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Kitchen and the State

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To build a healthy nation and pave the way for a system of progressive agriculture for the country, it is essential that Sri Lanka must make a paradigm shift in the culinary habits of its people, enabling them to adopt healthier cooking and eating practices 

The Government does not have a formal policy to control damage caused to crops by wild animals. According to official data, the damage caused by wild animals to agriculture in Sri Lanka remains as high as 40% of total agro production

Apart from the urgent need for having a major structural change in the State and the system of governance, Sri Lanka must seriously contemplate making a significant change in food habits of its people, what they eat and how they cook them. 

This is an issue pertaining to the kitchen which is generally not discussed as seriously as politics and the system of governance of the State. However, when I say that there should be a drastic change in both the State and the kitchen, or the food habits of people, it implies that Sri Lanka has reached a stage where not only the State and society, but all other aspects connected to it, big or small, must be changed for better quality, following the favorable modern trends.

The failure of the present State of Sri Lanka can be considered a topic being discussed widely at present. The tragedy of Easter Sunday was an incident that clearly reflected the failure of the State. The societal conflicts and divisions that emerged as a result clearly demonstrate the gravity of the present confusion of the social system of Sri Lanka.

This can also be considered an instance in which the seriousness of the confusion created by the 19th Amendment in the system of governance was clearly manifested. It can also be described as an occasion that reflected the extent of confusion created by the 19th Amendment in the system of governance and its adverse impact on the Legislature, particularly in the sphere of enacting laws and also the level of bankruptcy the Legislature has fallen into.

The story of sterilisation of mothers, alleged to Dr. Shafi, apart from revealing the true nature of the dangerous role being played by the Sri Lankan media, has clearly demonstrated the extent to wh ich the public can be misled by baseless and false allegations.


Fallacy of Samurdi 

An infant of 11 months of Vijayapura area, Tissamaharamaya, died due to extreme poverty and starvation. Tissamaharamaya is a political stronghold of Sajith Premadasa, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the JVP. Large sums of money had been spent on development of infrastructure facilities in Hambantota District during the regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. 

It may be that Sajith Premadasa has done many things for the progress of this area using the official power that he wields at present. Similarly, even the JVP might have contributed to the development of the area when it held the power of the Tissamaharamaya Pradeshiya Sabha. Despite all these development initiatives, this incident clearly demonstrates the extent of poverty that still lingers in the district, costing lives of innocent children for want of food.

The country has a Samurdhi program being implemented at a cost of Rs. 50 billion per annum for social empowerment and welfare of poor people who remain in the depths of poverty. The Samurdhi program has a management staff of 27,000. Paradoxically, the administrative cost of the program including the salaries of the staff is much higher than the total value of subsidy paid to the beneficiaries. 

The number of beneficiary families which stood at 1.5 million has now increased to 2.1 million, with 600, 000 new families being added to it by the present Government on political considerations. If poverty is considered the main criterion to receive the Samurdhi subsidy, the level of poverty of Sri Lanka can be said to stand at 40% of the total population.

A similar program of poverty alleviation called ‘Janasaviya’ was introduced by late President Ranasinghe Premadasa. Thereafter, the United Front Government continued this program with its name changed as ‘Samurdhi’. It increased the number of beneficiary families and the management staff as well. Along with that, it was used as a component of the election machinery and a voting stunt of the Government. 

At the initiation of the program, it was envisaged to eliminate the poverty of the beneficiaries who were enrolled into the program within a period of two to four years and replace them with new entrants to the program. But it did not materialise. Despite three decades having passed since this program was launched, it has failed to eliminate the poverty of the poor people who had been enrolled for the subsidy. 

In this backdrop, the Samurdhi program can be described as an ugly and abusive program maintained at the cost of public money and with the consensus of all political parties that represent the people in Parliament, ironically with the object of keeping the poor, the Samurdhi beneficiaries, in poverty, never allowing them to come out of it, so that they can be made virtual serfs of major political parties. What the poor need is a fishing rod, not a fish! The way the Samurdhi subsidy is paid is not reasonable. While a large number of families not deserving the subsidy are among the beneficiaries, a substantial number of poor families who deserve the subsidy have been ignored and eliminated from the beneficiary list. The family members of the infant who died recently of extreme malnutrition had not been enrolled into the program. The fact that there is a large number of families that deserves the subsidy that are not included in it while a large number that does not deserve it are enjoying its benefits is evident from the unfortunate incident in Tissamaharamaya.

If an investigation is made into the management of the Samurdhi subsidy program which is being implemented in the name of poverty alleviation and at a massive cost of public money, inevitably a substantial number of politicians who had steered this program may end up in prison. The child from Tissamaharamaya died of acute malnutrition. It must be said that Sri Lanka ranks high among Asian countries in the Global Index of Malnutrition.


