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The comfort of lump rice and love cake in Sri Lanka

An edible vestige of a dying culture, Sri Lankan Burgher cuisine combines erstwhile Dutch and Portuguese colonial flavours with the myriad spices of the island nation

Lump rice.
Lump rice. (Istockphoto. )

Any first day of mine in Sri Lanka has its own set of must-dos. And yes, like any self-respecting foodie, almost each and every one of them pivots around the all-important food and drink axis. Perchance, my port of entry into the emerald Isle happens to be its bustling capital city of Colombo, then you can be sure I’ll be paying obeisance to the two at a place I can never seem to get enough of.

Abbreviated to the more manageable VOC Cafe, this restaurant-cum-pastry shop forms the main raison d’etre for me to visit the hallowed Dutch Burgher Union that houses this cafe on its ground level. Nestled along the leafy Reid Avenue in the heart of Colombo and named after the Vereenigde Oost Indische Compagnie aka the Dutch East India Company, VOC Cafe is a repository for all things deliciously Burgher.

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Burgher off

To the uninitiated, the term Burgher refers—much like our desi brand of mixed ethnicity Anglo-Indians—to those Sri Lankan people who are the products of intermarriage between the local Sinhalese and the colonialists. First being the Portuguese, who took over Sri Lanka in 1597, and then Dutch. The latter entering Sri Lanka, then Ceylon in 1658, and remaining the rulers until the British arrival in 1796. As for the name Burgher, this German-originated term simply translates to “residents of a city”, and is related to the French word “bourgeois”. While in Sri Lanka’s main lingua franca of Sinhala, they were called ‘Lansi’, a term derived from Dutch Hollandsche, meaning inhabitant of Holland.

Interestingly, in Sri Lanka the term Burgher is not just an identifier for a community that’s sadly on the decline (emigration to places like Australia and New Zealand is the main reason, rue insiders), but also for said community’s very unique blend of fusion cuisine. And at the very apex of Burgher cuisine is the much-fêted dish of lamprais. A mouth-wateringly delicious dish, that I believe is made the best at the aforementioned VOC Cafe.

Lump Sum

Literally meaning lump rice, an analogy for lamprais can once again be drawn to both the Indian biryani and to the thali. Packed tight into a banana leaf and then steamed, the parcel has as its base the local Sri Lankan short-grained samba rice. Atop this sits a dryish mixed meat curry made from a combination of chicken, mutton, pork or beef, a piece of fried eggplant called brinjal pahi, a daub of the sweet onion seeni sambol, fried ash plantain and two frikkadels or round cutlets that are also called Dutch meatballs around the world.

Now, here’s where another Dutch colonial influence shows up in the lamprais in the form of the final element of prawn blachan. The part of the lamprais most reminiscent of the dish’s Indonesian origins. The widely believed story is that the Dutch brought the parcel of rice and condiments in a banana leaf from their other colony of Indonesia to Sri Lanka sometime in the 17th century where it got a spice-redolent overhaul.

In her wonderful cookbook-cum-memoir called Rambutan, Sri Lankan born and UK-based Cynthia Shanmugalingam talks of how over the last few hundred years, the Burgher community has refined the process, creating the lamprais we know today. Her book even has an easy to follow recipe for a superb (and highly flavourful) lamprais that I’ve tried and tested to great satisfaction.

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Taking the cake

Besides this savoury interlude, Burgher cuisine has a wide berth of cakes in its repertoire. Making these baked delights a firm fixture today in the larger Sri Lankan pastry milieu. No big surprise then, that the island has one of the largest number of bakeries per capita than anywhere else in the world.

Made to resemble a German bundkuchen (or bundt in the US)—right down to its fluted ring shape with a hole at its core—is the bruedher cake. This spiced, buttery yeast cake has nutmeg as its core flavour and is traditionally served at Christmas breakfast, and New Years Day, cut into slices, spread with butter. And while each Sri Lankan Burgher family has its own variation, the main difference in the recipe between the Sri Lankan Dutch Burgher and the Malaccan Dutch Eurasian community (also partly descendants of Dutch colonialists) is that the Malaccan version uses coconut toddy (fermented sap) instead of yeast that leavens the former.

Also a festive treat, rich cake is the Sri Lankan Portuguese Burgher iteration of the Christmas fruit cake. One that’s served during both, Christmas and wedding season. However, unlike the Western fruit cake, rich cake has a wide number of local spices like cloves, nutmeg, mace and cinnamon baked into its crumb. And always as its crowning glory is a thick layer of local cashew marzipan in lieu of the Western almond marzipan.

Similar to a Middle Eastern basbousa, and called love cake or bolo di amor in Portuguese is a moist cake made with cashews and semolina. Once baked, it is then spiked with rum or the local Sri Lankan coconut liquor called arrack for a boozy hit. But what makes it unique is the addition of bits of candied winter melon called puhul dosi in Sinhala that give it an unusual flavour and texture.

A misnomer of sorts, love cake is an all year round treat. And not just served on Valentine’s Day. Showing us, that all you truly need is love. Even in cake form.

Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.

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