December 2017


Water Lilies: Beautiful and Resourceful
December 2017




Manel, Sri Lanka's national flower
© L J Mendis Wickramasinghe

Water lilies are an important and sacred symbol to Sri Lanka. While the island celebrates the charming beauty of the flower, it also has many uses especially in our cuisine.


Words: Keshini de Silva
Photography: Menaka Aravinda


Resplendent in white, indigo and hues of pink, water lilies can be seen across the island, in lakes, reservoirs, ancient ponds and even in murky pools. Nymphaeaceae thrives in the tropical climate of the island, its roots flourishing in muddy waters. Often, if lucky, one will be able to witness a gorgeous scene of water lilies adding a touch of colour to the otherwise green and blue landscapes.


Manel (Nymphaea nouchali) or also known as the Blue Lotus, holds a special significance in the hearts of Sri Lankans. Olu (Nymphaea pubescens) or the white/hairy water lily and Nelum (Nelumbo nucifera) or the lotus are flowers that are also sacred to Sri Lankan culture. Rathu Nelum or Sacred Lotus is held in high esteem, as Buddhists believe the Great Teacher walked upon seven Sacred Lotus flowers after his birth. Therefore, devotees are usually seen heading to the temple, clad in white, their hands grasping a bouquet of Nelum and at times Olu and Manel too. It is offered at the temple, as they reflect on the Great Teacher's words on ‘impermanence'. Indeed, the island's love for these flowers is centuries old. Delicate water lilies are featured in Sri Lankan art. It is illustrated in the frescoes at the ancient Sigiriya Rock Fortress and also emerges as precise geometric lotus patterns in Kandyan art.


Water lilies have since the times of kings been an important part of the island's cuisine. Our ancestors would use the leaf of the lotus to wrap food in, a custom still followed today. A popular belief is that the delicious curried flavours are further enhanced when wrapped in the lotus leaf. These nature friendly food wraps imbue an exotic character to any meal.

Olu haal kandha (Olu rice porridge) is a healthy and wholesome preparation from ground olu seeds and is generally consumed for breakfast.


The root of the Nelumbo nucifera is a much-loved Sri Lankan delicacy. With a neat pattern of a flower, the root once sliced has an interesting appearance. It is prepared in many ways. Traditional dishes include the Nelum Ala Kirata - a curry rich with coconut milk or as the tad more flavoursome ‘Nelum Ala Kalu Pol'. The Kalu Pol version is permeated with flavour from grated coconut roasted with raw rice.


Lotus root also has a notable place in South East Asian cuisine. Stir-fried with green onions or chives, tempered with snow peas or even Kung-pao lotus root are customary home-made preparations in this region. Contemporary culinary trends have seen chefs become quite creative with the ingredient. In Colombo, one can enjoy the versatile lotus root tempered or batter-fried, including the popular hot butter lotus and crispy fried Sichuan-inspired lotus dishes. Once your taste buds have been tingled by these scrumptious flavours, you will definitely keep craving for more.


Another rare yet nutritious culinary gift from water lilies is Olu haal (rice). It is actually a millet, the dark bead-like seeds taken from the fruit of the white water lily. Consumed as a substitute for rice, especially for those who must limit their carbohydrate intake, it has today become an exotic element of contemporary Sri Lankan dishes. To cook the seeds, one must either soak it for a day before boiling or cook it in a pressure cooker. Olu haal kandha (Olu rice porridge) is a healthy and wholesome preparation from ground olu seeds and is generally consumed for breakfast.


The uses of water lilies are limitless. From being used in hair and skin care products to leaves being fashioned into temporary hats, water lilies are resourceful flowers. Their sweet fragrance is distinctive, almost a reminder of cool mornings and breezy evenings near a reservoir dancing with these colourful blooms. No doubt, water lilies are interlinked with the island's culture, flavour as well as the charming yet indomitable Sri Lankan identity.

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    Et Olu (red water lily) bloom beautifully

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    Mesmerising in blue, Manel flowers

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    The pristine Sudu Nelum

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    Pink lotus is sacred to Buddhists across the world

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    Olu, the beautiful white water lily

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    Curries to suit a bowl of nutritous Olu seed rice

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    Olu haal is ground and boiled to make kandha, a porridge relished with kithul jaggery

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    Delicious preparations, Nelum Ala Kirata and Nelum Ala Kalu Pol

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