Rural poverty 

The factors affecting rural poverty are wide and varied. Shortage of sufficient lands for cultivation and lack of knowledge in making optimum use of available lands can be considered among the main reasons for this situation.

The land problem has been aggravated by the division of available limited land area among family members. This problem has been aggravated in different forms, even in the tank irrigated farmer settlements in the dry zone.

The heavy dependence of rural agriculture on paddy cultivation, which yields a comparatively very low income, can be considered a main problem that has caused rural poverty. 

If the farmers are lucky enough, the maximum income they can earn from one acre of paddy will be in the region of Rs. 40,000 for one season. The labor requirement of paddy cultivation is relatively low compared to the cultivation of vegetables and other crops. For a season the farmer has to work only 19 days to cultivate one acre of paddy. This situation too has contributed to reduce the productivity of labour. 

A total of 922,151 hectares of land have been utilised for paddy cultivation, while only 878,623 hectares have been utilised for all other crops including tea (229,262), rubber (207,625), coconut (295,552) and other cash crops (146,181). The prominence given for paddy cultivation can be seen from these figures. 

Given that the income generated from paddy cultivation stands at a low level and the prominence given to agriculture is high, it is inevitable that the country and the population that depends on paddy cultivation become poor.

A substantial section of paddy lands, more than 500,000 acres in the wet zone, are not cultivated at all, for various reasons. Due to strict laws governing the use of paddy lands, they are not being used for the cultivation of other crops as well. These lands can easily be used to grow grass required for cattle farming. But cattle farming of the country is not in a condition capable of being improved, due to the absence of a clearcut policy with regard to the consumption of beef. 

“Whoever who eats beef is low caste” – the slogan of Anagarika Dharmapala appears to have had its impact on the psyche of the Sinhalese Buddhist to date.

There is great potential in Sri Lanka to produce the entire milk requirement within the country itself. But this potential has been blocked by the conservative attitudes with regard to the consumption of beef. It is not economically viable and productive to restrict cattle farming only for milk. It can be a sustainable and productive industry only if it is carried out for both milk and beef. The investors do not focus on cattle farming to produce only milk in countries where there are sanctions on slaughtering of cattle for beef. 


Damage caused by wild animals 

If the income earned by a farmer from paddy cultivation is low, the number of days he works is restricted to 19 days only for a season, and he refrains from keeping himself occupied in another task which is economically effective, at least for another 50 days of his time, inevitably, it will make his life poor and miserable. 

Despite the farmers of tank-irrigated farmer settlements in the dry zone having been allocated dry lands in addition to the paddy lands, they are not in a position to make the best use of them due to the threats posed by wild animals. The Government does not have a formal policy to control damage caused to crops by wild animals. 

According to official data of the Government, the damage caused by wild animals to agriculture in Sri Lanka remains as high as 40% of total agro production. The density of wild boar, peacocks, monkeys, small brown monkeys or rilavus and wild elephants that have become a serious threat is very high. Similarly, the damage they cause to agriculture is equally high. 

The farmers, who come under constant attacks by wild boar, often tend to abandon their effort rather than continuing to cultivate the dry lands irrespective of the damage caused by wild animals. In this backdrop, the Government should have a consistent policy to control the high growth of wild animals damaging the agriculture or at least allow the farmers to hunt the animals, except elephants, who damage their crops. 

It would be possible to control successfully the density of wild animals damaging the crops by following a policy that would authorise the farmers to hunt wild animals damaging their crops except wild elephants and granting them the right to keep the meat of hunted animals in their possession, transport and sell them. It can provide an additional source of income for the poor farmers. 

People prefer to consume wild boar meat. The farmers can be provided with an extra source of income by adopting a policy that will authorise the hunting of wild boar and sale of meat in the open market. Even among Buddhist countries, meat consumption in Sri Lanka remains at a very low level.

Sinhala Buddhist farmers cannot be considered as refraining from eating flesh. The farmers of the dry zone had their staple food, kurakkan thalapa, with dadamas (the flesh of hunted quadrupeds). Extreme religious ideologies have made Sri Lankans an unhealthy nation that suffers from protein malnutrition. Protein malnutrition in Sri Lanka is as high as 30%. 

The damage caused to cultivation by wild animals is an important factor in relation to rural poverty. The rural youth of Sri Lanka have refrained from selecting agriculture as a career and chosen to become mediocre three-wheeler drivers as agriculture is not modernised to generate an adequate income.


Outdated kitchen 

To build a healthy nation and pave the way for a system of progressive agriculture for the country, it is essential that Sri Lanka must make a paradigm shift in the culinary habits of its people, enabling them to adopt healthier cooking and eating practices. In this backdrop, in addition to having a modern state, Sri Lanka must dream of creating a modern kitchen culture as well. 

Sri Lanka is reckoned to be a nation where people consume rice for all three meals. Eating rice is considered a respectful and patriotic practice. Illnesses like diabetes, anemia and protein malnutrition remain at a very high level in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka can be considered a nation that consumes more rice and fewer quantities of fish, meat, poultry items, vegetables and fruits. 

