The hot, brittle aasmi freshly threaded with caramelised sugar
The sweet saga of aasmi, the most difficult-to-make of our traditional New Year delicacies.
Words: Yomal Senerath-Yapa | Photography: Vishwathan Tharmakulasingham
Elpitiya is part of the southern coastal border that was so dear to Bawa: with bright blue skies, lush green growth, rippling sea, fresh, cooling lake and a sense of paradise. The other marvel of this part of the island are its housewives who have conserved a culinary tradition that is found nowhere else in the world. These include the aasmi, which is the most arcane of our traditional sweetmeats for two very distinctive reasons: the labour as well as the concentration and sheer skill required in the making.
Nandawathie in Elpitiya has been making this tricky delicacy from the early ‘70s.
She begins in milky morning by soaking the rice for two hours. She then spreads it out to dry in the sun. Once the rice is very dry indeed, it goes into the mortar and is grinded by the rhythmic movements of the pestle, the ding-dong-ding echoing in the semi-open kitchen. Next the flour has to be sifted, at least two times, with a special sifter which should be very fine. The one Nandawathie uses is 45 years old.
The most exotic ingredient that goes into the recipe is davul kurundu, a Sri Lankan cinnamon variety. A plant flourishes outside Nandawathie's own kitchen, from which she plucks some two dozen leaves. These should be crushed and made into a slimy, green liquid and kept aside.
The next step is to strain the coconut milk, and infuse it into the flour mixture. For two kilos of rice, one coconut should be used. It is then back to the mortar and another good pounding. Then only would the davul kurundu liquid be kneaded into the flour, which then becomes a half-clayish and half-fleshy ball.
Sitting by the churning, frothingoil, Nandawathie drips one of her hands into the white flour mixture. Then her fingers seem to weave a spell over the oil. Rotating her fingers over the pan, crystal-gazer like, she lets the rivulets of flour mixture dripping from her fingers make a pattern on the oil. She twirls her fingers three times. With the aid of a spoon she folds the stringy web that has now materialised on the oil into a honeycomb shape.
These, called katu-aasmi, are not purely white, they have a brownish tinge. They would acquire the starch white, and become aasmi proper, only after you fry them in oil three days after first making. After this second frying, you can sugar the aasmi.
Nandawathie's own caramelised sugar was a beautiful golden amber. With a spoon, she gently traces itin a winding pattern on the aasmi. The end product looks like an exquisite, filigreed, white honeycomb. These finished aasmis are brittle but soft, almost immediately melting in your mouth. The amber veins variegate the experience, introducing a brittle, gelatinous, sweet bite.
Elpitiya shares the reputation for bona fide aasmi with neighbouring coastal towns and townlets suchas Bentota. There was a time whenno wedding or festive occasion was truly complete without aasmi. Boxes and boxes of aasmi, unbranded by the delicate tracery of sugar, used to be dispatched from southern kitchens to destinations around the island in train, to be primped up and sugared later by the buyers, as they wish.
Aasmi still occupies a prime place on the Aluth Avurudu table every April, when Sri Lankans appreciate with a hearty appetite the extreme hard work that has gone into this delicate and pretty New Year treat.