The veteran chef at Mount Lavinia Hotel discusses his research into local food and cooking methods that could guide Sri Lankans onto a path sans NCDs He was the guest and she was the chef. She walked in with a plate covered with “something” for cooking and when he asked what it was, she threw [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Publis dishes out a recipe of health


The veteran chef at Mount Lavinia Hotel discusses his research into local food and cooking methods that could guide Sri Lankans onto a path sans NCDs

He was the guest and she was the chef. She walked in with a plate covered with “something” for cooking and when he asked what it was, she threw down the food gauntlet. She dared him to guess what he was eating once the “something” was cooked. He ate it, but to his chagrin could not identify the dish. Sri Lanka’s food great, T. Publis de Silva, did not know what he was eating! A housewife living at the foothills of the Knuckles Range had cooked and served up a dish that Publis could not identify.

Publis: Living his philosophy Pix by Susantha Liyanawatte

Not only eating humble pie but also making him aware how little he knew about the food available in the country, he was then told that it was ‘wahu koda’, a creeper that embraces huge trees in the jungle.  This had been during his food forays into the far corners of the country in search of our very own food culture, he tells us, uncovering dish after dish that is suitable for Sri Lanka which is on the abyss-threshold of a non-communicable disease (NCD) epidemic.

With all his awards stacked in a cupboard behind him and another choc-a-bloc with his numerous publications, we are in his office at the Mount Lavinia Hotel to discuss food and NCDs. His beginnings as a kitchen helper and his rise to glory are history, having been highlighted over and over again. We are interested in how this Chef with more than 58 years of cooking experience will guide Sri Lankans onto a path sans NCDs which seem to be an integral part of modern life.

His research, according to Publis, like so many others before him, has found that one of the main reasons, about 75%, for people being afflicted with NDCs is their food. Lifestyle follows next with about 15% and pollution about 10% along with smoking and taking alcohol.
His passion being food, it was on this trail that he went to sift the good from the bad. Sri Lanka having a strong food culture is obvious from stories such as the Vijaya-Kuveni meeting, where the 700 men were given a rice meal. The Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa eras also give a clear picture of ‘oru’ for kenda (kanjee) and 5,000 monks being given alms. The cook of Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe had a book with recipes which when the Kandyan Kingdom fell in 1815 “sudu kenek” (a white person) had taken away with him. It is now at the British Museum, according to Publis.

About 15 years ago Prof. Sannasgala had written about ‘rajya bhojana’ in sloka form but no one could understand them and that was when Publis suggested that they should get-together and write a book. But it never saw the light of day, as Prof. Sannasgala died before that.

Publis’s interest, however, had been aroused about 40 years ago when a chef produced a dish made of sudu araliya dalla. When he asked whether it is not wasa (poison), the chef had informed him that the tender shoots of the sudu araliya is the answer for ulcers.
It made him realise how much he didn’t know, says Publis. Gradually, from just cooking, this stirred his interest in food research.
We have around 300 types of vegetables, he points out, explaining that “ala, bada, mul, dalu, kola, pothu, mal, gedi, ata” can be eaten in many of these.

Vegetable sarawita

The interview is interrupted, as the phone on his desk rings and he launches into a lesson on condiments. To make ‘thunapaha’, he says, take 250gms of suduru, 50gms of maduru, 500gms of koththamalli and mix it into a ball which makes the ‘thuna’ and add kaha (tumeric), chillie, pepper and mustard guli. These four with the three-ingredient ball make the ‘paha’.

An anecdote follows…….did you know that in areas like Atanwala in the Knuckles Range, when the manamala raala takes a prospective groom to the bride’s home, they cook a therum maluwa and offer it to him. The young man would get the hand of the girl in marriage only if he can identify what is in the dish, he says.

Questions are asked and the answers supplied immediately. There are 76 varieties of fruit aavenika (endemic) to this country, he says, with a list flowing easily – in our villages there is kiri palu, bumu thuru, and velvet apples, dark brown like an apple but with buwa (hair).

Getting back to how Sri Lankans can overcome the looming issue of NCDs, Publis explains that whoever is cooking a meal needs to keep a clear mind, sans worries and concerns. He or she must get into “meditation mode”, otherwise whatever they put into the curries will become like a poison. If their minds are cluttered, they will also not be able to remember whether they have put salt or not. The thinking must be…. “let it be a divya oushadaya” (a medicine fit for gods)

When preparing food, thought must be given to preserving its original smell and colour. But how do we get those now, he asks, pointing that we just drop in a cube of soup touted by multinational companies. This is artificial stuff containing mono sodium glutamate. These are the causes of NCDs.

Citing another example, he says that many in the Sri Lankan kitchens ara parissamata keep on using the same quantity of oil for refrying until the oil becomes black. Of course this is not good for the health and leads to cholesterol.

Another quick fix, according to this veteran chef is that many housewives scrape the coconut in the night and keep it in the fridge, then take it out in the morning mix it with warm water and put it into the blender. “This is beckoning cholesterol,” he says, adding that unlike when squeezing the scraped coconut by hand, the blender will squeeze out all the thanthu and the oil as well. This is unnecessary oil that we mix along with the coconut milk into our food.

Microwave heating of food cooked much earlier and frozen also concerns him and he goes into detail, about the bacterial action that would make people ill. Once we have our meals, just check out what we dump into the dustbin from our plates. The karapincha leaf and the pieces of goraka and cinnamon are thrown away which are the oushada for good health. Why don’t we slice them thinly and eat them too which would help ward off the effects of oil and sugar that we take, Publis suggests.

Even the dinner is taken only at around 10 or 11 p.m. after watching wal-pal on TV. I eat rice and curry at about 6.30-7.30 but go to bed only at about 9 p.m., says this 77-year-old, cautioning against adding salt to the rice when it is being boilt.

Putting his words about healthy food into action, this self-taught food scientist who believes that Sri Lanka has the best food, at the function recently to launch his book and a film on his life at Mount Lavinia Hotel, offered guests ‘Sarawita’ made of fruit and vegetables, vegetable hoppers and polos pakada.

Goraka maluwa, cholesterol buster

Publis, the chef cannot resist the opportunity to give out tips on eating healthily. Eat a ‘goraka maluwa’ at least thrice a month, he suggests, giving the recipe with no cookery book at hand. The ingredients needed are: 250gms of goraka, 30gms of red onions, two green chillies, a tablespoonfuls of finely ‘liyagaththa’ karapincha leaves, a ½-inch piece of rampe also finely chopped, a ½-inch piece of cinnamon broken up into tiny pieces, 1 teaspoonful of chopped garlic, 1½ teaspoonful of curry kudu, ½ teaspoon of turmeric (kaha), ½ teaspoon of chillie powder, 2½ andu koppa of diya kiri, ½ an andu koppa of miti kiri, a touch of bedagaththa ulu haal (fenugreek) and salt to taste.

Firstly take a teaspoonful of “vidata kana” hunu (lime) and dissolve it in two tablespoonfuls of water and marinate the goraka for about one hour. Wash the goraka at least five to six times very well thereafter to get the lime out. Chop up the goraka and add every other ingredient except the miti kiri. If you need a darker colour, fry the curry powder, kaha kudu and chillie powder in the kabala before adding it. Keep it on the fire and when boiling, reduce the flame and let it simmer. Finally, add the miti kiri and let it simmer to reduce the quantity.

If eaten three times a month, it’s a sure answer to the problem of cholesterol, assures Publis.

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