Packing a Punch
On a recent travel to Sri Lanka having enjoyed a lunch of local cuisine of rice, curries and sambol at Delight Bakers at Kandy, we chanced upon a small cluster of banana leaf packets in the display unit. Out of curiosity we asked what it was, and were told it was lamprais, a word that sounded like lump rice. Our guide explained it had a mix of ingredients, and keen to try it out we added it to our take away of a few local savouries and sweets.
After visiting a few craft centres and then the sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic we returned to the hotel room, and opened the packet to find a delicious, wholesome preparation that seemed to have a mix of ingredients from rice to vegetables, meat and fried boiled eggs.
Though the packet had been out for a few hours the food smelt aromatic, tasted delicious and with its mix of ingredients each bite brought a different taste. The gravy made the preparation just moist enough to be juicy while eating, yet not ooze out of its wrapping while being carried. And the variety of nutrients from proteins to carbohydrates, fats, fibre and spices in the preparation along with its generous portion made the lamprais a wholesome meal in itself.
Keen to know more about the lamprais we asked Chef Indika Jayawardena, Director Food & Beverage, Amari Galle, about the dish. And he shared his thoughts on the origins of lamprais in the 19th century in Dutch East Indies, its subsequent travel to and evolution in Sri Lanka, and the effort that goes into making an authentic lamprais.
“Lamprais is derived from the Indonesian word `lemper’ which means packet of rice. In Java, the Dutch noticed locals carrying lemper around with them and realised it was a very handy ready-to-eat meal that kept well in the tropical heat. The Dutch brought this dish to Sri Lanka when she was colonized and they added in local ingredients. It was renamed `lomprist’ meaning packet of food in Dutch and now has become Anglicized to lamprais”, explained Chef Indika.
He elaborated that lamprais is part of the traditional preparations of the Dutch Burghers, the descendants of the Dutch settlers in Sri Lanka. “Lamprais is part of the melting pot of cuisines available in Sri Lanka, along with influence from the Malays and Moorish traders and of course Sri Lanka’s neighbours in the south of India. The Dutch Burgher families have kept this tradition alive through the years and it was a Sunday lunch staple, after the obligatory morning church service, paired with home-made ginger beer”.
Preparing lamprais takes time and effort, yet those who have partaken it vouch for it being a wonderful package of taste, aroma and satiety! The taste of rice, different curries and condiments, and the fragrance of the banana leaf wrapping come together to create a unique medley of tastes. Chef Indika adds that there are disputes among lamprais purists about which combination of condiments makes a “true” lamprais with the most controversial one being the inclusion of a fried boiled egg.
However, most agree that a true lamprais must consist of short grain rice cooked in a mixed meat (pork, lamb and beef) stock with cardamom, cloves and other spices; blachan paste (dried prawn sambol); Frikadellen (Dutch style meatballs); eggplant pahi; mixed meat curry ; ash plantain dry curry; and seeni sambol. All these ingredients are placed in the heart of a banana leaf that is then nicely wrapped around the ingredients to seal them. The packet is then then baked to ensure that all the flavours meld together with the aroma of the banana leaf adding to the bouquet of spices, meats and vegetables making for an utterly delicious experience.
For travellers visiting Colombo who would like to experience lamprais, Chef Indika says that the Dutch Burgher Union of Ceylon, an exclusive club open to descendants of Dutch Burgher families, serves, as of right now, the most authentic, true representation of lamprais at their VOC Cafe along with homemade ginger beer and should be included in any “foodie’s” trip to Colombo.