My mom is an effective cook dinner.
My father is simply barely higher. That’s how my youthful sister would at all times describe my mother and father’ meals. She’s proper. My mom cooked scrumptious curries. However my father cooked the meals we maintain expensive.
My father grew up in Nabiriththawewa, a small village in Kurunegala, about 120km (75 miles) from Colombo.
In contrast to his two older brothers who have been extra fascinated with going out with their pals, my father accompanied my grandfather to each village marriage ceremony. From what I may collect, my grandfather was the chef at each operate within the village. He had cooked to feed lots of.
“I adopted him like a thread follows the needle. That’s how I discovered to cook dinner,” my father would say.
Though I want I had met him, I by no means noticed my grandfather, he was already a distant reminiscence after I got here to this world.
Once I was eight years previous, my household lived in a small home by the rice fields in my father’s village. My father labored a tedious workplace job, commuting for hours on a passenger prepare daily.
However when he was dwelling, he would spend time doing two issues: gardening and cooking.
My father lived a frugal life so he may construct a safe future for his two daughters.
He was additionally a frugal cook dinner, making use of each ingredient so nothing in his kitchen ended up within the waste pit. He mastered the artwork of scrumptious snacks, like tub aggala, a Sri Lankan candy he makes utilizing coconut and leftover rice and that marked our teatime ritual rising up. In Sinhala, aggala are candy ball-shaped snacks and tub is cooked rice.
At dwelling, teatime was after I cycled dwelling via the rice paddies from the neighbours’ to search out my little sister nonetheless in her vibrant sequined nursery gown along with her colouring books. Outdoors, children can be flying kites as males labored within the fields and ladies in vibrant headwraps reaped golden-yellow paddy with their sharp sickles.
My mom, who was a authorities college instructor, can be simply getting up from her afternoon nap to make tea with powdered milk for us.
Throughout the week, teatime meant a cup of tea with a packet of biscuits or a loaf of white bread to dip. However on the weekends, it was my father’s tub aggala, eaten as we sat on the verandah watching the world. Typically, my mother and father would inform us about their childhood. Or we might simply watch colonies of bats dart throughout the night sky as night time fell, and giggle over one thing my little sister mentioned.
As I look again on these teatimes spent at dwelling, I miss the sounds and hues of these evenings that held us collectively, and the style of my father’s tub aggala.
It is just now that I perceive that, for my father, tub aggala was greater than candy rice balls he made for his household. For him, it was taking advantage of rice: a grain beloved to him and all Sri Lankans.
The beloved grain
“Udetath tub, dawaltath tub, retath tub” is a well-liked Sinhala saying which means “Rice for the morning, afternoon, and night time.”
Nothing displays the essence of my island and other people higher than that. Rice shouldn’t be solely the principle staple for Sri Lankans, it’s greater than that.
In island kitchens, rice boils daily in clay pots over firewood or steams in electrical rice cookers. A pot of steamed rice dominates our tables usually, paired with different dishes and condiments. When rice shouldn’t be cooked this fashion for breakfast or dinner, one other rice-based meals blesses our empty plates.
It could possibly be kiribath, a sticky mix of rice and coconut milk eaten for breakfast. Or rice flour is used to make idi appa or idiyappam, discs of steamed skinny noodles. Or appa or appam, bowl-shaped snacks with crispy edges and fluffy centres. Or dosa, skinny, crisp flatbreads made with a fermented rice-lentil combine. Or levariya, sweet-savoury pockets of rice noodles crammed with caramelised coconut.
We use soaked, floor rice to organize sweetmeats for our New Yr each April and when visitors come over, we cook dinner rice with aromatics like curry leaves and cinnamon and garnish it with crunchy cashews to organize golden kaha tub.
When meals is scarce, households soak leftover rice to eat within the morning with kiri hodi, a turmeric-infused coconut gravy soured with lime. This modest meal was my father’s favorite breakfast, paired with recent inexperienced chilli.
