I am neither a historian nor chef, but have a healthy interest in the subject areas of both. The two rarely come together, except when one goes in search of culinary history. I have just written an essay titled ‘Sri Lanka: Spice Island or Bland Nation?’ which blends the two in a social commentary highlighting a challenge we face as we rebuild our island nation after the war.
“Located strategically in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka was a hub in the maritime silk and spice routes for millennia. It drew traders from the east and west for both business and pleasure. Notable among the attractions were spices, whose many aromas and flavours formed an integral part of the tropical paradise experience.
“The traditional Lankan curry contained up to 13 spices and herbs. Most plants were not native – cardamom came from South India, cloves from Indonesia and chilli all the way from the Americas. Cinnamon was Sri Lanka’s unique contribution to this delightful mix. The origins didn’t really matter: the islanders knew just how to mix the native and the foreign to achieve legendary results.
“As Sri Lanka embarks on national integration after three decades of highly divisive war, it is worth recalling these aspects of its heritage. For the war not only devastated our economy and blighted the prospects of a generation; it also nurtured high levels of insecurity, insularity and mutual suspicion. In recent years, democratic dissent has become ‘unpatriotic’. Everything foreign is suspect – especially if from the west.
“Suddenly, the spice island is in danger of turning into a ‘bland’ nation with xenophobia the only condiment in use.”
The longer version appears in Himal Southasian magazine, July 2009 issue.
Both versions of the essay end with an ardent plea for a return to pluralistic, cacophonic society we have been for much of our long and well-chronicled history.
“Throughout history, the spice island nurtured plurality without losing its identity or integrity. It withstood numerous invasions, colonialism and tsunamis. Sri Lanka is more resilient than many of its citizens think — and more vibrant and diverse than it appears at first glance. That’s the legacy of good geography and open frontiers.
“Let genes, ideas and spices flow freely again! We have nothing to lose – except our temporary blandness.”
Read my blog post on 29 May 2009: Living with diversity – Salad or soup, asks Mallika Sarabhai