Dhal is a produce primarily and originally mainly linked with our neighboring India and which began to be popular locally during colonial times. Bread was introduced with colonialism, initially by the Portuguese. Bread, dhal and potato (the commonly available global variety) are viewed as among the core foods of Sri Lanka and compulsory for survival. Yet there are many easily available food plants, which double up as high immunity boosters which we are now, in current times, not aware of. Yet these plant species may exist around us, even in urban areas which we may dismiss as weeds.
There are hundreds of traditional food sources with which we can make bread from (including jack seeds). Some of the extremely nutritious alternatives to dhal include Mineri, the Kollu seeds and Thora Parippu. Thora Parippu is a big tree and the seeds in the pods are rather large and contain very high nutritional value. There are scores of food options that used to be our main foods. Although these have tremendous health value they are unconsumed because we are ignorant of them.
Most practitioners of mass media too are unable to educate people adequately on diet patterns that are both cost and health effective which can be the base of food security of this nation, because training for journalists or policy makers on traditional knowledge and its modern relevance is not something that occurs in Sri Lanka.
Hence the common understanding communicated to us through the media and political platforms is the danger of unavailability or the high cost of a few mainly imported food items. This is thought of as creating food insecurity.
Although there are over 300 indigenous varieties of yams and tubers in Sri Lanka and hundreds of traditional rice varieties as written and spoken widely by Lankan food researcher Publis and many others such as anthropologists focusing on Lankan foods, we have been wasting our dollars for decades importing potatoes.
Some of the foods that grow wild in the natural environment in Sri Lanka are at times destroyed by some agrarian policy decisions taken over the past decades due to the wrong understanding that these are ‘weeds.’
One key quality of foods that grow naturally ‘wild’ in our atmosphere is that they need no extra attention and no fertiliser of any sort whether natural or chemical based. Hence they can be described as nature’s purest bounty that prevents us from visiting the hospital.
These plants choose to be born in atmospheres and environs of their choice because they know they can thrive easily in these locations. Their thriving is thwarted by our individual and collective ignorance.
For example our current lawn addiction results in clean shaving patches of gardens upon which we only grow grass. These are often imported varieties (although there are local grass varieties that are medicinal). In many lawns within two months or so if uncut several medicinal plants which also double up as food plants crop up by their own volition.
The Harmony page of the Weekend FT is among the media contributing to national initiatives to educate the masses and politicians on common sense based approaches to food security in Sri Lanka.
As part of this effort, below we quote Pannila Podi Wedamahattaya (Arjuna Pannilage), agro and local food knowledge/food entrepreneurship activist who was part of a weekly online conference series that commenced last Thursday, with the cooperation of the Mass Communication Unit of the Open University of Sri Lanka on educating Sri Lankans on the diverse aspects of local food and medicinal sustainability.
“The fear that Sri Lanka will face a food crisis can manifest into reality only if we continue to be afflicted by an ignorance-led inertia. If we starve it is out of a sheer backward understanding of what entails knowledge. This is the penalty we are facing for interpreting knowledge for the past decades within a particular cocoon,” says Arjuna Pannilage.
“There is now a ‘beethikawa’ (a fear psychosis) injected into us by the media which we are absorbing into our minds without realising that we are upon a land that is an untapped goldmine of food.”
“While the international community and the world at large may, for whatever reasons including genuine sympathy, be motivated to send out red alerts concerning Sri Lanka, citing impending food shortages, which are currently leading to countries donating us potatoes and rice, at least we within this country should strive to educate ourselves. We should try to understand that there is food and that there is medicine all around us.”
“I will cite a few basic examples; very few people know that the thambili that we drink and throw after eating the pulp has a very palatable interior when cooked (the hard base) which could be knifed out. This is called the kahakada curry and which is much tastier than the caju curry. I grew up in an urban setting, in Kalubowila eating these foods as we had this knowledge in our families and although many I know still are very sound in the understanding that it is a akin to a joke to think that we can starve in this country, the majority can be duped to believe that Sri Lanka is a country where people can starve. If we believe this life and wallow in misery and fear, this is the foundation for creating a crisis.”
The fear that Sri Lanka will face a food crisis can manifest into reality only if we continue to be afflicted by an ignorance-led inertia. If we starve it is out of a sheer backward understanding of what entails knowledge. This is the penalty we are facing for interpreting knowledge for the past decades within a particular cocoon
“There are plants that spring up and are generally thought of as weeds. Here are two small examples. Kadupahara is a sharp leaf based plant that grows in clusters. The Kadupahara plant is a medicine which has been historically applied in Sri Lanka on wounds, especially those sustained in ancient wars where swords are used. However this plant is also a food and can be made into a tasty and highly nutritious sambol or stir fry. Yet today because we do not know the importance of it, we often destroy these plants as wild weeds.” “The other plant that we may uproot from our lawns in urban areas, thinking them to be wild weeds, is Monarakudumbiya. Monarakudumbiya is consumed as kenda (herbal breakfast broth) unique to Sri Lanka. It has one of the highest immunity boosting qualities and can be cooked as a curry and also made into a kalawang pala mallum (combined with other leaf varieties).”
