HISTORY BAKED IN BANANA LEAF – by Vidya Balachander
Source:Roads & Kingdoms
How a savory rice and meat dish remains a fragile thread between modern Sri Lanka and 16th century Dutch Burgher settlers.
With the lamprais in the backseat, I could barely focus on anything else. The modest parcel of food wrapped in a banana leaf, freshly baked and still warm to the touch, was demanding my complete sensory attention. The mildly woody smell of the banana leaf mingled with the unmistakable aroma of meat, and like a gentle cloud the fragrance wafted up and settled comfortably in the car for the remainder of my journey home. They say you eat with your eyes first, but in this case, it was the aroma of the lamprais in my backseat that had me hooked.
Being led by my nose alone, I was tempted to draw a parallel between lamprais, a rich dish of savory rice and mixed meat (along with vegetable curries and condiments), baked in a banana leaf, and another South Asian cult classic that hinges on the same two principal elements—the biryani. Complex, nuanced, and painstaking to prepare, the biryani and the lamprais share several similarities.
But while the biryani is robust in public memory, imbued with the pride of all the communities in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and even Sri Lanka who claim it as their own, the lamprais tells a wholly different tale. Gifted to the Sri Lankan food lexicon by the Dutch Burghers, a small group of European-origin settlers who have called the island nation home since the 16th century, the lamprais now serves as a fragile thread that is keeping the once-vibrant community from being forgotten altogether.
Derived from the Dutch burg, or city, the word “Burgher” literally translates to the citizens or residents of a city. However, sometime during the period between the 15th and 17th centuries, when Dutch ships set forth to establish a mercantile empire in Asia, the word came to be used to describe a new middle class composed of traders.
One of the halls of the Dutch Burgher Union. All photos by Vidya Balachander
Many of these merchants, drawn not just from Holland but also from other northern European nations such as Germany, Britain, England, and France, joined the Vereenigde Oost Indische Compagnie (VOC), or Dutch East India Company, established in 1602. Their first port of call was Batavia—now Jakarta—on the island of Java in present-day Indonesia, which served as the VOC’s headquarters. Having established a strong command centre, the VOC eventually wrested control of the lucrative spice trade in Ceylon from the Portuguese in 1640.
Over the next century that the Dutch ruled over Ceylon, the Dutch Burghers came to be loosely identified as a new social group of mixed northern European ethnicity, intermingled with strands of Portuguese and Sinhalese lineage acquired through intermarriage with the local population. When the VOC was dissolved in 1800, a few Dutch Burghers chose to stay behind in their adoptive homeland, negotiating a complex identity that was neither entirely European nor completely Sri Lankan in its ethos. Out of this mash-up of cultural and culinary influences was born the lamprais.
The Dutch Burgher Union premises, with the VOC Café in the foreground.
I heard of lamprais during numerous visits to Sri Lanka after I married a half-Sri Lankan whose roots are in Colombo. Many friends there spoke of it with the kind of fondness that you reserve for very special treats, like a delectable chocolate cake your mother bakes once in a while, for instance. Yet it wasn’t until five months ago, when I left behind the familiar flavours of my native India to move to Colombo, that I had my first real taste of the dish. Eager to gain some foothold in a new culture, I began my explorations of it in the way that felt most familiar to me—by eating.
It was on one of these culinary journeys that I tried what you could call an authentic lamprais. While my modest appetite ensured that I barely made a dent in the substantial portion of rice, I remember being instantly intrigued by the intense and contrasting flavours that made their way into each mouthful. Together with homemade ginger beer, another Dutch Burgher speciality, it was a meal full of surprises. It piqued my interest enough to want to learn more about the community, and what is arguably their most famous dish.
THE LAMPRAIS DOESN’T LEND ITSELF TO NICETIES
During my travels around Colombo in search of a good lamprais, I was routinely amazed by one fact: the number of elements that are neatly tucked into a packet that is barely larger than an adult’s hand. Inside each meticulously wrapped parcel sits a small mound of unctuous short-grained rice cooked in meat stock. A rich, deep brown mixed meat curry, usually a combination of chicken, pork, and beef, moistens the rice. The brown-and-white palette of the curry and rice camouflages the other accoutrements.
There is vambatu moju, a sweet-sour pickled aubergine dish with the sharp tang of white vinegar; seeni sambol, a condiment made of caramelised onions speckled with bonito fish flakes, and a tiny smidgeon of prawn blachang or dried prawn relish. Two small frikkadels or crisp-fried meatballs crown the complex offering. The lamprais doesn’t lend itself to niceties: the best way to savour it is to mix everything well and eat it with your fingers, so that the peppery heat of the curry is undercut by the sweet moju, and the fishy seeni sambol is complimented by the blachang, which packs a mighty umami punch.
