What’s God Got To Do (Got To Do) With It?


First off, a belated thanks to the Mutiny for letting me stay a month longer. I’m excited to be here, and even more excited that my topics now know no bounds. Brace yourselves. Huddle in the bunker.

You all know I love to write about food. And I love Sri Lanka. So what would make me sadder than anything? (Subtract conflict in Sri Lanka from consideration.) This piece about a Sri Lankan restaurant, from the Village Voice.

My friend K sent me this. (Thanks, K!) There’s so much wrong with it that I hardly know where to begin. But what struck me most was something I’ve been seeing more and more in coverage of Sri Lanka: gratuitous inclusion or overemphasis on religion. There’s enough carnage in Sri Lanka that I suppose people feel compelled to cover or mention the country. At the same time, they feel that they ought to smush news or writing about it into the Religion v. Religion WWE format currently favored by those discussing 9/11 and its aftermath. Sietsema’s lede:

If it weren’t for almost perpetual civil war, Sri Lanka would be a model of ethnic and religious diversity. Four of the world’s chief faiths—Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity—live side-by-side on the teardrop-shaped island once known as Ceylon.

Let’s look at that again:

If it weren’t for almost perpetual civil war, Sri Lanka would be a model of ethnic and religious diversity.

In math terms:

Almost perpetual civil war [along ethnic and to a lesser extent, religious lines] + model of ethnic and religious diversity = NOT A MODEL OF ETHNIC AND RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY!

So why start like that? And then the whole story is suffused with religious and exoticizing language.

Not long ago, getting good Sri Lankan food required a pilgrimage, too. Staten Island’s Victory Boulevard hosts several small cafés anchored by a mosque, and there’s a slightly more ambitious Sri Lankan eatery in a remote Hindu neighborhood in Flushing. But now a full-blown Sri Lankan restaurant has appeared near Gramercy Park, like a sign from the deity (or deities).

All emphases mine. (As K pointed out, forget that Sigiri, another Sri Lankan restaurant, has already been in Manhattan for quite some time.) Read on: according to Sietsema, any Sri Lankan restaurant in New York must satisfy Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims.

Nirvana’s best main courses are similarly anchored by an exotic starch. Pittu arrives like an encoded message from outer space—a perfect white cylinder compacted of beaten rice and shredded coconut, which begins to crumble and flake as it lands on your table.… Other strange and singular Sri Lankan starches…

First of all, pittu is apparently FROM SPACE. Second: Call the alliteration police! Nayagan, can you deduct pittu-points for this?

Now, this randomly religious restaurant review would be perhaps not such a big deal if it were not part of a larger pattern I’ve been observing. Coverage of Sri Lanka all too often gets skewed because it does not fit in the box of Religion v. Religion. Sietsema’s review mentions the word “ethnic” once, and the word “Sinhalese” once. While there is certainly a religious element to the conflict, it is hardly the only or even the dominant one.

I’m not in favor of deepening the chasms that exist in discussion of Sri Lanka, but when bringing that discussion to new participants, I’d like to see it reflected more accurately.

Other examples:

The Christian Science Monitor on Muslims in Sri Lanka. Asking if they’re “ripe for fundamentalism” is not any better just because the headline—and at least one subhead—ends in a question mark. This is not at all the story in this situation: the story is that there’s a huge population of victimized, displaced, largely ignored Muslims.

Dalrymple’s passing reference in the NYT to the “Sri Lankan Hindu extremists” who killed Rajiv Gandhi. The LTTE was responsible for the death of Rajiv Gandhi, but the organization is secular, and has Christian and Hindu members. Indeed, the Christian Science Monitor story indicates that it’s had Muslim members! But this does not fit into the commonly understood framework of religiously driven terrorism. (Check out Walter Laqueur for more on this.) And credit to Ramesh Rao, who has written about this elsewhere (although I certainly do not agree with everything he writes!)

This Sepia thread: Here. ‘Nuff said.

This, sadly, seems to me the most accurate take.

Now, the question is, what should people be doing about it? It would be super to have a productive discussion about it. But what conditions must be in place for that to happen?

66 thoughts on “What’s God Got To Do (Got To Do) With It?

  1. ¡¿WHY!?

    Because it’s your language, culture, and heritage. Doesn’t mean you should kill people over it or become an ethnic chauvanist. But you should certainly cherish it. In my view.

