Cooking Sri Lankan
Kumari Tilakawardane caught up with veteran children’s author and food writer Shyamali Perera to celebrate the launch of her new Sri Lankan Style series.
When Shyamali Perera was a young girl, she was banned from the kitchen. Not the usual coming of age story of someone who would grow up to be the author of multiple cookbooks, but it’s something that shaped her identity.
“My great-grandma, who I called ‘Archchi’, was the leader of the painstaking process of planning, delegating, and preparing each wonderful meal for everyone,” remembers Shyamali. “Three times a day she cooked full meals, never forgetting snacks.”
The kitchen and all its wonders were an exciting treasure trove for young Shyamali, who learned very quickly that it can be a dangerous as well as fascinating place. “I used to run in and out of the kitchen, and twice I had bumped into jugs of boiling water, sustaining second-degree burns. I was banished from the kitchen after that; my father forbade me to cross the chalk line that he drew across the door every morning before he left for work.”
Fortunately for Shyamali, and those of us who have benefitted from her food writing in the years since, her Archchi found a way to bring her back into the kitchen, safely. “She took me under her charge and got me involved in certain prep work. So, I got to watch, observe, and feel important – all the while staying out of trouble!”
It was from her Archchi, Shyamali says, that she learnt all about the importance of presentation, flavours, and food group combinations. “But the main thing she taught me was that patience and love are the most important ingredients in any dish,” smiles Shyamali.
It should have been clear from her early years that Shyamali was destined to become a cookbook writer. “I started documenting and writing the recipes my Archchi taught me from when I was about seven,” she says. “I named it 'My Tasty Cookbook', and stuck in cut-outs from magazines and newspapers.”
Indeed, food has always been a big part of Shyamali’s life. “My earliest memory is eating ‘kiributh’ – which is also known as milk rice – on a banana leaf as a young child.”
For those in the know, Sri Lankan food really is one of the wonders of the world. It’s not shy about flavour, and uses vivid colours and spices that make even the simplest dish sing. The island’s cuisine sometimes bears traces of colonial touches from the Dutch and Portuguese, and depending on which town you’re in you might find Burgher, Sinhalese, Malay or Tamil delicacies piled high on your plate.
To hear Shyamali tell it, growing up in Sri Lanka was a constant treat for the senses. She fondly recalls the beautiful beaches filled with golden sand onto which fishermen hauled their boats, piled with the catch of the day. Then there were the island’s historical ruins, dating back to around 1000 BC, and the iconic sights like the rolling green hills and plantations which line ‘Tea Country’.
Beautiful as it is, this place is not just about the sights, though. “When the fishermen brought their catch to shore, they performed a special chant pulling their nets up the sand, which has always stuck with me,” remembers Shyamali.
Our sense of smell is supposedly the one most linked to memory, and Shyamali’s childhood Sri Lanka seems potently fragranced. “The smell of the tropical rain that bring new life to the trees and plants, and then the smell of sweetmeats and firecrackers during the New Year celebrations in April are things I always remember.”
Shyamali’s family emigrated to the United States in 1989, after the outbreak of the Civil War in Sri Lanka. She trained as an educator, and spent years teaching children in the Orange County area of California. When she first arrived Stateside, one of the biggest problems she faced was not being able to easily source the ingredients she was used to eating back home, though she soon learned to adapt with the staples readily available in local stores.
Though Asian ingredients are much easier to come by these days, Shyamali doesn’t spend the entire week feasting on Sri Lankan specialities. She’s a vegetarian now, so tries her hand at veggie specialities from a variety of cultures. “I enjoy cooking Italian, Mexican and Chinese food a lot,” she says. “My children have married into different cultures too, so our Thanksgiving dinners include Mexican, Indian and Creole Soul Food dishes, as well as Sri Lankan ones.”
It was in part thanks to her children that she decided to write 2020’s Sri Lankan Style cookbook series, which she hopes will introduce a younger, Western audience to her native cuisine. The series, which comes after 2014’s Curry & Rice: Three Generations of Sri Lankan Recipes, provides a comprehensive guide to the island’s food, with eight books dedicated to different elements – from starters to desserts and everything in between.
Shyamali wrote the Sri Lankan Style books after speaking with her mother throughout the pandemic as a way to keep her company and commemorate all her memories and musings on Sri Lanka. Very sadly, Shyamali’s mother passed away in November, though her recipes and memories live on through her daughter’s books.
Shyamali hopes the new series – available in paperback and as Amazon eBooks from December 2020 – will bring Sri Lankan cooking to the forefront of the foodie conversation. With so many of us stuck at home, not going out to restaurants and experimenting in our kitchens during lockdown – now’s the time to try something new.
Shyamali’s books are available on Amazon here. You can also find Shyamali’s eBooks and paperback titles at Smashwords/Barnes & Noble and Ingram Sparks.
Author: Kumari Tilakawardane