Every day, Swarna de Mel is up at 5 a.m., pulling tropical herbs from her garden, harvesting dinosaur-egg-sized jackfruit, and cracking coconuts with a hatchet in preparation for curries, spicy sambols, and mallum salads. You’d expect her home to be filled with the smells of exotic spices—cumin, cardamom, chilies, and loads of black pepper tickling the nose. But the scent is neutral, the kitchen is quiet, and de Mel is nowhere to be found. And then the dishes suddenly appear.
That’s because she’s been cooking outside, not far from her jungle of a garden. Many Sri Lankan families have two kitchens: the “rough” kitchen outside, and the pantry, or show kitchen, inside. While the indoor kitchen can be equipped with all of today’s latest appliances, the real cooking happens in a place that can get messy enough to hose down. Here, the culinary magic is made with ancient tools, rarely modified over the centuries. I got a chance to experience this when visiting her and many of her siblings who live in traditional homes that have this double kitchen, too.
Made of clay, stone, bamboo, or palm leaves, rugged tools decorate the walls and shelves of these rough kitchens. And they are never facing the west. According to Sinhalese superstition, only the dead face west, the direction signifying the end.
Modern metal and plastic utensils adorn Swarna’s indoor kitchen, but these rarely cross her mind when cooking. This family chef opts for the rudimentary, time-honored utensils, making food prep more hands-on, better synthesizing robust, smack-you-in-the-face flavors, like a well-composed piece of music. And after tasting Swarna’s gotu kola mallum (Sri Lanka’s version of tabouli), you don’t question her methods. Here is a list of her favorite tools.
The Curry Pot
In Sri Lanka, curry is synonymous with sauce, so almost every hot dish is called a curry. Enter the curry pot, or walang. These round clay recipients make one-dish wonders that include fiery garlic, chicken or fish sauces with big meaty chunks. Pots are used directly on a wood or gas flame, and often sent straight to the table for serving.
String Hopper Press
String hoppers are rice noodle cakes, made by pressing flour dough through a stubby metal tube called an indiyappam wangediya, which creates fine vermicelli-like strands. These small cakes are placed on individual bamboo mats then stacked into a steamer.
The Grinding Stone
One of the most ancient tools is the miris gala. It’s a simple two-stone grinder consisting of one large flat stone as the surface and another heavy cylindrical one used, like a rolling pin, to crush the ingredients for sambol, the spicy salsa-like salad where coconut often plays the star. Sri Lankan sambols often include Maldive fish, garlic, shallots, lime juice, and red peppers.
Finger Millet Grinder
Also prehistoric is the vangediya and mol gaha, made of two parts used to crush millet or rice into fine flour. A long pole is worked into a stone pot to effortlessly loosen the husk and layers around each grain. Superstition says that this grinder must be cleaned and set to rest after working, pole removed from pot. It should be respected like a person, bathed after work before bed.
The Coconut Scraper
With the amount of coconut used in Sri Lankan cooking, the hiramanaya is essential. The hand crank scraper is generally clamped onto the side of a table. The coconut is opened with a hatchet, its water drained into the ground or a drinking glass. The hand crank spins to work out the tough, mature coconut meat into soft, snowy flakes.
The Water Jug
The terra-cotta carafe, known as gurulethuwa, is considered the original cooler, porous enough for the night air to chill it. While tap water is relatively safe to drink today, out of tradition (and continued precaution), most families still boil their water then store it in these decorative decanters.
Finally, let’s not forget the most ancient of cooking tools: the hands. In Sri Lanka, hands are not only intricately tied to the work of cooking, but also to the pleasure of eating. People mix rice and curries with their hands, helping cool the food while preparing unique, individual bites.
After cooking and eating with nature’s tools, it suddenly seems weird to wield a metal spoon.
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Marguerite Richards is a native Californian chasing her curiosities around the world about food, culture, and especially the fascinating people behind it all. Follow her rambles on Instagram and Twitter.