  2. Are there big differences between Sinhalese cuisine and SL Tamil cuisine? How about SL Tamil compared to Indian Tamil cuisine?

  3. beyond the serious issues that sugi brings up…i wonder if the “food history” things he mentions in his article are accurate. ‘cheni chatti’– (“Chinese pan”) for the hopper pan? my mom calls ours an “appa thachi”…maybe it’s a regional thing. but now i’m curious. any good books out there about the food history of sri lanka?

  4. “Chatti” isn’t how I would spell it, but that’s a Tamil word for pot or container; you can get Chinese rolls at many a Sri Lankan restaurant. My guess is that “thachi” is a synonym for “pot,” and that “appa” is simply an adjectival reference to the the appam that are cooked in it. (Someone with better Tamil than me confirm that?) So maybe he shouldn’t have called it that so definitively; but I don’t think he’s wrong.

    Again, speculating somewhat. Chinese rolls are really good; they are shaped like larger spring rolls. There’s generally a curryish filling—often mutton, although sometimes veg—wrapped in dough, dipped in egg, breadcrumbs, and deep-fried. (Hey, I didn’t say they were healthy.)

    My friend Mary Anne Mohanraj has a cookbook called A Taste of Serendib. And my own family also loves The Complete Asian Cookbook, by Charmaine Solomon. There are little explanatory bits in there that get to the origins of certain recipes, but it’s not exhaustive.

    I’d definitely read a Sri Lankan food historian. I’ll have to go look and ask around.

  5. Are there big differences between Sinhalese cuisine and SL Tamil cuisine? How about SL Tamil compared to Indian Tamil cuisine?

    I think “sambol” is unique to sri lanka, other dishes look the same to me, On second thoughts, extensive use of coconuts and “pittu” leade me to think that Sri lankan cuisine has more in common with Malayali cuisine

  6. Yes, it seems to me that Sri Lankan food seems more similar to food from Kerala than food from Tamilnadu. Though I know “pittu” as “puttu” [well that's the closest transliteration I can come up with] and “string hopper” as “idiappam” [like ANNA, I'm jolted by the word "hopper"; it's such an inappropriate name for a food; damn british colonizers] and the appam (with the spongy center and crisp outer ring, as opposed to the other things known as appam in south india) is one of my favorite foods. Though I’ve never seen an egg in the middle of the appam. It’s rare to find a restaurant that serves food from Kerala, so if I’m looking for a good appam maybe I should look for a Sri Lankan restaurant ?

    Btw, our favorite Chinese explorer Zheng He visited both Sri Lanka and Kerala. Maybe he, or one of his predecessors, left behind the Cheena[/i]-Cha[/e]tti.

  7. 60 · retorts said

    59 · ashvin said
    It’s rare to find a restaurant that serves food from Kerala
    Don’t these count? They’re everywhere.

    I’ve never been to one of those. But it seems like they serve food from Tamilnadu. What I’m really asking is where do I go to get Appam and “stew” [preferably with chicken] ?

  8. Sri Lankan food incorporates curry powder with different proportions of spices, roasted differently than Indian curry powder; Sri Lankan food also tends to feature seafood. My impression (only anecdotal, but I feel relatively confident in it) is that while plenty of SL Tamils are vegetarian, vegetarian cuisine does not dominate in SL Tamil areas the way it does in South India.

    I use only curry powder called Jaffna curry powder; I get it, or my mother gets it, from Sri Lankan stores in Toronto. She’s my spice dealer. :)

    There’s quite a bit of overlap between Sinhalese and Tamil food, but I don’t think I saw white pittu and hoppers until I was older—in a restaurant. So there are different types of flour that can be used; those differences may be regional or ethnic, but my mother’s idiappam and pittu are made with a darker flour than can be brown/gray to verging on red.

    1. Egg hoppers! (Though milk hoppers remain my favorite, any kind of hopper is proving difficult to find in Oakland, California.)
    2. Amazing Lankan reportage! Sugi, I’ve been really enjoying your posts and hope you keep them up. My dad (Burger/Tamil Lankan) grew up mostly in K.L. and I’ve always wanted to hear more about what it’s like to be Sri Lankan in Malaysia, now and then.
    3. fckn idiot reviewer in the NYT! Pittu is definitely not from Mars. ;)