Rice morning, noon, and night in Sri Lanka

My father grew up in Nabiriththawewa, a small village in Kurunegala, about 120km (75 miles) from Colombo.

Unlike his two older brothers who were more interested in going out with their friends, my father accompanied my grandfather to every village wedding. From what I could gather, my grandfather was the chef at every function in the village. He had cooked to feed hundreds.

“I followed him like a thread follows the needle. That’s how I learned to cook,” my father would say.Although I wish I had met him, I never saw my grandfather, he was already a distant memory when I came to this world.

When I was eight years old, my family lived in a small house by the rice fields in my father’s village. My father worked a tedious office job, commuting for hours on a passenger train every day.

But when he was home, he would spend time doing two things: gardening and cooking.

My father lived a frugal life so he could build a secure future for his two daughters.

He was also a frugal cook, making use of every ingredient so nothing in his kitchen ended up in the waste pit. He mastered the art of delicious snacks, like bath aggala, a Sri Lankan sweet he makes using coconut and leftover rice and that marked our teatime ritual growing up. In Sinhala, aggala are sweet ball-shaped snacks and bath is cooked rice.

When I was eight years old, my family lived in a small house by the rice fields in my father’s village. My father worked a tedious office job, commuting for hours on a passenger train every day.

But when he was home, he would spend time doing two things: gardening and cooking.

At home, teatime was when I cycled home through the rice paddies from the neighbours’ to find my little sister still in her bright sequined nursery dress with her colouring books. Outside, kids would be flying kites as men worked in the fields and women in colourful headwraps reaped golden-yellow paddy with their sharp sickles.

My mother, who was a government school teacher, would be just getting up from her afternoon nap to make tea with powdered milk for us.

During the week, teatime meant a cup of tea with a packet of biscuits or a loaf of white bread to dip. But on the weekends, it was my father’s bath aggala, eaten as we sat on the verandah watching the world. Sometimes, my parents would tell us about their childhood. Or we would just watch colonies of bats dart across the evening sky as night fell, and giggle over something my little sister said.

As I look back on those teatimes spent at home, I miss the sounds and colours of those evenings that held us together, and the taste of my father’s bath aggala.

The beloved grain

“Udetath bath, dawaltath bath, retath bath” is a popular Sinhala saying that means “Rice for the morning, afternoon, and night.”

Nothing reflects the essence of my island and people better than that. Rice is not only the main staple for Sri Lankans, it’s more than that.

In island kitchens, rice boils every day in clay pots over firewood or steams in electric rice cookers. A pot of steamed rice dominates our tables often, paired with other dishes and condiments. When rice is not cooked this way for breakfast or dinner, another rice-based food blesses our empty plates.

It could be kiribath, a sticky blend of rice and coconut milk eaten for breakfast. Or rice flour is used to make idi appa or idiyappam, discs of steamed thin noodles. Or appa or appam, bowl-shaped snacks with crispy edges and fluffy centres. Or dosa, thin, crisp flatbreads made with a fermented rice-lentil mix. Or levariya, sweet-savoury pockets of rice noodles filled with caramelised coconut.

We use soaked, ground rice to prepare sweetmeats for our New Year every April and when guests come over, we cook rice with aromatics like curry leaves and cinnamon and garnish it with crunchy cashews to prepare golden kaha bath.

When food is scarce, families soak leftover rice to eat in the morning with kiri hodi, a turmeric-infused coconut gravy soured with lime. This modest meal was my father’s favourite breakfast, paired with fresh green chilli.

Rice feeds us, builds us, and shapes us in many ways. This humble grain that thrives in the mud holds a place in every Sri Lankan meal and has crept into every nook and cranny of our society.

Rice has a large share of the island’s agriculture, frames its economy, and unpacks our history. And our love for it has given birth to a host of flavourful dishes.

I learned how rice grew when we moved to our father’s village. Paddy – the word for the plant and the grain before removing the hull – flourished in the fields thanks to the farmers toiling in the sun.

My father grew paddy in a small field inherited from his parents, which grew enough rice for us. While he readied the field, I would run behind him, getting my feet muddy. Once or twice, I helped him plant seedlings.

The earliest stone carving of paddy cultivation in Sri Lanka dates back to 939-940 AD, says Professor Buddhi Marambe, who specialises in weed science and food security. Ancient Sri Lankan rulers built reservoirs to harness rainwater while people developed and preserved rice varieties for more than 3,000 years.But when the island was colonised by the British in 1815, cash crops like tea and rubber were imposed on farmers to make money for the colonisers. British propaganda campaigns also encouraged people to replace rice with wheat in their diet. “By the 1940s, Sri Lanka had to import 60 percent of the rice needed for the country’s meagre six million population,” says Marambe.In the following decades, refined wheat flour and white bread rose in popularity while native rice was replaced by high-yield varieties to sustain the growing population – varieties that needed chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

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