Rice morning, noon, and night in Sri Lanka | Fork the System

My mom is an effective prepare dinner.

My father is simply barely higher. That’s how my youthful sister would all the time 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 focused on going out with their buddies, my father accompanied my grandfather to each village marriage ceremony. From what I may collect, my grandfather was the chef at each perform within the village. He had cooked to feed a whole lot.

“I adopted him like a thread follows the needle. That’s how I realized to prepare 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 once I got here to this world.

A photo of lush green fields with trees in the background
A paddy discipline by the street in a small village in Wellawaya, 282km from Colombo [Nathan Mahendra/Al Jazeera]

After I was eight years outdated, my household lived in a small home by the rice fields in my father’s village.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 residence, 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 prepare 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 bathtub 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 bathtub is cooked rice.

At residence, teatime was once I cycled residence via the rice paddies from the neighbours’ to search out my little sister nonetheless in her brilliant sequined nursery gown together with her colouring books. Exterior, youngsters 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 faculty trainer, can be simply getting up from her afternoon nap to make tea with powdered milk for us.

In the course of 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 bathtub aggala, eaten as we sat on the verandah watching the world. Generally, my mother and father would inform us about their childhood. Or we’d 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 residence, I miss the sounds and hues of these evenings that held us collectively, and the style of my father’s bathtub aggala.

A photo of someone's hands as they add coconut to rice
Roasting for about 20 minutes offers aggala a brown color and nutty style, which is how my father makes it [Nathan Mahendra/Al Jazeera]

It is just now that I perceive that, for my father, bathtub aggala was greater than candy rice balls he made for his household. For him, it was profiting from rice: a grain beloved to him and all Sri Lankans.

The beloved grain

“Udetath bathtub, dawaltath bathtub, retath bathtub” is a well-liked Sinhala saying which means “Rice for the morning, afternoon, and night time.”

Nothing displays the essence of my island and folks higher than that. Rice shouldn’t be solely the primary 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 manner for breakfast or dinner, one other rice-based meals blesses our empty plates.

It may very well 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 stuffed with caramelised coconut.

We use soaked, floor rice to arrange sweetmeats for our New 12 months each April and when visitors come over, we prepare dinner rice with aromatics like curry leaves and cinnamon and garnish it with crunchy cashews to arrange golden kaha bathtub.

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.

Laid out on a banana leaf are a coconut, a bowl of shredded coconut, two trays of dry rice and a bowl of cooked rice
Components for bathtub aggala. Clockwise from the suitable: leftover sundried rice, grated coconut, cooked and raw rice, and a coconut [Nathan Mahendra/Al Jazeera]

Rice has a big share of the island’s agriculture, frames its financial system, and unpacks our historical past. And our love for it has given beginning to a bunch of flavourful dishes.

I realized how rice grew after 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 due to the farmers toiling within the solar.

My father grew paddy in a small discipline inherited from his mother and father, which grew sufficient rice for us. Whereas he readied the sector, I might 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. Historic 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 become profitable for the colonisers. British propaganda campaigns additionally inspired folks to exchange rice with wheat of their food regimen. “By the Nineteen Forties, Sri Lanka needed to import 60 p.c of the rice wanted for the nation’s meagre six million inhabitants,” says Marambe.

Within the following many years, 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.

A young farmer walks smiling down a dirt path towards the photographer, with a hill in the background set against a bright blue sky
A baby walks to the fields with a Mammootty to assist his mother and father in Pussellayaya, a village by the Wasgamuwa Nationwide Park [Nathan Mahendra/Al Jazeera]

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 onerous foreign money scarcity additionally resulted in a gasoline disaster, and farmers need to pay extra now for reaping and threshing machines.

“Most individuals [in our village] are abandoning their fields now,” my mom mentioned once I rang her not too long ago. “The machine is charging 240 rupees [$0.66] per minute. They will’t afford it.”

Sri Lanka’s future rice manufacturing now is determined by a crippled financial system and tentative overseas loans that will or could not come.

Prior to now, leftover rice was thought-about “poor man’s meals”, so folks stopped consuming meals like diya bathtub (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 p.c in Sri Lanka and has since saved climbing. Costs soar each day, and most low-income households eat only one or two meals a day. As folks rethink their meals selections, frugal cooking has made a comeback.

My mother and father now 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 desires me to convey her some from India, the place I’m at present travelling.

My father makes bathtub aggala extra usually now. It’s a dish he realized to make by watching his mother and father and older sisters, he informed me not too long ago on the cellphone.

On a banana leaf is a coconut, a bowl of shredded coconut and a tray of bath aggala
‘For my father, bathtub aggala is meals safety. It’s minimising waste,’ writes Rathnayake [Nathan Mahendra/Al Jazeera]

When my father was a youngster, Sri Lanka was battling drought and an financial disaster within the Nineteen Seventies. Despite the fact that his household had land to develop rice, there wasn’t sufficient water. So my grandparents made essentially the most of what was obtainable.

“They informed us by no means to throw away rice, not even a single grain of it,” my father mentioned. “After I noticed somewhat boy digging in a dustbin for meals at college, 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 once I left residence to stay in Colombo, my mother and father would go to me with tightly packed grocery luggage of rice from my father’s fields. However not too long ago once I known as residence, my mom mentioned she may 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 are able to’t get diesel.”

Many households within the village at the moment are consuming diya bathtub within the morning, my mom mentioned.

Making diya bathtub entails a number of steps for those who, like my father, need to eat it scorching. Many individuals eat diya bathtub 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 subsequent 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.

A bowl of rice sits next to a bowl of diya bath toppings
Diya bathtub  as my father eats it with kiri hodi, served heat [Nathan Mahendra/Al Jazeera]

For sourness, he squeezes in half a lime or provides a number 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 bathtub 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. Should 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, but it surely provides a pleasant umami punch. Many elders consider that diya bathtub, with its fermented rice and coconut milk, cools the physique and prevents heartburn.

Talking of coconut milk, once I make diya bathtub, 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 particular person to take a seat whereas grating. He mixes the grated coconut with water, squeezing it a number of instances together 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.

A farmer drives a tractor in a muddy field as white birds flutter nearby
A tractor at work, ploughing the fields for paddy cultivation in Pussellayaya, by the Wasgamuwa Nationwide Park [Nathan Mahendra/Al Jazeera]

Greater than aggala

Whereas folks often boil recent rice for aggala, my father soaks leftover rice to make sugary, coconutty balls with a slight crunch. For him, bathtub 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.

After I made bathtub aggala not too long ago, 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 use 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 effectively along with your palms and form it into little balls. Some folks choose a little bit of a spice kick to their aggala, which is definitely accomplished by sprinkling a touch of black pepper into the combination.

As soon as prepared, all the time serve with a cup of tea.

A view of palm trees on the far shore of a river with two colourful boats docked to the shore
Like rice, coconut makes up a big chunk of Sri Lankan delicacies. Picture taken in Koggala [Nathan Mahendra/Al Jazeera]

My father’s bathtub 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 prefer to be lulled into candy teatimes at residence. One bathtub aggala at a time.

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