According to the Sri Lankan chronicle Rajavaliya the first Sri Lankan to see the Portuguese in 1505 had a fabulous tale to tell the king: “They are exceedingly fair of skin and beautiful. They wear boots and hats of iron...; and they eat hunks of white stone, and drink blood. "Fair skin, puffed up armour, restiveness: out of all these, one feels what has mystified the Sri Lankan the most was the diet. The clear deep red of the wine has been just as puzzling as the chunky white bread that has to be cut to slices in order to be eaten. But more than 500 years later, bread has been so localised among the very same people that it is one of the favourite food items in the country. Among Sri Lankan bread, the term Achchu paan is used for the common, everyday loaf. Theti paan is a coconut oil infused flat bread while Roast paan is a generous slice of roasted bread. Sandwich paan is but a very recent novelty.
Up to a few decades back, the word ‘bakery’ brought to mind a wood-fired oven; a cavern often as black as sin and as hot as fire. But it was also a magical place; out of the smoke and charcoal came forth fresh loaves, hot and sweet smelling. Today most of these have been replaced with gas and electric ovens, but you can still find a wood-fired oven or ‘dara poranuwa’ if you surpass urban perimetres and watch out for soot-blackened little buildings.
In the traditional bakery, the primary ingredient is plain white flour. It is mixed with water, margarine and a little salt and sugar with yeast. Only then is this basic dough subjected to different treatments depending on the type of bread you are baking. Roast paan, for example, has to be made into a different shape and should be baked twice.
The beauty of bread making lies in how the white, fleshy, malleable dough with the sheen of margarine is kneaded continuously; how trays neatly stacked with flabby, sliced dough go in and come out gold and white. What is everyday monotony to the baker is magic to us.
Despite the interesting historical anecdote about the Portuguese and bread, the bread we buy from the kadey (boutique) today, with its soft flanks and hard baked brown top, has been inherited from the British,
and has its closest relative in the English or Scottish loaf. Kurakkan paan, in the same pattern, is a Sri Lankan health bread made of Kurakkan or ‘Finger Millet’, a bit rough in texture but nutritious and a lovely mellow brown.
In Sri Lanka bread is mostly a breakfast staple, sponged on parippu, pol sambol, fish or chicken gravy; a frugal but filling meal to start the day. At tea time, it makes a more genteel and English appearance with jam and butter. More exotic accompaniments, are curried prawn, crab or beef. The bread probably tastes the most flavourful when impinged with these deep, gravied marine savours.
The wood fired oven has been driven to the brink today because it entails a lot of labour. Countering this, however, is the fact that many people still want their bread baked the old way. It seems that wood fired ovens will last for generations. In the future, however the hard way of baking bread, with the taste fostered by charcoal, will fade away into a mere gastronomic memory.
Try out Sri Lankan bread in this various ways during your stay in Sri Lanka. It is definitely worthwhile.