Lamprais packets marked with a ‘C’ to denote chicken before they are dispatched to the Dutch Burgher Union’s VOC Café.
It’s clear from its sheer construction that even in a more leisurely era, lamprais warranted sufficient effort to be considered a special occasion meal. “Lamprais was a Sunday speciality, which all the ladies of the extended family got together to make,” Deloraine Brohier, historian and author of A Taste of Sugar & Spice, a rare resource on Dutch Burgher cuisine, told me.
In her 2012 book, the 86-year-old Brohier describes the preparation of almost theatrical scale that went into making each element of the lamprais when she was growing up in Colombo. “The night before, shin and meat were boiled for about two hours and the meat we must bear in mind was not just beef but a medley of meats—chicken, pork, beef and mutton. The same night the plantain leaves would be washed, cleaned and left to dry. Some long-grained rice too was cleaned, washed and set aside.” Lamprais was the social glue that brought Dutch Burgher families together to partake in the communal pleasures of cooking and eating.
Deloraine Brohier in her ancestral home in Colombo. The Dutch plates and tiles in the background were placed there by her father.
It seems counterintuitive that a delicacy that was prepared in such ample quantities should be doled out in snack-size portions. Why couldn’t all the elements just be served individually? I asked Brohier with genuine puzzlement. “But the whole fun of it was to see who ate the maximum number of packets!” she exclaimed, with a mischievous sparkle in her blue eyes. “My cousins and I would count the number of empty leaves—they used to say that the boys could eat up to 12 lamprais each while the girls ate six.” Apart from spurring hunger games, the banana leaves, washed and gently warmed over an open flame to make them more pliable, sealed together the flavours of the constituent elements. The baking process rendered them into a comprehensive whole.
In a more figurative sense, the banana leaf wrapping helped to keep secure the strands of the various cuisines that the Dutch Burghers borrowed from to create the lamprais. Much of Sri Lankan cuisine would qualify as fusion fare, infused with flavours drawn from the many cultures that have had a bearing on the country’s history. It’s not hard to see Indian, Arab, Portuguese, and Malay accents in popular Sri Lankan foods. Yet there is no single dish that paints a picture of Dutch colonial times as succinctly—or successfully—as the lamprais.
Lamprais with all its elements: the mixed meat curry on the right, seeni sambol in the right hand corner, the prawn blachang on the top right and the brinjal moju next to it. The frikkadels are on top.
With the South Asian staple of rice as its beating heart, it seems safe to assume that the lamprais is definitely not of Dutch origin. “People in Holland to this day are completely ignorant of this savoury rice meal, and the average Dutchman would not know should he be asked about the lamprais,” writes Brohier, who was conferred an honorary knighthood by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in 2002.
In fact, Dutch colonialists may have built upon a kernel of an idea they first had a taste of in Java. At that time, as it is to this day, lemper was a popular Indonesian snack made of glutinous rice filled with chicken, fish, or meat, encased in a banana leaf. When they brought the lemper to Sri Lanka, the Dutch embellished it with curries and condiments laden with local spices and flavours, including black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and cured bonito flakes, traditionally produced in the Maldives. The prawn blachung, or belacan as it was also known, a pungent paste of dried fermented shrimp, salt, and chillies, was also likely Indonesian or Malaysian in origin, where it continues to be a much-loved relish. The frikkadels (or ‘forced meatballs’ made of minced beef) may have been the only truly European element of the dish. In its entirety, braiding together eastern and western threads, the lamprais was a dish with a distinct Dutch Burgher identity; one the community could consider entirely its own.
For more than a century after Dutch colonial rule ended in Sri Lanka, the Dutch Burghers continued to occupy a happy middle ground under British occupation, which began in 1815. Given their felicity with the English language, they were able to secure plum positions with the British government. Eminent Dutch Burgher artists, lawyers, judges and authors left their indents on Sri Lankan culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, informally referred to as the ‘golden period’ for the community. Some of these names such as artist Lionel Wendt (after whom Colombo’s premier performing arts theatre and art gallery is named) and celebrated author Carl Muller, whose novels based on the Burgher community have won international acclaim, still form a vital part of the country’s cultural discourse.
A plaque inside the Dutch Burger Union.