Rice feeds us, builds us, and shapes us in some ways. This humble grain that thrives within the mud holds a spot in each Sri Lankan meal and has crept into each nook and cranny of our society.
Rice has a big share of the island’s agriculture, frames its economic system, and unpacks our historical past. And our love for it has given start to a bunch of flavourful dishes.
I discovered how rice grew once we moved to our father’s village. Paddy – the phrase for the plant and the grain earlier than eradicating the hull – flourished within the fields because of the farmers toiling within the solar.
My father grew paddy in a small area inherited from his mother and father, which grew sufficient rice for us. Whereas he readied the sphere, I’d run behind him, getting my toes muddy. A few times, I helped him plant seedlings.
The earliest stone carving of paddy cultivation in Sri Lanka dates again to 939-940 AD, says Professor Buddhi Marambe, who specialises in weed science and meals safety. Historical Sri Lankan rulers constructed reservoirs to harness rainwater whereas folks developed and preserved rice varieties for greater than 3,000 years.
However when the island was colonised by the British in 1815, money crops like tea and rubber have been imposed on farmers to generate income for the colonisers. British propaganda campaigns additionally inspired folks to exchange rice with wheat of their eating regimen. “By the Forties, Sri Lanka needed to import 60 % of the rice wanted for the nation’s meagre six million inhabitants,” says Marambe.
Within the following a long time, refined wheat flour and white bread rose in recognition whereas native rice was changed by high-yield varieties to maintain the rising inhabitants – varieties that wanted chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
In 2020, there was sufficient domestically produced rice to feed Sri Lanka’s inhabitants of 21 million, Marambe says. However the then-government abruptly banned artificial fertilisers in April 2021, forcing farmers to show to natural fertilisers they weren’t used to. Farmers misplaced their harvest, and plenty of abandoned their rice fields.
By the point the ban was lifted in November final yr, Sri Lanka didn’t have sufficient overseas foreign money to import chemical fertilisers and pesticides. The arduous foreign money scarcity additionally resulted in a gasoline disaster, and farmers should pay extra now for reaping and threshing machines.
“Most individuals [in our village] are abandoning their fields now,” my mom mentioned after I rang her just lately. “The machine is charging 240 rupees [$0.66] per minute. They’ll’t afford it.”
Sri Lanka’s future rice manufacturing now is dependent upon a crippled economic system and tentative overseas loans that will or might not come.
Previously, leftover rice was thought of “poor man’s meals”, so folks stopped consuming meals like diya tub (fermented rice porridge with coconut milk) for breakfast, reaching for refined white bread slathered in preservative-laden bottled jam as an alternative.
However, in June, meals inflation was greater than 60 % in Sri Lanka and has since saved climbing. Costs soar every day, and most low-income households eat only one or two meals a day. As folks rethink their meals decisions, frugal cooking has made a comeback.
My mother and father not purchase biscuits or white bread. A packet of biscuits that value 200 Sri Lankan rupees ($0.55) per week in the past is now 600 rupees ($1.65). “Who would pay that a lot for biscuits,” my mom mentioned. She needs me to deliver her some from India, the place I’m at the moment travelling.
My father makes tub aggala extra usually now. It’s a dish he discovered to make by watching his mother and father and older sisters, he informed me just lately on the telephone.
When my father was a young person, Sri Lanka was battling drought and an financial disaster within the Nineteen Seventies. Regardless that his household had land to develop rice, there wasn’t sufficient water. So my grandparents made probably the most of what was accessible.
“They informed us by no means to throw away rice, not even a single grain of it,” my father mentioned. “Once I noticed just a little boy digging in a dustbin for meals in school, I realised what it means to have meals on the desk.”
Rice and coconuts
I don’t keep in mind us ever shopping for rice. Even after I left dwelling to stay in Colombo, my mother and father would go to me with tightly packed grocery baggage of rice from my father’s fields. However just lately after I referred to as dwelling, my mom mentioned she might need to purchase rice for the primary time in her life.
