The lamprais legacy | Sunday Observer

The lamprais legacy

Of the many delicious dishes we enjoy one of our favorites is the lamprais. This succulent dish wrapped in a banana leaf has delightfully dominated the senses of many generations. It has been strongly associated with the Burgher community, though with time others have also mastered, to a certain extent the art of making this meal. With restaurants and housewives selling lamprais, what is the real origin of this dish? Did it really originate in the Netherlands?

From 1640 to 1796 the Dutch exerted their dominance over the Maritime Provinces and subsequently over Ceylon. The VOC (Vereenigde Oost Indische Compagnie -1602) or Dutch East India Company established a lucrative spice trade. The Dutch influenced many aspects of Ceylonese culture and cuisine. If you have read the lovely stories of Carl Muller often infused with his humorous recollections you have some clue of yesteryear. So how exactly did lamprais become so deeply absorbed into our eating culture?

Culinary origins

The startling revelation is that lamprais did not originate in the Netherlands. Even if you surf the internet for such recipes in regard to the cuisine of Netherlands you will not really find an original Netherlands recipe for lamprais: this is because the fundamentals of lamprais are based on lemper, a meal from Java, Indonesia. The lemper consists of sticky rice with spicy meat and belacan (fermented shrimp paste common in Asian cuisine), wrapped in banana leaves. The fact that there aren’t any other spicy Dutch dishes encased in banana leaves in traditional Dutch cuisine also augments the fact that its real roots are not from the Netherlands, this fact might startle some defiant Burgher housewives. The Dutch in their daring voyages would have enjoyed this spicy meal in Indonesia and subsequently embraced this cooking custom and later ‘bestowed’ the lamprais (called lomprijst) into the Ceylonese kitchen. Since the 16th century lamprais has come to be identified as a Burgher dish!

The basic menu

So what exactly consists of an ‘original’ lamprais? The meal must have a three meat curry - made of beef, pork and lamb. This is the signature dish within the dish! Next there has to be ash plantain, aubergine, belacan (fermented shrimp paste, now also sold as blachang), frikadellar (pan fried meatballs of minced meat), deep fried boiled egg and of course the rice boiled in stock. This is encased in the banana leaf that captures the aroma and essence of this lovely meal.

Today, in multi ethnic Sri Lanka many places don’t sell the lamprais with its three meat curry, due to the religious food choices of various communities. Instead, in a very enterprising business twist the meal is sold as beef lamprais, chicken lamprais and mutton lamprais. Another addition is the seeni samobl, I wonder when this entered the scene!

Sustaining the legacy

One of the first Ceylonese books to contain the lamprais recipe was the Ceylon Daily News cookery book published in 1968. A faithful lady who upheld fine Dutch recipes is Deloraine Brohier who wrote a brilliant book - A taste of sugar and spice. Today, there aren’t that many Burghers around (the word Burgher means resident of a country) as many migrated to Australia, England and Canada. They took with them their original recipes not only for lamprais but also for home made wine, cakes, puddings, beef smore and breudher. During the jubilant old Ceylon era the Burghers made an immense contribution to the railways, police service, civil service and prisons department.

I have been fortunate to enjoy the parties and fine food of this community. Many of the ‘grand old ladies’ who made lamprais at home are no more. The younger lasses aren’t that familiar with the ‘traditional’ methods but try to cook something similar. Others tell me it’s easier to buy. I once heard a Burgher aunt say that a good housewife must be able to prepare a tasty lamprais: a rather interesting yardstick to choose a soul mate! Even the generations domiciled in Melbourne and Sydney today don’t have the full essence of the lamprais, although they still cook the dish on festive occasions and enjoy a sing-song.

When Sri Lankans living overseas come to sunny paradise on holiday one thing they lust for is the lamprais (apart from other cravings like ambul thiyal, egg hoppers and pork lingus). Many take frozen packets back to their winter laden homes, so much so that foreign customs officers now recognize the lamprais as a food product of Sri Lanka. The Dutch Burgher Union (DBU) also sells good lamprais.

It is strange that lamprais is not a popular dish in Amsterdam or other cities in the Netherlands. However, the Indonesian culinary influence is sustained in a traditional setting called Rijsttafel - meaning rice table. Today, the Dutch folks have an assortment of spicy Indonesian fusion food including satay, pickles and sambols. The spices from Ceylon did influence Dutch cooking. Thus, the lamprais is not just a meal, it is a cultural symbol of the glorious Dutch era in Ceylon and a dish embellished with sentimental memories. 

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