I catch a faint whiff of the aroma of breakfast wafting through the house from the kitchen. Not the front of house kitchen but the back of house kitchen. The kitchen built especially for the live-in cook, with plenty of space for the gigantic stone vangediya and mol gaha (mortar and pestle) used to pound millet and rice into flour, the clay cooking pots of all sizes, a terra cotta water jug and the Aladdin’s cave type pastes and portions stored in bottles of every shape and colour. The treasures of a Sri Lankan kitchen. Gertie who cooked for my grandmother, then my mother and now cooks for us, is making our favourite breakfast of roti and lunu miris.
Roti, a flatbread made of rice flour and fresh grated coconut is traditionally eaten with a fierce sambal called lunu miris. Onions and fresh chillies are ground to a course paste on a rectangular grinding stone called a miris gala (chilli stone). Maldive fish, salt and lime juice are added to the paste and it is usually formed into a fiery red ball, to be eaten in tiny quantities with each mouthful of roti. I heard somewhere that you can only call yourself a true Sri Lankan if you have a three course curry meal for breakfast – how true. Maldive fish by the way are dried hard flakes of tuna that closely resemble wood chips and smell like dirty socks but add great flavour, similar to adding dried shrimp.
The aroma of roti is now mixed with the smell of a pot of fresh tea brewing. No tea bags in this kitchen. We have three paid domestic helpers who live with us. Our local friends think Mark and I are crazy because we pander to their every food and drink fixation, perhaps in gratitude for the fact that when we return to Sydney in a year or so we will have to take over doing our own housework and cooking and child-minding, so we feel it’s a small price to pay for keeping them happy.
As an example let’s take something as simple as a cup of tea. Gertie the cook likes her tea strong, black and very sweet. The sugar is usually placed in a small mound in the palm of her hand and she licks the sugar and then takes a mouthful of hot tea. Why, I have no idea. Wijesinghe, the ‘house-boy’ who is anything but a boy seeing he looks about as old as Methuselah and we inherited him with the rental lease, likes his tea with 3-4 teaspoons of condensed milk and 2-3 spoonsful of sugar. Menike the children’s nanny likes her tea with powdered milk, but it has to be Anchor powdered milk, which just happens to be the imported brand, not the cheap local brand. Apparently the local brands give her saymer, phlegm! Oh and they each drink about 10 cups of tea a day.
Menike is only a nanny by an accident of birth. Had she been born in another time and place she would definitely have been the head of a Fortune 500 company. She is easily the most entrepreneurial woman I’ve ever met. With no education and little or no money she brought up her five children purely on her wits. Her husband disappeared shortly after the birth of her fifth child. I use that term lightly because he ‘disappeared’ into another relationship in the adjoining village. She grew vegetables on a tiny plot of land behind her home and sold it to the local produce market, she sewed late into the night, and she supplied packets of rice and curry (called ‘lunch packets’) to the local food outlets. These she cooked at four in the morning. Her one failing is she has light fingers when it comes to stuff left lying around our house. Jewellery of any kind, precious or otherwise and loose coins and notes being a particular favourite.
Back to the smell of fresh roti. Try to imagine the smell of freshly baked bread, combined with the smell of roasting fresh coconut. There you have it. It is still very early in the morning as I sit on the veranda of this more than one hundred year old home we are renting and savour tiny sips of my milky tea. Rusty, our brown (what other colour with a name like that) mongrel is sniffing about at the gate because he can smell the urine of the dogs that have all raised a hind leg at our wrought iron front gate during the night. The fronds on the coconut trees in our garden are glistening like tinsel as the dawn rays light them up. The grass on our front lawn, thanks to Wijesinghe’s care, is so green it resembles the green desiccated coconut grass you find on children’s birthday cakes.
