July 2016


Lamprais: a curious culinary creation
July 2016




Lamprais on a plate: ready to eat and with the most natural packaging

A surprising example of Sri Lankan cuisine is the lamprais, a flavourful meal tightly wrapped in part of a banana leaf. With an intriguing history, this dish shows the influence that the multi-cultural interactions with the Island have had on the national fare.


Words Richard Boyle | Photography Isuru Upeksha and Vishwathan Tharmakulasingham


It is believed the history of the lamprais can be traced back to the interaction between the Dutch and the people of what would later become its multiple-island colony, the East Indies, today's Indonesia. The Dutch discovered on Java that the villagers ate their meals of rice and curry wrapped in a banana leaf, which conveniently fitted in their hand, ready to be eaten anywhere, anytime.


The Dutch appreciated the concept, refined it by adding some of their own ingredients, and named it lomprijst "a packet of rice", perhaps derived from lemper, which in Malay has the same meaning. When they ousted the Portuguese from the island they called Zeylan in 1640, the Dutch brought with them the lomprijst, and adapted it with local ingredients. Later it became part of the colony's cuisine with the Anglicised name "lamprais" (the "s" is not pronounced when referring to one lamprais).


That the lamprais survived the defeat of the Dutch by the British in 1796 was due to the Netherlanders and other Europeans who had joined the Dutch East India Company as traders and wished to remain on the Island. They were termed Dutch Burghers, the word "Burgher" meaning "citizen of a corporate town", used to describe members of a new middle-class created by productive Dutch trade in the East Indies.


Burghers and their descendants learned to perfect the complicated and lengthy task of preparing lamprais, the Dutch variation of the local rice and curry that is spicy but not chillie hot. Ideally, the first experience of lamprais should be the product of these ladies, many of whom oblige their demanding friends, but for visitors it's most likely to be one purchased from a take-away food outlet.


So what is this curious culinary creation, once described as a "gourmet's picnic", wrapped oblong in a banana leaf and steamed or baked? On encountering a lamprais you will probably be struck by its relatively small size - they were considered a delicacy - but mostly by the distinctive aroma of the baked banana leaf mixed with its spicy contents. Unfold the neat package, usually a piece of leaf roughly 30cm x 35cm in size (sometimes secured with two thin sticks) to make a plate. Then the compressed contents - which partially explain the lamprais' compact size - are revealed.


The most obvious content is, of course, rice, short-grained and cooked in savoury meat-stock to make it extra-special. Then there is the lamprais curry, a distinctly piquant, finely-diced mix of beef and pork (formerly mutton was added), but more often of chicken.


To prepare the lamprais curry, the evergreen Ceylon Daily News Cookery Book (1929) advises: "Cut the boiled meats into very small pieces and put into a chatty [pot] with the coconut milk, the ground ingredients, the garlic, ginger, cinnamon, fenugreek, salt and half each of the onions, rampa, lemon-grass and curry leaves and boil until the meat is tender, adding the prawns, cardamoms, and lime juice when the curry is half-cooked."


There are many additions, such as seeni sambol, caramelised onions sprinkled with bonito fish flakes from the Maldives and including a liberal amount of spices; brinjal pahi, pickled aubergine in a spicy sauce dominated by tasty white vinegar; two small frikkadels, deep-fried forced meatballs of beef (a Dutch contribution); and prawn blachang, a ball of finely-ground dried prawns seasoned with lime juice and chillie.


To assemble the parcel once the ingredients are prepared, the Ceylon Daily News Cookery Book states: "Put 3 tablespoonfuls of rice on each leaf, pour a dessertspoonful of thick coconut milk over the rice, and arrange a little of the curry, a couple of frikkadels, and a little of each of the sambols on the rice, fold up the leaves, making them into neat oblong parcels, and fasten two ends with pieces of ekel [thin stick]."


It is advisable to eat a lamprais with the fingers, for the contents need to be thoroughly mixed before consumption to bring forth the intense and contrasting tastes. To enjoy a lamprais at its best, make sure to eat it piping hot so that the aroma is pungent. Lamprais should be steamed or heated in a conventional oven: microwaves tend to dry the delicious rice.


Due to the complexity of their making, lamprais, even from times when Burgher ladies had adequate help, were considered meals for a special occasion, perhaps on Sundays.


Burgher historian Deloraine Brohier, in A Taste of Sugar & Spice (2012), recalls the prolonged creation of lamprais many decades ago: "The night before, skin and meat were boiled for about two hours, and the meat we must bear in mind was not just beef but a medley of meats-chicken, pork, beef and mutton. The same night the plantain [banana] leaves would be washed, cleaned and left to dry. Some long-grained rice too was cleaned, washed and set aside."


Although the lamprais is cookery with a unique Dutch Burgher identity, Brohier writes: "People in Holland to this day are completely ignorant of this savoury rice meal." So what a pleasant surprise for visitors from Holland to discover their forefathers introduced such a remarkable meal to the Island, and that today it is still the traditional dish of the remaining Burgher community, and increasingly popular with other Sri Lankans.


Photographs taken at: Dutch Burgher Union and Green Cabin.

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    Chicken lamprais includes frikkadels, seeni sambol, brinjal pahi on a bed of rice

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    Simply mouthwatering

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    V for Vegetarian lamprais

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    Fish lamprais

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    All wrapped up and ready to be served

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