Traditionally, the people of Sri Lanka have got accustomed to serve a large portion of rice in to the plate when they are having their main meals. On the contrary, the Japanese people eat only a small quantity of rice, served in a small cup.

To make the nation healthy, it is important that we reduce the quantity of rice consumed and increase that of other ingredients like fish, meat, poultry, vegetables and fruits. The more we reduce the consumption of rice, the less it becomes the national demand for rice. It may also lead to a reduction in the number of farmers depending on paddy cultivation and shift them to grow other crops yielding a higher income, thereby reducing their level of poverty as well. By increasing the quantity of meat products, vegetables and fruits consumed, it would be possible to increase the demand for such items. The culinary practices adopted in Sri Lanka are relatively conservative and outdated. Though our staple diet consists of rice and curry, we can be described as a nation which does not know how to cook rice to a proper standard and to prepare the curries to suit that.

The best quality tea in the world is produced in our country. Though tea was introduced to Sri Lanka by the British, drinking tea has become a regular feature and an important part of our life. Yet, many housewives do not know how to make a good cup of tea. Often the infusion can be more or tea may not be adequately brewed and added with more sugar. The same flaws can be observed with regard to the preparation of a cup of milk tea as well.

Nowadays, most of the tea kiosks serve instant tea prepared with tea bags. It is very rare that one can have a traditional cup of tea from an ordinary tea boutique. Instant tea served in these shops makes you sick of drinking tea. When a cup of tea without milk is ordered from tea kiosks, what you get is a cup of hot water, sugar and a tea bag served separately. Only a very few know that the quality of tea bags served in ordinary tea kiosks are inferior. Despite the magnificent look of the pack, the quality of the content is very low!

The food recipes used by households can be considered monotonous and devoid of much variety. The repertoire of their recipes is restricted to about 10 dishes. Even the techniques used for cooking are limited to two or three methods, viz with gravy, no gravy or fried with oil, etc. 

The monotony of limited recipes and the limited methods of cooking invariably result in discouraging the person who does the cooking. Even the consumer will get fed up of being compelled to eat almost the same thing everyday. So our housewives are compelled to cook food for the sake of cooking and not because they have an abiding interest in it. Even those who consume food do so because they don’t have any other alternative but to eat what is available. Generally, a meal should be colourful. Its appearance must generate an appetite. It should be tasty as well as nourishing. But, Sri Lanka can be described as a nation that does not take these three aspects seriously into account in preparing a meal. 

We must learn the art of preparing food in different ways. Yet, we know only three or four methods of cooking fish, which include mirisata (hot), kirata (light), ambulthiyal (hot, sour and peppery) and fried in oil. Some nations have adopted over 100 methods for cooking fish. 

Not only in households, even in shops where food items are sold, you may have noticed the retention of oil in items such as Chinese rolls, fish and meat which have been deep fried in oil. It can be a defect caused by putting the stuff into the frying pan before getting the oil boiled up to the required level of heat or adding a higher quantity of items to the pan which is not commensurate with the quantity of oil in it. I must say that this is a common defect that can be observed frequently in Sri Lanka. 

We often hear of dismal incidents in which farmers are compelled to destroy cabbage in large quantities during the season, being unable to sell their harvest. One reason for this situation is that the people of Sri Lanka do not know how cabbage should be consumed. We know only two or three methods of cooking cabbage whereas some nations have adopted wide and varied methods of cooking cabbage, most of them yielding an excellent tasteTomato consumption in Sri Lanka is also the same. Per capita consumption of tomato stands at a very low level. We do not know how tomato can be made a supplementary item in our meal. Tomato is consumed fresh only when it is used as an ingredient of a green salad. There is hardly a tradition of consuming fresh tomato juice among Sri Lankan people. Those consuming hard liquor can make it a more soothing drink by mixing it with fresh tomato juice prepared slightly thicker (with a pinch of powdered pepper added if necessary) instead of shandying it with soda or Coca-Cola. It will not only make the alcoholic drink a colourful and pleasing drink , but will also help mitigate the probable damage caused to the liver by alcohol.At present, gas or electric ovens are being used in many houses. But the oven is used very rarely, perhaps to make a cake occasionally. The oven is hardly used for preparing normal food. No one is bothered to experiment with the oven and see what new uses it can be put to. When fish ambulthiyal is made, it can be made tastier by keeping the container of fish already cooked the normal way in the oven and baking it for a few minutes.A few weeks ago the Japanese Government banned the production, sale and possession of microwave ovens. There is a large number of microwave ovens users in Sri Lanka. Japan has imposed this ban after several years of research and experiments by scientists who have discovered that radio waves cause greater harm to the health of the citizens. The damage caused to health by food re-heated in microwave ovens can be extremely high.

Pix by Shehan Gunasekara


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