“Let me know, focus on more examples. Another large tree that grows wild naturally which has a very high nutrition in its leaves is the Kebella tree. What is consumed is the very young leaves (dallu). It is an excellent gut purifier and is fibrous. These are trees that just grow wild and often mowed down thinking it is of no use.”
“As someone specialising in foods that are part of the environment (parisaragatha ahara) I know that there are hundreds of such foods that are right around us in this country. Foods that we consistently destroy because we are unaware that these are food and medicine combined.”
“Jackfruit as we all know is a commonly available food produce in Sri Lanka which has very high medicinal properties, whether it is the leaf or bark or the entire interior of the food. Per year thousands of jackfruits fall and rot island-wide. There is enough food based entrepreneurship that can be created from jackfruit alone.”
“The plantain tree is one which we cut down when its time is over. Its tree trunk interior (kehel bada) is consumed and is extremely beneficial for stomach based health.”
“Although we are now internationally famed for importing potatoes we have scores of varieties of traditional yams and tubers which grow easily. These are not dependent on chemical based agricultural inputs.”
“While in Colombo and urban areas we still see few traditional tubers and yam varieties such as Innala, Raja Ala and Kiri Ala, there are many varieties that grow island-wide according to what soil suits them. This is a topic by itself and we will talk about it in detail later.”
“To mention just briefly there is Wel Ala and Angili Ala that can be grown in urban nature based fencing that could be incorporated into our town based landscaping. Easily one can design their own food sustainability based gardens or even condominium balconies, if we are focusing on land scarce areas.” Some of these can be grown in large pots. If there is land available some of these yams and tubers can be grown as creepers. Coir based frames can be roped out (lanu udata edela messak wage hadanna) as upward frames. To grow these one does not need any artificial fertiliser. One can use kitchen refuse as fertiliser.”
“Tuber and yam plants such as Buth sarana and Hulang keeriya increase blood count and can be given to those afflicted by low blood count conditions. For general consumption, from a health maintenance perspective these are excellent. They can be cooked tastily, for example even like we make our kallu pol maluwa.”
“Alongside food shortage fears that we hear often now, is the alarm of medicine shortage. Overall this is a threat to our health and very survival. What I have tried to explain and reiterate above as someone from a traditional medicine practitioner lineage and a traditional nutritional and food practitioner/entrepreneurship promoter, is that whatever anyone may tell us, we do not have to be in a fear based stupor that we will starve or be permanently sick or die by September.”
“I appeal to all Sri Lankans to educate yourself on the produce of this land. To talk of cultivation is to talk about the economy. It is basic common sense. Yet this common sense we may lack today when we speak of subjects such as economics. We have been squandering our dollars for years on needless imports and yet we do not realise it as a nation. At least now we can become aware of this.”
“If as ordinary people we become aware of how we can make a change, first within our family and then collectively the impact of that change will be felt within the country. That is macro-economic impact. This is the way an individual based economic impact influences a macro economic framework.”
“An array of pots on our balcony can contribute to the above impact. Becoming aware that we waste some of our food by not utilising the whole of it contributes to not averting a food crisis. Again to cite some basic examples – we usually throw the watakolu sharp flint based rough exterior and use only the pulp. Yet the skin we can wash well and use finely chopped up to make a very tasty sambol with a little coconut. We can use in various recipes the ash plantain skin without throwing it away as many do. This may sound on the surface like just irrelevant advice when we talk of a macro economy food based shortage as interpreted by modern economics but please stop to consider all what is being said here.”
“If we make the smallest effort we can easily individually assert our food security. From the plant Lunuwila which is a miraculous healer of nerve problems and strengthens memory to wel gotukola which has similar health properties, including eye health – there is a limitless range of food we can grow in pots. The spinach that we buy can be grown in pots.” “Even carrots can be grown in pots whatever the climate, provided we nurture it carefully. Some of the varieties of traditional yams and tubers can be grown in gunny bags or large pots or barrels if land is not available. Thampala, different varieties of beans, mukunuwenna, karapincha, ginger and turmeric are some of the basic produce we use often which could be cultivated and as I said earlier incorporated artistically into urban landscaping.”
(The above excerpts in quotes are based on the knowledge sharing by Arjuna Pannilage (known as Pannila Podi Wedamahattaya) – a nutrition and health practitioner from a lineage of Deshiya Chikitsa (Sinhala Wedakama) who is currently spearheading several initiatives in Sri Lanka pertaining to local food based entrepreneurship and awareness.
The knowledge contained in the above article was shared by Arjuna Pannilage at a forum titled ‘Combating food and medicine shortage in Sri Lanka’ held this week as the first in a series that will take place every Thursday. The discussion series is organised by Frances Bulathsinghala, a mass communication practitioner researching on traditional and modern knowledge concerning food and health systems in Sri Lanka. The technical assistance for this online event was provided by the Mass Communication Unit of the Open University of Sri Lanka.)