Sharmani Peiris has inherited the long tradition of Burgher cuisine; for her ancestors cooking was a big part of life. Heirloom recipes were for them as precious as family jewels. Tracing her maternal line as far back as possible, we halt at Theodora Senn, an Austrian married to a Goanese, whose descendants would be immersed in the potpourri of Ceylon society. Though names and dialect have mingled and merged, the recipes have survived in all their precision.
Sharmani remembers how animated her mother and grandmother were as Christmas approached. Wines were made and the cake prepared very early. It was really the lingering tastes from her mother’s kitchen that prompted her to start commercial cooking. At most weddings, she found the rich cake with marzipan lacked the lavish flare of Burgher fare. With a passion to share the taste she loved, Sharmani converted from beautician to home baker, and thus Ants and Bees began.
Under this jovial name Sharmani produces an array of delicacies, most of them being sweets. Her specialty is a decadent Christmas cake, made to a recipe that predates even great-great grandmother Senn. The first customers, all close friends, were pleasantly surprised by the handiwork, so Sharmani began cooking and baking in earnest.
Her toffees, fitting any occasion, include coconut rock and milk toffee with cashew, plums and pineapple embedded. Miris toffee, her own recipe, is both sweet and spicy. During festivals such as Avurudu and Christmas the kitchen is a hive of activity and the oven gets no respite. Rich cake, love cake, date cake, fruit cake and ribbon cake, the tables groan under the weight of baked delicacies. One recipe Sharmani takes great pride in is her jaggery pudding. The top layer is crumbly, jaggery while underneath is a cake with honey. During Easter she fashions eggs and bunnies. Marzipan Father Christmases and trees are very popular edible baubles. Sharmani keeps her larder stocked with chutneys and jams year-round. Glass jars scintillate with pineapple, date-and-lime, Ambarella and mango chutneys as well as jam bottles glisten with the reds and yellows of apricot, apple and pineapple.
She also serves a scrumptious yellow rice and biryani which comes with prawn or chicken curry and other accompaniments. Her frozen lunch packets, which can be kept up to two months are sent to Sri Lankans in the Middle East by their relatives. All her food is unsullied by preservatives. The secret is insistence on the best ingredients; and cleanliness.
Sharmani’s sweet jars are a dainty and pretty concept, designed to allay the long hungry waits guests endure at weddings or other functions. Each table gets a glass jar wrapped up with ribbons and colourful toffees, marzipans and little chunks of cake that guests can munch on until the grand feast. In her kitchen flooded with morning sunlight, Sharmani is making plans to foray further by enlarging her delicious range of goodies and delicacies, probably by discovering forgotten Burgher recipes from old family manuscripts that will entice Colombo.