In 1908, the Dutch Burgher Union of Ceylon, an umbrella body dedicated to the social, economic, and cultural welfare of the Dutch Burghers was formed in Colombo. The attached clubhouse served as a venue for special festivities such as Saint Nicholas Day, a uniquely European Christmas tradition celebrated on December 5, starring a bishop on a white steed in place of Santa Claus. Brohier vividly remembers the excitement leading up to the big day, when the girls of the community would be bedecked in dresses made of organdie, the fabric du jour. “All the Burgher girls in school would say, ‘We are going to the DBU DBU DBU!’” Brohier said. “It was such an event for us.” Walking through the colonial-era building with spacious halls and high ceilings today, it isn’t difficult to imagine it as the elegant epicentre of boisterous community gatherings, with tables piled high with food and families in their festive finery.
Today, celebrations are more low-key in comparison. For one, the community has significantly dwindled in strength. In 1956, eight years after Ceylon gained independence, the first government of the country passed the Sinhala Only Act, which replaced English with Sinhala as the official language of the country. It was also determined be the new medium of instruction in schools.
“The Sinhala Only Act was a major turning point for the Dutch Burghers,” said David Colin-Thome, 55, an honorary committee member of the Dutch Burgher Union. “They felt very insecure because they had enjoyed the best position under the British.” Their unfamiliarity with the local tongue and the fear of discrimination provoked a mass exodus of Dutch Burghers to Australia, as well as the United Kingdom and Canada. While their population was approximately 40,000 at the end of World War II, the 2012 census pegged their numbers at approximately 37,000 against a total population of 20 million.
THERE IS ONLY ONE WAY TO MAKE A TRADITIONAL LAMPRAIS
With the large, extended families of the past all but a gilded memory, the lamprais no longer occupies its coveted spot as a Sunday staple in Dutch Burgher households. Too daunting to take on without two or three extra sets of hands to help, it is now reserved for the odd birthday or anniversary. However, having been inducted into the pantheon of Sri Lankan classics, it’s easy to find lamprais—or what passes off as the real thing—sold commercially.
Originally meant to have not more than a small cupful of rice, today’s lamprais meals typically pack in a lot more rice. Inevitably, you will find some creative interpretations of the original recipe, including additions such as a piece of in-bone chicken and a hard-boiled egg.
Since pork and beef are shunned by many communities in Sri Lanka for religious reasons, new-age spins on the dish include chicken, fish, and even halal variants. The liberties that people take with the lamprais particularly rankle Lorraine Bartholomeusz, a Dutch Burgher who supplies lamprais to VOC Café, a small restaurant run by the Dutch Burgher Union within its premises in Colombo. “The recipe has been easy to misinterpret because people don’t know what genuine lamprais tastes like,” she said. “Anything goes as long as it comes wrapped in a banana leaf.”
Lorraine Bartholomeusz in her home in Colombo.
In an age of innovation, the question of authenticity is a particularly vexed one. No dish, however iconic, can remain absolutely unchanged over centuries. Yet, there is a thin line that separates creativity from confusion. “There is only one specific way of making a traditional lamprais,” Bartholomeusz said. “If any of those ingredients are not suitable to you, then you have to make do without eating the dish. You can’t have versions of it, because then you adulterate it.”
For a recipe to be safeguarded over generations, however, it requires a vanguard of chefs, restaurateurs, writers, and cookbook authors interested in promoting and protecting it. What happens when you run out of arbiters of taste?
“The older generations of Dutch Burghers in Sri Lanka are particularly familiar with the lamprais—how it should be made, the flavour, the correct size,” Bartholomeusz said. “But with so many people leaving the country, the younger generations have not been privy to this.”
Lorraine supervises the complex process of making, packing and distributing the lamprais. It is a round-the-clock operation that begins in the wee hours and continues throughout the day.
Many of the Burghers I spoke to showed me their fraying copies of the Ceylon Daily News Cookery Book, a cookbook first published in 1929, which is regarded as one of the few reliable resources on Dutch Burgher cuisine (and a good place to start if you’re looking to make the lamprais at home). However, it’s clear that for most Burghers, the lamprais isn’t the sort of dish that you can ever satisfyingly recreate from a recipe book. It is more a legacy to be learned, a gift meant to be bequeathed.
With few restaurants, even in the nation’s capital, dedicated to Dutch Burgher food and the lack of contemporary chroniclers of the cuisine, the lamprais faces an uncertain future. It may well be in that in a few years its form would be so far from the original as to be entirely unrecognisable. For her part, Bartholomeusz hopes to leave her well-guarded recipe to someone who will treasure it. “I am still in the process of looking for such a person,” she said. “It would be selfish not to share it. But I’m afraid the lamprais will die a natural death.”