By Cheranka Mendis
If there is anyone who can conjure up delicious and nutritious dishes out of the most ordinary vegetables and fruits, even those we think impossible, it has to be Chef Publis Silva.
Taking Sri Lanka to the world on a silver platter of healthy delights, the 77-year-old is a force to reckon with. While his career has been an illustrious one, his journey to be who he is today is a story of interesting twists and turns with a surprising end.
It is a fascinating story of a little boy following his mother like a shadow, a young boy running away from home to earn a living, a young man who entered the doors of Mount Lavinia Hotel as a coal carrier.
Launching three books on his birthday on Wednesday, Chef Publis shared his life’s journey through a documentary film to an enthralled audience. The story was one of hope, dedication, and pure hard work. A worthy story of a worthy man.
Kiri Mahaththaya’s story
Born in southern Sri Lanka in the village of Rathgama, Publis was part of a family of seven and was fondly known in the village as ‘Kiri Mahaththaya’. He lived with his family in a small mud hut, with the ocean as his backyard. “Out of the five children, only three are alive today,” he said. “We never had much to eat then, we suffered a great deal back in the day.”
Even though he holds a Doctorate today, Publis was never one for school. “I didn’t see the point because my parents were uneducated as well. I only studied to Grade 4, that too in three different schools.” He noted that he would rather sit with his mother than go to school and study. He recalled walking behind his mother for six miles to the Galle vegetable market to sell her wares.
“There is an old woman who sells vegetables at the same market now. She reminds me of my mother. Life was not very easy then. We had to walk a lot. To this day a squashed tomato reminds me of my mother. She carried the vegetables in a basket on her head and the juice of squashed tomatoes used to drip down her head. It was a smell that I learnt to associate with my mother.”
He also remembers his mother’s string-hoppers, coconut sambol and tomato curry with fondness. “She used to make this dish for my father when he worked at a rice storage in Bussa. I had to take this parcel to my father’s workplace every day. The smell of that packet is something I’ll never forget.” He was never as close to his father as he was to his mother. “My father used what he earned to place bets on horses. It was my mother who was the breadwinner.”
Looking for work
Seeing his mother toiling to put food on their plates, Publis was eager to find a job to provide what little assistance he could to ease her worries. He started by helping make coir ropes in the village. “I used to make 20/30 coir ropes per day. At the end of the day my palms and fingers would be full of calluses. My mother used to warm oil and betel leaves and apply the oil on my hands with the leaves.”
He then found employment at the Mahinda Press, where he started by washing and cleaning the letters. He worked there for 12 years and learnt much of the trade, he recollected.
His closest friend from school days was Jayaneris, a fisherman’s son. In May 1950, Publis ran away from home to Batticaloa with his friend and father when they went to catch fish for the season. After a drink of plain tea in a big coconut shell with a little sugar, for six to eight hours he would then pull in the fishing nets alongside his friend. He soon broke away from their company and went to pluck coconuts in the area to find money to come home.
A Pettah street vendor
After 12 weeks he went back home to a sobbing mother who told him never to leave her side again. But, for young Publis, the aim was to find money and he soon left home to go to Pettah. Roaming around the streets he felt like a free man, he said, and soon found a job at a little tea shop.
“But as soon as the owner heard that I was from Rathgama, he kicked me out. People didn’t have much respect for people who came from that area. We didn’t have a very good reputation.” For another three weeks he was jobless until he found employment at a ‘saiwar kade’ in Hyde Park. This is where he learnt to make dosai and wade.
From there he moved back to Pettah, selling toffees and lozenges from a bottle in buses. And when it was the season for oranges, he tried his hand at that too. “We used to buy the unripe oranges, crush them a little and wipe it with water and keep so that when a customer presses on the orange, it looks like it’s ripe.”
Finding his place
The year 1956 was a turning point in his life. Not only did he marry his village sweetheart Wimala that year, he also found a place at Mount Lavinia Hotel, which is now like home to him. He joined as a coal carrier, dragging the heavy gunny bags for the kitchen stove. He also had to scrape 75 coconuts for a meal with three others.
“This is where I learnt that cookery is an art of its own. There is a way of doing things and every vegetable had to be cut to precise sizes, equal in height and width,” he said.
He soon went on to become a kitchen help, having been entrusted with the task of making a tall glass of orange juice, freshly squeezed, and a cup of black coffee with egg white for the Head Chef whom they called ‘Basunneh’.
Having carried out these duties without hitches, he was then put in charge of waking up the kitchen staff at 2 a.m. and designating work to ensure that when ‘Basunneh’ came in, everything would be in order – cut, chopped and in freezer boxes. “My seniors loved me, and they used to joke around saying ‘there comes our future Head Chef’. I did not take much notice of what they said. I was only there to help.” In 1958 he got an opportunity to work in the kitchen of the first Ceylonese Governor General, Sir Oliver Goonethilleke. Now a father, Publis’s main intention was to find more cash to support his family. He took up a part-time job there, working for eight hours and then going back to MLH. “I balanced it so that I would not be missed in both places. However, the Head Chef at MLH soon found out and I had to hear a lot from him. But I also got the chance to get more involved in the kitchen.”
As luck would have it, MLH ownership changed hands when he was a Grade I Chef and his scope widened. In 1970 he became the main chef in all departments. “The secret of my success as a chef is the good intentions I have when preparing a meal or a dish. I believe cooking is a form of meditation and a dish must be made with good intentions for the consumers to enjoy it,” he said.
Area of expertise
His interest and expertise lies in typical Sri Lankan dishes, some we have never heard of before. With his curiosity aroused by a chef who brought in leaves of temple flowers and prepared a dish out of it, Publis has dedicated a large part of his life to researching the ways and customs of the kitchens in various parts of the country.
“All this time I thought the leaves of temple flowers were poisonous. This is when I realised that there was so much we didn’t know about food. There are fruits, vegetables and leaves that we don’t even really think of or are unknown to us that are good for the health and were used by our ancestors,” he asserted.
A trip to a village called Meemuraya in 1980 was the first of many such expeditions. Here he found the old women using ingredients such as attika, lunuvila, kebella and leaves of a madatiya tree to prepare dishes for meals. He has even visited the Veddhas and learnt their secrets in cooking. “I have gone to a large number of villages since then. I have learnt that there are 42 medicinal herbs locally that can be used when preparing meals. The Ayurvedic properties in these help us with various ailments, while adding flavour to the meal,” Publis said.
His research has won him recognition not only here in Sri Lanka, but in all parts of the world. “I want people to enjoy their food, but I also want them to enjoy the right things.” A man with a goal, his target is to make Sri Lanka receive the status of the having the healthiest lifestyle by 2060.
“This is important to me – to create a food culture that is healthy and tasty. We have so many varieties of plants that could help us in our day-to-day lives. People must learn and understand this and eventually start applying this in daily preparations.”
Pix by Lasantha Kumara