In the distance I hear the loudspeakers at the local Buddhist temple as the monks chant their dawn prayers. One of the habits Mark and I are trying hard to over-come is our desire to make a fuss about noise pollution. In Sri Lanka loudspeakers are used for all sorts of reasons, broadcasting prayers being just one. Any form of celebration requires loudspeakers to be strung up on trees so the entire neighbourhood can be entertained, occasionally all through the night. Coming from our years of living in Sydney, this is a challenge for our ears.
Today is Poya – the day of the full moon and a public holiday. The word Poya is derived from the Pali and Sanskrit word uposatha and is celebrated monthly in recognition of the moon being at its fullest point. On Poya day all practising Buddhists in Sri Lanka visit the temple, just as Christians do on a Sunday, to meditate and reflect on the five precepts of Buddhism. There is constant criticism from the Western Powers about the number of public holidays in Sri Lanka and pressure is sometimes brought to bear for Sri Lanka to not just abolish some of its public holidays, but that the practise of making each full moon a public holiday should be re-considered. The main argument is to do with business, money and consumerism. Fortunately Sri Lanka continues to place their religious philosophy ahead of economic values. For now at least, as I sit and reflect on my blessings on this Poya morning, the public holiday remains intact.
I watch young girls and boys, some as young as three and four years old, holding hands as they walk to the temple with the parents and neighbours. The girls are dressed all in white, long white sarongs with a frill at the midriff and a short bolero type top. Hair shiny with coconut oil and falling in two braids over their shoulders. They carry little round baskets with white frangipani flowers – referred to in this country as temple flowers. These flowers are placed as offerings on the temple altars. Boys wear white sarongs and white short-sleeved shirts. Just like kids all over the world they laugh and skip and run and dawdle and kick up the dust and stones and get a whack across the back of the head or have their arms pulled by a parent or older sibling if they get a bit too unruly.
Our front lawn is full of the early bird looking for the worm. Brilliant blue kingfishers, black and white magpies about a third of the size of the Australian magpie, brown and very ordinary looking seven sisters,(and yes you always find them in sevens) mynahs with brilliant yellow rings around their eyes, the tiniest batchichas (similar to a hummingbird) you’ve ever seen and woodpeckers with thin long beaks strong enough to peck holes in the bark of a tree. Sri Lanka has over 435 species of birds, including several species of migratory birds. This is a large number for such a small island.
Rusty lets them hop about the lawn as they please but occasionally feels he must make a statement and remind them that they are guests on his lawn only because he chooses to let them be there. He rushes at them barking madly and then rests, panting, under the shade of a coconut tree. The birds are so used to this display of machismo that they walk instead of fly out of his way, and then settle back to what they were doing before his mad outburst of testosterone disturbed the peace.
Living off one of the coconut trees is a betel leaf creeper. Jessica’s favourite. She is only three years old, but has watched Menike and Gertie (who is addicted to chewing betel leaves and whose mouth resembles a rotting pomegranate) breaking leaves off the creeper and eating them. So if Jessica is missing we know where to find her. The leaves have a strong flavour, sort of peppery and like a basil leaf but ten times stronger. Mark and I can’t work out what it is about these leaves that would make a three year old want to eat them. She has such a naughty smile when we catch her at it that we can’t help but laugh, yet Menike and Gertie get upset if they see her chewing on these leaves because they say the betel leaf is a narcotic and we are being neglectful parents. I’ve been told they are good for stomach worms! Maybe the worms get stoned.
As I sit on the veranda of this ancient house, surrounded by the spirits of all those who lived and died here, I’m filled with a happiness I’ve never known. I lock away a mental picture of this Poya morning and my feeling of deep gratitude for the opportunity to take time off from the madness of Sydney life to spend it with our two young children in the suburb I was born and brought up in. I embrace the pleasure of being able to point out places and people from my childhood to Mark and to my children, a pleasure I don’t have in Sydney as a migrant. For now I’ll let the aroma of roti and tea and Poya holidays and temple bells penetrate my memory bank, to draw on a hundred…no make that a thousand times, once we relocate to Sydney when our visas run out in a year’s time.