Even if you knew nothing about Vijaya, her haunting portrait would likely give you pause. She peers out of the page, unsmiling, her silver hair pulled back and her eyes conveying an unspoken anguish. From the accompanying narrative, we learn that a few years ago, almost overnight, Vijaya became her granddaughter Anjali’s primary caretaker. Her daughter, Gayathri, set out to find nutritious food for the family amidst heavy shelling, at the violent end of Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war, and never returned home.
In the years since, money has been scarce and fresh vegetables in limited supply. But Vijaya and her granddaughter survived on creamy, coconut milk-laced sothis, mild gravies that act as soothing antidotes to the scorching cuisine of Sri Lanka’s Tamil-dominated north. Sothis are a common part of everyday meals. But seen through the lens of war — and Vijaya’s lingering loss — this simple side dish acquires a new depth.
It is this exploration of food — both as a source of sustenance and a repository of memories — in the context of war that makes Handmade, a cookbook published by Palmera, a not-for-profit organization based in Australia, different from the other Sri Lankan cookbooks to have come out in recent times.
Handmade is set in the aftermath of the brutal, 26-year-long civil war that has had a profound bearing on the contemporary history of Sri Lanka. The protracted battle came to an end in 2009, when the Sri Lankan government defeated the Tamil Tigers, a rebel group that had been fighting for a separate state for the Tamil ethnic minority in the island’s north and east.
The conflict extracted a severe toll, especially from civilians caught in the crosshairs in theTamil Tiger-controlled northern reaches of the country. According to United Nations estimates, the fighting claimed at least 40,000 civilian casualties. More than 80,000 women in the country’s north and east were widowed by the war, government estimates suggest.
Fittingly, Handmade trains its lens on 34 women from across the country’s north, all of whom experienced the conflict from close quarters. Their stories of struggle and survival are interspersed with their recipes, which are representative of the distinctive cuisine of northern Sri Lanka.
Commonly referred to as Jaffna cooking, named after the capital city of the northern province, the local cuisine has been uniquely shaped by geography and circumstance. It celebrates the abundance of seafood from the waters of the surrounding Bay of Bengal, and compensates for the arid climate by making the most of locally grown produce such as palmyrah (a tropical palm that has many versatile uses), green gram, moringa, or drumstick, and coconut. Years of war-led shortages have influenced local food customs, as has the cultural proximity that the predominantly Hindu region shares with South India.
For Abarna Suthanthiraj, founder of Palmera, an organization that has been working closely with rural communities across Sri Lanka to create livelihood opportunities, food seemed like the most poignant way to tell these difficult stories, and have them resonate with a wider audience. “I always wanted to tell [these] stories in a different way, but I didn’t know how we could make it work,” she says. “I thought food would be a language that would be a bit more universal.”
Working on a cookbook also meant revisiting Suthanthiraj’s own roots as a Sri Lankan Tamil. Her family fled the country following ethnic riots in 1983, and ended up in Australia, where her mother turned to cooking traditional recipes as a way to raise funds for the country they had left behind..
Research began almost two years before the book was formally released in January 2016. The most crucial — and delicate — aspect was identifying the women who would be a part of the project. “We selected a group of women who had experienced something through the war, but were in a position where telling the story wouldn’t cause a negative impact on their mental state,” says Suthanthiraj.
Nearly all the women featured in the book carry deep emotional scars. Some had lost an immediate family member, others had been displaced from their homes or had been grievously injured. To conceal their identities, their names have been changed and their geographical location has deliberately been kept very vague. The photographs also reflect the effort to keep identities hidden — many of the portraits are shot in silhouette, and several of the photographs feature close-ups of hands at work in the kitchen.
Neatly categorized into snacks, soups, mains, sweets and drinks, the recipes serve as a handy primer to Jaffna cooking. With informative chapters on unusual ingredients — such as the bitter leaves and blossoms of the vepam or margosa tree and products of the palmyrah tree — and a detailed glossary of ingredients, the cookbook makes an effort to be comprehensive. It also documents traditional recipes, such as those served to new mothers during paththiyam, or confinement — the period right after childbirth. That includes dishes like paththiya meen kari, a mildly spiced fish broth, and muttai maa, a nutritious, coarse meal made of rice flour, black gram flour, eggs and sesame seeds.
Although it is a useful compendium of recipes, it’s clear that what makes Handmade special are the stories. For one year after the war, a woman named Visalakshi and her family, including her husband, son and daughter, found themselves shunted from one refugee camp set up by the Sri Lankan government to another. During their time in the camps, Visalakshi and her daughter, Kamakshi, developed a deep distaste for the boiled lentil flour that was served every day. “I used to feel nauseated when I inhaled the smell of the steaming flour,” reads her account in the book. Three years later, having returned to their home, Visalakshi often cooks uluththamaa kool, a sweet porridge made of rice, black gram flour and jaggery (a kind of unrefined, palm sugar made from the sap of palmyrah) for her children. Although its gloopy texture resembles that of the tasteless food they were once served, the addition of coconut and jaggery, simple ingredients that are once again freely available, elevates the flavor of this rustic dish.
Similarly, vadais, or lentil fritters — widely sold as street food across the country — acquire a new meaning when one learns that Malathy , a mother of four, sold them on the streets to feed her family during the war. “The spinach vadais went from being a snack to their means of survival,” we read.
Most of the accounts make careful allusions to the devastating impact of the war but stop well short of spelling them out. Eager to find the proverbial silver lining, the stories dwell on a hopeful theme, which sometimes seems like a forced addition.
Suthanthiraj admits that the organization struggled with the ethical dilemmas of wrestling with a narrative steeped in politics. “It was not like only some parts of the story were political; it was embedded in everything,” she says.
In the process of working out the tone, some of the most moving details had to be edited out. “A lot of the women shared stories about how something traumatic had happened when they were cooking or eating something, and they have never been able to eat that food again,” she says. “For one of the women, it was a basic essential, like rice.”
According to chroniclers of the local culture, there is a larger story waiting to be told about the ways in which the conflict has shaped local food traditions. “In Jaffna, we have a dish called mithivedi (or landmine),” says Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan, an artist, art historian and professor at the University of Jaffna, who also has an avid interest in food. A mithivedi is a Chinese roll, the colloquial term for a deep-fried, breaded cutlet with a potato, meat or fish filling. “Why has this dish named after a weapon become so popular?”
Years of limited supplies — caused by the blocking of a major highway and an economic embargo imposed by the government on Tamil Tiger-controlled territories — have also fueled a local fascination in the North with everyday food items that are now freely available. “The civil war made people sick of their own products, whether those were household products, cosmetics or food,” says Thulasi Muttulingam, a Jaffna-based journalist who presents vignettes from post-war life in the north through her popular Facebook page, Humans of Northern Sri Lanka. “[Things like] wheat, sodas and ice cream were in short supply, so the craze for them is yet to die down.”
Old favorites have been dethroned by new pleasures in post-war Jaffna, and there is perhaps room for a food book that explores this complicated new reality. Until that happens, Handmade is a welcome start.
Handmade can be ordered via the Palmera website.
Based in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Vidya Balachander is a journalist who specializes in food and travel writing. Her work has previously appeared in Roads & Kingdoms, National Geographic Traveller India, Harper’s Bazaar and other publications.