Food for War or War for Food

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Sri Lankan cuisine
Sri Lankan cuisine

Food habits of people have been determined time and again by their socio-political environment. Sounds weird?

It will be clear by the time you finish reading this. We would take examples of countries that had been ridden with strifes and civil wars and would try decipher how their food had shaped up. We take examples from Cambodia and Sri Lanka. Let’s discuss Cambodia first.

Cambodia or Kampuchea (as the Khmer rouge regime called it) is a country which boasts itself of a rich cultural past. It was historically developed and just like any other old and developed civilization, they had developed immense culinary finery with smoothness of flavours and subtle use of spices. It houses the biggest Hindu temple (The Angkor Wat, Tham, and Bayen). The kingdom of Cambodia had carefully preserved the dance form of the apsaras (devdasi) even to this present date. Apsara dance is a major tourist attraction of Siem Reap.

Food habits of people have been determined time and again by their socio-political environment
Food habits of people have been determined time and again by their socio-political environment

In 1975, the Khmer rouge tribe toppled the kingdom and started to rule, thus starting a period of extreme darkness and killings in the otherwise peaceful land. Violence became the order of the day and till 1979, it was a land of extreme anarchy, poverty and death. Along with their well-preserved culture, the worst hit was their food. It was then food for survival. They started eating almost everything, so much so that they ate grasshoppers and other weird insects to live. They ate food that people in developed nations thought inedible. And as they say, destruction is the mother of construction. Their food started going through a phase of reconstruction – a process that’s still on.

 

While Cambodian food has a lot of fresh water fish, chicken, pork in it, their curries also have a lot of vegetables cooked often in coconut milk.

 

This can be attributed to the fact that vegetables that were readily available made their way in, replacing meat and other animal protein. Coconut, being in abundance, is still, the base of their food. It gives richness, as well as, some protein to replace the animal milk. Another semblance of their poor past can be seen in Phnom Penh’s Central market where there is a place for animal organs (ears of pigs, intestines of beef etc.). The poor, but protein-rich mushroom finds its place in most of their meals. Being a tropical country, the staple is rice. Sea food today is mostly steamed (crabs, squids etc.) and are taken with a variety of chilli-based sauces. Cambodian food, today, is a mix of old world romance and war ravaged pragmatism. With influx of tourists, their food has now been infected with some external culinary diseases. A true Khmer cuisine is more of a rarity now, than being a delicacy.

Another semblance of their poor past can be seen in Phnom Penh’s Central market where there is a place for animal organs
Another semblance of their poor past can be seen in Phnom Penh’s Central market where there is a place for animal organs

Indians call it the land of Ravana, the arrogant, yet extremely learned king of the island nation. The king, who allegedly kidnapped the wife of Ram, who’s worshipped as the most just of kings in India. This is about one the oldest civilizations – we speak of Srilanka. The epic ‘Ramayana’ had referred to Lanka as a prosperous, rich and culturally wealthy nation which was rolled in gold. The emerald island is what this beautiful island nation is often referred to as. Come 6th Century BCE, this nation was engulfed in the philosophies of Gautama – the Buddha, with efforts from Ashoka the great. Later on, this island was invaded by the Dutch.

 

The Malay community also made this spice island as its home. ‘Ramayana’ or not, the fact remains that this small island nation had been for ages extremely rich in wealth, spices and most importantly, a very sound composite culture of different settlers (read expatriates), a complex composition that had withstood the test of time.

 

The last time that the peace of this Buddhist nation got disturbed was a decade back when civil war with the Tamil community broke out resulting in blood bath and a lot of political turmoil. Food of this nation constructed, destructed, reassorted and today stands as a beautiful example of integration of cultures and flavours. Predominantly a rice eating population, a superficial view might look like an extension of South Indian food, but there’s more to it than just their Dhal, a preparation of brackish water and fresh water fish in coconut milk with some contrasting spices that can give you crazy notes kickstarting your Lankan culinary sojourn.

 

The Malay community has their own version of the famed Goreng which is quite different from its Malaysian elder kin.

 

Lampraise, a clear Dutch-influenced dish is a foodies’ delight. Here, rice is cooked in stock of meat with mixed meat balls or some shrimps. It’s then wrapped in banana leaf (Lankan influence comes into being) and then baked, giving it an unique texture and taste. Accompaniments include fruit pickles, chutneys (sambols) and a whole lot of savories. I can go on and on, writing about variants and sub-variants of Lankan food. But before I stop, a mention of Jaffna masala is very important. Jaffna masala has a direct link to the centuries of strife and invasion that this nation has faced. It is a mix of fennel, dry chillies, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom and curry leaves. It’s dry roasted and ground into a powder. This is added into pretty much every dish. With resources getting scarce with every strife and invasion, the Lankans devised this method of non-compromising attitude with the taste of their food. Thus, Sri Lankan food is not Ceylonese food, it’s a “secular” culinary platter, in the truest sense of the term.

To conclude, closer to us, Bangladesh is also a place that has dawned a very different culinary habit, than that which used to exist before its partition from Pakistan. The Geneva camp at Mohammadpur, Dhaka serves something, which they call kebabs. These are deep-fried pieces of meat (chicken or beef) and served with puri. The residents of this camp are ethnically from Bihar, who went to Pakistan (Dhaka was then East Pakistan) after the partition of India. But when Pakistan was partitioned and Bangladesh was carved out, the Pakistani government refused to accept them. However, it stayed on. Razakars for Bangladesh, rejected by Pakistan – middle of nowhere. This in itself is a long story… Some other day, maybe.

Food exists, but food for thought overwhelms. Strifes are catalysts.

All Images: Google

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2 Responses

  1. Really interesting. Didn’t know so many things. The writing is lucid flowing without ever being boring. A lovely read indeed!

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