Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Trouble With Sri Lankan Food

Like most of us around these parts I love Sri Lankan food. In fact, like most Sri Lankans I just love food, with a leaning towards anything Sri Lankan.

I read Lankan recipes and food blogs and look like a dog with a cooked cat being dangled in front of its face. I suspect I drool, I make no apologies for that. There's no better smell than that of some garlic, curry leaves and mustard seed frying, just waiting to become the base for whatever curry is dish of the day.

Indian food is just that; Indian food, though very nice. Sri Lankan food is rice and curry, the real deal.

But there is a problem with Lankan food, one that I've put my finger on lately. I feel like a doctor who's diagnosed an illness that a fellow's had for years but, instead of wondering what's been wrong with him all this time, the patient has had that vague feeling that something wasn't right.

Yes, I ask you to bear with me on this one, the fact is, and I so hate to say this, Sri Lankan food is NOT photogenic.

"Don't be so stupid RD, there's nothing more appetising than a good photo of a plateful of rice and curry." I hear you shouting at the monitor.

Well the fact is that the photo isn't appetising, it's our knowledge of what the food tastes like that makes it feel that way. Particularly for us diasporic types, stranded in remote, savage and lawless territories like the UK and Japan, where we pine for all things Sri Lankan and would prefer a glass of Portello to a crate of the finest champagne.

There are foods that look good, they're the international supremodels of the food world, the Claudias and the Elles of gastronomy. Of course the Italian and meditteranean varieties rank highly in this chart. A picture of a nice Spanish Paella is full of colour and texture and looks good in its own right, a nice photo of a lovely pasta dish can be bursting with reds and greens and convey a feeling of freshness and Latin lusciousness.

An image of some sizzling British sausages with the skin caramelised has an appeal that I feel yet can't explain, there's no level involved between the picture and my mind, I could eat the picture.

And then we give the world our staple; parippu. I love a bowl of dhal as much as the next Sri Lankan, I'll eat it for breakfast with toast or on its own with rice or grab a few spoonfuls out of a cold portion sitting in the fridge. But, like so many other Sri Lankan dishes it just doesn't look good.

Face it, it you were a white person with no knowledge of Lankan cuisine, you'd hardly see a recipe for parippu with a picture and feel like you want to try making it, would you? Once we know what it tastes like things are very different. Mallungs and pol sambol are usually quite bright in colour but usually there's just the one colour blaring at us at a level eleven. Artificial food colourings have been banned for less.

String hoppers are the culinary equivalent of a night with (insert name of ideal partner here....) but they don't look great, resembling plain noodles thrown at a wall until they stick together a bit. Murunga tastes like heaven on a plate, but if Indiana Jones stumbled across some in the jungle he'd be scared of it and probably push the girl in front of him towards it first.

I was reading that cookery book the other day, the newish one by that Peter Kuruvita. It's fantastic, full of seemingly easy to follow and delicious looking recipes, interesting anecdotes and tales about his life and family in Sri Lanka. The photographs are stunning too. But I just don't think the great food of Serendib is easy to portray in a way that makes it look appealing.

Unless of course you already know what it tastes like.

Any thoughts?


Sach said...

Have to agree I guess. A sushi plate, an Italian pizza or even an Indian naan bread with curries look yummier than a Sri Lankan dish.

Of course our good old Pradeep Jeganathan might disagree here.

aufidius said...

Reading these sort of posts as a student living outside home, who is an expert in cooking rice and different varieties of dhal (well lentils for us pseudo british)doesn't really leave one composed till lunch with the weight of expectation, only to be disappointed that the closest substitute on a normal day at office is a boots or tesco's meal deal!

crystal flame said...

I totally agree with you. it looks only appetizing to us the lankans who already know the taste. well kottu might look good on pictures though.. May be because all our curries almost has one color in them.. parippu - yellow. pala - green. chicken - red/brown. ?