JACK – THE UNKNOWN SRI LANKAN
- November 26, 2021
JACK – THE UNKNOWN SRI LANKAN
I’ve lived in Sri Lanka since the prehistoric period. Like so many of my closest relatives, many…Read More
Asia is the rice basket of the world. This fast-growing carbohydrate allows for up to 4 harvests per year, depending on the variety. From seed to harvest, New Improved Varieties (NIVs) may be harvested from 80 -120 days after planting. In a country where the average adult consumes more than 116 kg per annum. (2010)
NIVs would seem to be an economic dream come true, yet perhaps they are responsible for the near-extinction of Traditional Varieties (TVs). Some in the agricultural community suggest that the almost 2,000 TVs that have been cultivated since 370 BC which contain more fibre, protein, antioxidants and trace elements are a better alternative than the sleek, faster-growing, highly fertilised NIVs.
Studies reveal that heavily fertilised rice that is treated with pesticides has more than the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) of arsenic, lead and other metals that may be harmful to human health.
The ancient kings of Sri Lanka applied engineering skills to the establishment of a highly sophisticated rice-growing system. King Devanam Piyatissa established a series of ‘tanks’ or reservoirs and hundreds of canals that ensured paddy fields were maintained in an optimal growing state year-round. Further, it allowed the cultivation of rice in traditional dry zones.
Rice growing and the paddy fields associated with them became not only a way of life for many but were enshrined in agricultural law. Today it is possible to witness this ancient cultivation method at 2 different levels. When visiting historic cities or states, the rocky outlines of many of the original tanks may be seen along with their linking canals and paddy fields. As Sri Lanka’s population grew through the centuries to its present 22 million, many tanks have been restored or vastly expanded.
The system of tanks in some loca tions are concrete-lined and are the reservoirs for towns and cities and balance the surrounding waterways, rivers, swamps and canals. The infrastructure is protected by Sri Lankan law, along with the rice paddies they service.
With rice cultivation occupying 34% of cultivated land (850,000 ha) and involving 1.6 million people it may come as a surprise that Sri Lanka only became self-sufficient in rice production in 2009-10. The tropical island consumes 2.3 million tonnes of rice per year and will have to increase production by 20% to remain self-sufficient. Source: Oxford Business Group (2020)
It should come as no surprise that this tiny island is home to dozens of varieties of the same thing: rice and curry. Rice is cheap. The average family of 7 will consume about 5 kg of rice per day. The first meal is cooked from 4.30 – 7.00 over a wood stove. It will be curry and rice.
The second rice-based meal will be at ‘Tea Time’ (about 10.00 – 11.00 AM daily) Workers will arrange for one of the groups to purchase rice and curry from local vendors who have it wrapped, warm and ready to eat with morning tea. Lunchtime follows the same ritual for workers or consists of a home-cooked meal of curry and rice when children arrive home from school shortly after 13:30. Younger workers will stop on their way home for a flour-based Kothu, but the evening meal will be rice and curry once more.
When travelling through Sri Lanka the challenge is to sample as many different curries as possible. Northern (Jaffna district) curries set out a huge range of different types of curry. Some are mild, fresh with unique spices to provide their flavours. Others are roasted, made hot with chillies or blended in coconut milk.
The islands ‘vegetarian heart’ in the central regions are home to the ‘Bread Basket’ that feeds the population with fresh highland fruit and vegetables. Rice is transported to this area where the curries are heavily influenced by the vegetables grown in the area. Beetroot, bitter gourds, local eggplant and onions are just a few of the combinations popular in this zone.
Head south for the widest range of curries. Highly skilled international chefs apply their knowledge to Grandma’s recipes and don’t hesitate to add green mangoes, green bananas, coconut, local greens, pineapple, chilli, or fish, beef,.chicken or pork to their range of offerings.
All these dishes have over time been served with white or polished rice. The benefit of this style of dining is lost if heritage kinds of rice do not form the basis of these dishes. Visitors can taste the unique variations of speciality rice, and for nutritional value alone it is worth ensuring you select the red or shorter brown grains when shopping or ordering.
Although it doesn’t seem right, NIVs are shorter with larger grain sizes. Heritage or TVs maybe 120cm tall and produce much smaller grains. It is difficult to determine the evolutionary advantage of the taller varieties, but it may have to do with the co-existing wildlife in Sri Lanka. Elephants and water buffalo consume vast amounts of greens daily. Elephants up to 600 kg!
Did the taller varieties provide better cover, cooler grazing zones away from the predatory eyes of man, leopards and crocodiles? Or was it beneficial to rise above weeds and ground cover, reaching for the sun that would assist in the maturation of the rice grains?
As you wander through Sri Lanka, take care of the importance and value placed on the humble paddy and it’s rice harvest. Explore ancient sites, cities and zones where rice was the foundation for the design, employment and infrastructure of the area.
Book a Paddy View Villa in Sri Lanka and enjoy an authentic Sri Lankan Rice and Curry Dinner.