necessity to plan and execute a coordinated programme of action.

Other related areas that require attention are planned land utilization for production, floor and ceiling prices at farm gate, the prices of inputs, post-harvest storage, eradication or control of vermin infestation, transport, hygienic processing and packing, standards, wholesale and retail prices and effective distribution.

Certainly, there would be morons and gainsayers who would loudly insist that the people should eat what they want when they want without government interference in their food consumption habits and attitudes. These are the hidden lobbyists of the worldwide wheat and sugar cartels and their agents in developing countries. Of course, we should eat what we want if we are affluent enough to poison ourselves and able to afford costly medical treatment thereafter. Sri Lanka is a developing country struggling to overcome many severe problems, several of them introduced from abroad by various parties. We therefore need not then listen to the braying of unpatriotic, brainwashed individuals or groups who oppose for the sake of opposition or lie without a pang of conscience. They and their erstwhile mentors have misled the People for several generations.

Enlightened action based on correct information and an understanding of the facts by concerned people is what is required right now for us to begin appreciating the amazing variety of our indigenous food.

By ByJ. B. Müller
The author may be contacted at: mullerjb1943@yahoo.com