“The [threshing] machine will solely come if we give them diesel,” my mom mentioned. “And we will’t get diesel.”
Many households within the village are actually consuming diya tub within the morning, my mom mentioned.
Making diya tub entails a couple of steps when you, like my father, wish to eat it scorching. Many individuals eat diya tub chilly, which is quicker.
If there’s rice left over after dinner, my father soaks it in water, letting it soak in a single day and draining it the following morning. Then he heats up the coconut milk in a pot, provides dried crimson chilli, curry leaves, onion, salt, half a teaspoon of turmeric powder, and Maldive fish flakes (dried, cured tuna fish), and lets it simmer.
For sourness, he squeezes in half a lime or provides a couple of pods of darkish brown sun-dried tamarind. (This concoction alone is named kiri hodi). When it’s prepared, my father pours it, piping scorching, onto a bowl of rice and eats it with recent inexperienced chilli and, generally, fried dried fish.
Chilly diya tub is a no-cook meal: combine two cups of coconut milk with one cup of soaked rice. Then add thinly-sliced crimson onion, two tablespoons of lime juice, three-four roasted dried crimson chillies, one teaspoon of grated Maldive fish, and salt to style. When you prefer it sourer, squeeze in some extra lime juice.
Some folks like recent inexperienced chilli as an alternative of dried crimson chilli. Maldive fish is optionally available, nevertheless it provides a pleasant umami punch. Many elders consider that diya tub, with its fermented rice and coconut milk, cools the physique and prevents heartburn.
Talking of coconut milk, after I make diya tub, I attain for coconut milk that is available in sealed cardboard containers however my mother and father have by no means purchased coconut milk of their life, they make it. My father plucks coconuts from our backyard, removes the fibrous outer husk, halves the nut, and scrapes it with a hiramanaya – a conventional grater with a wood seat for the individual to sit down whereas grating. He mixes the grated coconut with water, squeezing it a number of occasions along with his palms to make coconut milk.
Making coconut milk is laborious, however my mother and father nonetheless do it. If rice is our staple, coconut is its mate. It thickens our curries, binds our sambals, flavours our meals, and balances meals with wholesome fat. Coconuts additionally make our condiments richer to pair with humble rice.
Greater than aggala
Whereas folks normally boil recent rice for aggala, my father soaks leftover rice to make sugary, coconutty balls with a slight crunch. For him, tub aggala is meals safety. It’s minimising waste.
To make this teatime snack, he ferments leftover cooked rice in a single day in water. Within the morning, he drains and sun-dries the rice till it’s crisp, then roasts it for about 20 minutes in a skillet on a low flame, till it turns brown.
Once I made tub aggala just lately, I roasted the rice for 5 to eight minutes and switched off the range earlier than it modified color, so it stayed white. Do as you want, roasting for longer offers aggala a golden-brown color and nutty flavour.
Utilizing a pestle and mortar, my father grinds the nice and cozy, roasted rice till he will get an uneven texture with items of damaged rice that add a pleasant crunch. You should utilize an electrical grinder as I do, simply don’t grind it into powder.
Take 250g of this floor rice and add about 100g of grated coconut, half a cup of sugar, half a teaspoon of salt, and half a cup of water. Combine it properly along with your palms and form it into little balls. Some folks want a little bit of a spice kick to their aggala, which is definitely achieved by sprinkling a touch of black pepper into the combination.
As soon as prepared, at all times serve with a cup of tea.
My father’s tub aggala is an affidavit to Sri Lanka’s longstanding relationship with rice. It bears witness to the island’s usually troubled historical past and current, twisted and framed by politics and financial pursuits.
The street to restoration is lengthy. However for now, I’d wish to be lulled into candy teatimes at dwelling. One tub aggala at a time.