Dr Hector Perera London
Most people think that cooking is such a difficult task. There are plenty of reasons to think why cooking is difficult and one of the main reasons is the cooking smell getting on them while cooking. No wonder our Sri Lankan working ladies always employ someone to cook and they are the “kussi ammas” who work tremendously hard to prepare food. My mum was a school headmistress and she got her promotion when I was around five years old. Who would say these kinds of professional ladies would have enough time to spend cooking during the week days. Yes in the weekends mum also cooked with the servants but most of the hard work was done by servants. I never realised why we had servants at home. They did lots of work including looking after my two sisters and myself then cooking or preparing the food to eat. Unlike today there were no supermarkets round the corner, they need to walk looking for ingredients to cook. Only on weekends there was this local “Pola” where one can buy plenty of things to cook. One must see the present change, supermarkets or shops with anything are everywhere so shopping is not a difficult task. Some are open till mid night and open early in the morning. Those days we had nothing but firewood stoves to cook and kitchen was often full of smoke, dust and flying pieces of ash. In those conditions I thought cooking is not an easy task. There were no electricity, just kerosene lamps.
Cooking with firewood stoves
When firewood are used for cooking, the kitchen gets filled with smoke. Briefly I can say in the past they had nothing but firewood kitchens and generally the kitchens are fairly hot inside due to radiated energy. Most of the time they cooked in clay pots that means they are poor conductors of heat so most of the heat is lost or radiated. Imagine to stay for few hours very close to the firewood stoves in such kitchens. The servants usually stay fairly close to firewood stoves as they have to control the fire. Sometimes the firewood do not catch fire easily so they need to do many things to get the fire get going. While they attempt to get the fire to cook the food, they had to face so many difficulties. All the time, it gives out smoke, some ash, dust then heat due to radiated energy. As the servants had to stay close to the firewood stoves, the radiated heat makes them sweat, feels very hot the whole body especially the face and the hands.
Asian way of cooking rice and curries
Then the pot of rice might over flow, dribbles all the way to the firewood then she has to open the lid or “nebiliya” to stop over flowing as it wet the firewood then she has to blow several times to get it back. To blow on the firewood sometimes they get very close to the firewood stove or used a metal pipe. Just imagine the heat felt on their heads and the faces, perhaps the others do not want to know as long as the food is served in time on the table. Then she has to open the boiling chicken or fish curry then she keeps on stirring them and taste them several times using a long handled “Polkatu handa”. That means she has to look after three things at the same times by standing very close to the smoky dusty firewood stoves. She cannot expect the fire to keep going and sometimes, she has to blow on them as to keep the fire going. Apart from cooking curries, she sometimes fry some “papadams and dry red chillies”. Already there is enough heat in the kitchen and with that kind of frying, it makes worse. The chillies give out a strong smell that irritates the eyes to drop tears then the smell makes them cough several times then they get a drooling nose as well. The chillies give out a very strong smell that makes you cough and sneeze several times, irritates the nose and eyes. So that tears from eyes and drooling from nose makes it absolutely impossible to stay any longer in the kitchen but they keep on going. I was thinking was that a kind of stress release method introduced to Sri Lanka by India. Sometimes they get shouted by the lady of the house for not getting the food on the table. I have my doubt if mum was so unkind to her servants, very understanding.
Majority of British TV chefs are good jokers and energy wasters
Quite often they fry dry fish such as sprats that give a very strong smell. I still fry these sprats and dry chillies but I have a technique to avoid any smell depositing while cooking and to avoid any chillies smell irritating the nose and the eyes. Unlike in the past I use a gas cooker to cook but those days these were not available. If the fire was too much sometimes the frying pan catches fire as well. Believe me some British TV chefs purposely let catch fire to the cooking pans, may be for additional viewer’s attractions. The smell is so much it fills up the kitchen then some of it enters the main house as well. Have I got to mention that some of these smell get deposited on the person who fry these things? Due to these difficulties some houses always employ servants for cooking. I think now most of those servants have left the country for foreign employment for better paid jobs.
In Sri Lanka, now visiting servants
Now there are so called visiting servants who try to work at least in two places per day to get a good living. They are in a hurry so they try and cook as quickly as possible as they have to rush to the next job, in doing so they might waste more energy in cooking. Sometimes the gas flame even burns off the handles of the cooking vessels as they put too much fire while cooking. Unlike in the past now they have gas and electricity to cook but they are not quite making the best of the facilities. The cooking vessels have plastic handles to handle them easily but not to burn them while cooking. Some cooking vessels have metal handles instead of plastic and the reason may be to avoid burning the handles while cooking. Some vessels have glass tops so that one can visually see while they are cooking. I have my doubts if they are making the best use of these facilities.
I also cooked without due care for a while but not any more
Dr Hector Perera