This morning I made Golden Kumara (Maori word for Sweet Potato or Bathala in Sinhala) with fried coconut sambol. The colour in the Bathala above does not owe itself to any added turmeric; it truly is golden when cooked. Kumara was brought to New Zealand by the early Maori settlers from the Pacific Islands over a thousand years ago. The varieties we eat today are derived from American imports brought here in the late 19th century. The original varieties, which were a lot smaller (no bigger than a finger), sound similar to the Bathala we are familiar with back in Sri Lanka.
I had mentioned to a friend recently about the variety of breakfast dishes we consume as part of our diet in Sri Lanka. Bathala with Lunu Miris and freshly grated coconut has always been a favourite of mine. The bit that I don’t miss is having to peel the vegetable at the table before consuming. I know my mother boiled the Bathala in its skin to preserve the nutrients, but it was so very inconvenient to stop and peel when all you wanted to do was tuck into your breakfast.
I only had coconut that had been previously frozen, so I decided to make coconut sambol instead and to add the extra flavour, I tempered it (cooking it in a teaspoon of oil flavoured with mustard seed, curry leaf, broken pieces of dried chilli, Rampe or pandanus leaf, red onion and garlic). The marrying of the flavours; the sweetness of the Kumara with the heat of the chilli, the mix of salt and lemon juice and the texture of the coconut sambol is indescribable. The tempering added an extra dimension to the flavour. It is such a simple dish, but that does not detract from its place in Sri Lanka cuisine.
A large part of our lives as expats living abroad is about creating new experiences by mixing what we brought with us from home with things found in our adopted land, much like what I attempted to do with the above dish. It is a means of survival because if you stick only with what you have always known you cannot thrive. The stereotypical caricature of the recently returned expat who appears to have forgotten how to speak their language and has adopted a lot of foreign affectations and mannerisms is just that, a caricature. The large majority of us hanker for home, but know that commitments to family, especially children bind us to the new land in a way that makes it hard if not impossible for us to truly go back home. In my thirties I was quite happy to embrace everything new. Now in my forties, I am nostalgic for all things Sri Lankan. I know I am bound to this country at least for another decade till my son finishes school, but I often wonder what it would be like to have a small house away from the hustle and bustle where I can relax and cook and eat whatever my fancy takes. You might say the grass is always greener on the other side and you may well be right, because after an year or two of that, I might decide I want freshly picked strawberries and cream for desert…….We are contrary creatures, I know…..But it is nice to dream.