Sri Lankan cuisine, our ethos and Chef Pubilis

Thursday, 27 January 2011 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Last week my column was a photo-essay of Chef Pubilis in action at a village interaction. It must have told the story of how he captivated his audience in sharing his wisdom with them. Yet, there is another underlying story that those pictures could not tell and today, I venture to share it with you.

For the villagers of Kiula in the Deep South of Sri Lanka, it was not just another event. They had heard of him, seen him on television and some had even tried recipes he had created. They brought along exercise books, pieces of paper with ballpoint pens to write out quantities they thought he would prescribe for new dishes.

Some had imagined he would make a cookery demonstration, while some others even expected gimmicks like sing-songs, quizzes and game-shows to accompany the session, like they often see on that idiot box.

A meaningful interaction

Instead, what they were treated was to a meaningful interaction that touched their very own lifestyles. It was about their families, their children, their aspirations, their health, their ethos and their belief systems.

The interactive discussion began with food, nutrition and values. Chef Pubilis of the Mount Lavinia Hotel had come to their village for he cared for their wellbeing. He sought to share his knowledge, experience and practise with them.

He was aware, how even in rural villages such as Kiula, the influence of fast foods of convenience, was gaining ground. Television promotions and advertisements of these foods were fast replacing the nutritious and wholesome meals villagers had earlier placed pride on their meal palettes.

Chef Pubilis, who was conferred the Presidential Award as a Tourism Legend in 2009, referred to over 350 herbs and vegetables available in and around a village located on the borders of the wet and dry zones of Sri Lanka.

That did not include the hill country vegetables, the likes of carrots, leaks, beetroots and cabbage introduced to us by our former colonial rulers. He emphasised the food and health value of most of what was found growing in abundance in backyards of homes and in shrub-forests around.

Nutritional food choices

The area has Rathu Kakulu (red rice), an extremely rich source of protein and other nutrients, as the predominant variety of rice that is grown. Its harvest is more than adequate to feed the entire village population three meals of rice a day. Contrary to popular belief, he recommended that the villagers continue to consume as much rice as possible with different styles of preparations to retain variety and diversity.

Kola kanda (herbal soup) with rice in it, kiri bath (milk rice), mung kiribath (mung bean rice), imbul kiri bath (sweet coconut and juggary rice), red rice flour string hoppers with pol sambol (coconut sambol) and kiri hodi or pol roti for breakfast with the accompaniment of fresh fruits and iramusu or beli mal herbal drinks was second to no other breakfast spread in the world, he said, in terms of nutritional value and for the quality of pleasing taste buds.

References for lunch and dinner included rice or similar main dishes with the accompaniment of the rich variety of vegetables any villager can have easy access to.

Highlighting the medicinal as well as nutritional value of our many spices, he called the womenfolk of the village to share their own knowledge with the audience of nearly 200 others. He said that he himself had derived most of the recipes he tried out from those that are or have been in use in our rural homes.

He spoke of the ‘poison’ we eat as food in our cities and urged villages not to fall prey to claims of fertiliser manufacturers on gaining higher yields using chemical-based substances. He called on them to use natural fertilisers and recommended composting waste as a solution for home-grown vegetable plots.

Kitchen ‘gymnasium’

He also spoke of the ‘gymnasium’ each woman has in their homes and drew laughter as he referred to how most were now abandoning it to visit fancy commercial outfits. The ‘gym’ he referred to is the kitchen with the gym equipment being the grinding stone (miris gala), pounding machine (mol gaha/vangediya), sieving machine (peneraya), separating machine (kulla), coconut milk squeezer (kiri gotta) and the coconut-scraper (hiramanaya).

This traditional ‘gym’ equipment, he claimed, provided exercise for all parts of the body and together with the frequent walks they made to the vegetable plots and the fields, helped keep our village folk in fine shape.

Being a village close to a banana growing area of Sri Lanka, he showed the villagers the value of that ‘Kap Ruka’ (tree from heaven) and lamented on how much of its potential was lost to us in Sri Lanka.

In the Philippines, they made banana fibre dress-shirts and other utility products; in Thailand banana chips and many other preparations enabled them to have lucrative export products, bringing revenue and reducing waste of a valuable fruit.

Best among the best

Chef Pubilis has made it his life’s mission to position Sri Lankan cuisine on par with the best in the world. He confidently claims that it is the best among the best in its taste and flavourful presentation as well as nutritional value.

Coming from humble beginnings, of which he speaks with pride, he stood as a beacon in making us proud of who we are, what we are and what we can be, in reassuring the folk of the Kiula village a little over week ago.

It was part of his voluntary effort of placing community before self, in visiting to share knowledge and experience, in as many places as possible in Sri Lanka.   

(Renton de Alwis is a former Chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism serving two terms during 2000-2002 and from 2007-2008. He served as Head of the Asia Division of the Pacific Asia Travel Association(PATA) based in Singapore from 1990-96 and as CEO of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore from 1997-99. He also served as a Chief Technical Advisor and consultant with the ADB, UNDP, UNWTO, ESCAP, UNICEF and the ILO. Now in retirement, Renton lives away from Colombo in the Deep South of Sri Lanka and is involved in writing and social activism. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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