The Humble Roti

Sri Lankan Roti has to be my most favourite of foods. Made with Wheat Flour, Grated Coconut, Salt and Water and cooked on a large heavy bottomed pan or a griddle it is a quick and easy dish to prepare. My secret ingredient is a tablespoon of cooking oil added to the mixture for both flavour and texture. Roti can be eaten with something simple like Dhal Curry or Coconut Sambol and is great with hot Chicken Curry.

I have a cherished memory of eating Roti from my time working as an English Teacher in the hamlet of Hinnapita in Sri Lanka which I wrote about in my last update. For the year and a half I worked there I boarded during the week with a local family. The family I stayed with was made up of mum, dad, two sons and two daughters. My room was dark and windowless, but it was the best they had in the house. To remove the many safety pins that held up my Sari (which is the typical dress for a school teacher in Sri Lanka), I had to light a kerosene lamp as I could not even make out where the table was to put them down.

The family came from a long line of Potters, but the current generation had turned to agriculture and the older son who would have been about 18 at that time did most of the work. The rest of the family all pitched in during planting and harvesting. Some days when I came home from work, the mother of the household would be out working in the fields doing her bit to help out. She always left instructions with her children to make sure I was fed. With no electricity and therefore no refrigeration, every meal was cooked fresh and eaten in one sitting, so someone would always be there to have it ready for 2.30pm.

On one such occasion, I came home to find the 18 year old son was the one instructed to provide me with my lunch that day. They all knew about my love of Roti, so he had made me Roti and Dhal Curry. But as cooking wasn’t his forte he had added ground black pepper to the Dhal. It was close to inedible, but I was so touched that I ate every little bit. I also understood why this hardworking young man had gone to so much trouble. It was because I was a teacher; a vocation that was accorded the highest levels of respect even in such a humble village as this.

Sri Lanka has one of the highest rates of literacy in the developing world; around 90% for both males and females over 15 years. Education is deemed one of the most valuable assets a person could have. I remember being taught growing up that your education is the one thing you cannot lose once you have gained it, unlike other forms of wealth. As a child, when I came back to Sri Lanka after living for a few years in Africa, I was amazed to see men of all ages in rural areas sometimes wearing nothing but a loin cloth, squatting by the side of the road reading the daily newspaper.

When I started working in Hinnapita School in 1991, I was the first English Teacher to take up the position in 10 years. Neither the school nor the village had any English reading material apart from the text books provided by the Government. Most of the children in the school had never been outside of their little village. I remember doing a lesson for the Year 5s that was based on things happening at a Train Station. Part of the story was about Platform Announcements. I was completely stumped by how I was going to explain what a Platform Announcement was to children who didn’t know what a Railway Track looked like let alone had seen a Train in their lives.

These children had very little and if the Government hadn’t provided the text books, there would have been no learning at all. I remember these two little boys, brothers, who shared a pencil stub as that was all they had. The older brother would run to collect it from the younger one when it was his turn to write. Their parents had no money for exercise books, so they brought a side of a paper bag to write on during class.

After I was transferred out of the area, I canvassed a few of my friends and associates and managed to get a Sinhala- English Dictionary, the complete set of Ladybird Learn to Read series, story books and lots of broken crayons the International School in Colombo threw out at the end of each year. Another friend sourced exercise books, pens and pencils and pretty pink erasers that smelled like fruit, to be distributed amongst the kids. It was a tiny drop in the ocean as far as their ongoing needs were concerned, but I was able to leave with the hope that things would improve for the children of Hinnapita as a result of this act of generosity. That at least they had some hope that they were not totally forgotten by the rest of their fellow countrymen.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Raj says:

    One of my Uni. friends posted this in his face book page. I now see you are from NZ. We just started our life in NZ (Wellington) and really inspired by your postings. I’m an academic attached to one of the Universities. My mother was a great cook and a teacher originally from down south, unfortunately passed away last December. When I see most of these dishes I remember her cooking skills. With a bit of difficulty to find some ingredients my wife Rasika my Son Rahul and I try to recreate the same thing at our new NZ home. We all love Sri Lankan food. Although my son had multicultural experience before in the UK he continue to be a enormous lover of Sri Lanka, As you mentioned somewhere in your blog unless otherwise for my son’s future I would never imagine to live outside Sri Lanka which I already missed so much. Best Wishes, Raj

    1. Thanks for reading my blog. It is great to hear that someone else can relate to something you have written based on your own experiences. I used to live in Wellington, so if you need help with sourcing ingredients, please contact me via facebook and I will put you in touch with some of my friends there. Good luck with your life in NZ. Wellington is a great place. All the best.

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