You know, the Thanksgiving meal is really well-designed. If you’ve been through it a few times, it’s relatively easy to cook the sides and turkey, to have the turkey rest while the sides heat up in the oven, to make the gravy from the pan drippings and bake some crescent rolls, to have it all come out at the same time, nice and hot and ready to feed a couple dozen people.
And I’m assuming that it’s not that some bright soul sat down and figured this all out from scratch. It‘s cooking wisdom that was developed over an entire culture, over decades or even centuries. It just works, and it works because it’s been made and refined a gazillion times.
After the events of Black July, tens of thousands of Tamil refugees fled their homes, many ending up in other countries — Canada, America, England, Australia. It was, among other things, a massive disruption in food culture.
My own family didn’t come here as refugees; we were simple economic migrants, who came a decade earlier, because my father got a good job here, and never ended up moving back to Sri Lanka. But my knowledge of Sri Lankan food culture was disrupted too. And sure, I can roll a simple sushi roll now, or make a decent pasta sauce, or serve chilaquiles for breakfast. We make a basic Thai curry once a week or so. I’ve gained a superficial understanding of many different cuisines, and the variety is delightful.
But there’s a depth missing. That’s one of the things that became clear when I was researching for the cookbook — that you could make hoppers and serve them with all kinds of things, but an egg hopper with seeni sambol is sheer perfection on its own. There’s a reason why that same combination is served across the island. No culinary school laying down the rules, but the wisdom of many hands stirring and seasoning, and many hungry souls eating, and giving feedback. A little less salt, a little more lime.
How long does it take a people to recover their food culture, after a massive disruptive event? Are some elements lost forever? Or can we trace out the path of what is missing, and rebuild the breadth and depth of it?