I let myself into the house, discarding my shoes and picking them up to avoid trailing a day’s worth of mud onto the floor. It had been raining all day, just like the day before. And the day before that. My waterlogged clothes weigh heavy on my body, my mind, and my appetite. And as I walk in, the routine begins. I open my umbrella to dry overnight, because, no doubt I will be using it tomorrow, drop my bags off in my room and take my homework into the kitchen. I am not surprised to see my Amma already bustling around the room. The door to outside is open wide, bringing in warm air and newly hatched mosquitoes while trees filter the last light of a Kandyan sunset. Sitting down in the wicker chair I prepare to watch the performance about to take place.
When my Amma cooks, she moves slow yet with incredible ease and efficiency. Floating around a room smaller than the size of my bedroom she knows exactly where all the pots and pans are, where she last placed the knife, and the home-ground spices in every jar. Watching her cook is like watching an artist at an easel, a conductor in front of a symphony, a priest at an alter. Her rituals begin with the washing of every cooking item and utensil that will be used throughout the evening. She rinses the lentils and lets them soak in a bowl of water. She rinses the red onion and finely cuts it into a bowl. She rinses the knife used to cut the red onion and proceeds to chop the garlic rinsing the knife when she has finished. She returns to the bowl of lentils, draining the water and rinsing them yet again. They are placed on the stove that takes more than a few tries to light and she returns to her many curries.
This routine will commence again around five in the morning. She will give me my breakfast at seven, have my lunch packed, and by eight she is shuffling my Appachchi and host sister out the door to work, dressed professionally in six yards of elegantly wrapped and draping cloth and heels. Did I mention it is probably pouring outside?
My Amma, like the majority of mothers in Sri Lanka, are socially required to cook. It involves a complex weaving of contextually controversial topics like the status of women, bread-winners, and the family unit. This is not to say every woman who cooks for her family does not enjoy preparing food or is denied the free time that she would otherwise be engaged in. However, I must acknowledge that being enthusiastic about cuisine comes from a certain place of privilege.
So many of those afternoons in her company in the kitchen she would tell me of her exhaustion. She was tired from her day at work, Biso Amma - my Appachchi’s great aunt - had a bad day, did I enjoy my lunch, there were too many mosquitoes this time of year, etc. She tells me these things as she massages red chili powder into minced red onions to make lunumiris sambol, her eyes welling with tears as they attempt to overcome their response to the spice and sulfenic acid. I often asked her if she enjoyed cooking. Yes, she enjoyed it but she had to prepare three hot meals a day, each meal with at least two different curries in order to be adequate because that was the way Sri Lankans liked it.
As Thanksgiving approached during my time in Sri Lanka, I helped plan a rather elaborate meal with the other students I was abroad with. Potage Bonne Femme, pâté, steak-and-kidney pie, vegetable shepherd's pie, stuffing, and mashed potatoes to name a few. Myself and three other friends were up at seven in the morning and cooked until five in the afternoon when our meal was served. When I got home that night completely drained from being on my feet all day but with my belly uncomfortably full, I flopped down in my usual wicker chair and began telling my Amma about my exciting day - she knew I had a passion for cooking and was excited to hear about “traditional” American food and holidays. Tired but a little delirious I say, “Amma, we were on our feet all day.” I still think I walked maybe five miles total that day in the kitchen. She laughed and remarked “and you just made one meal!”
I also asked my Amma whether Appachchi helped at all. Did he know how to cook? She would laugh and respond, “Appachchi doesn't even known how to make tea”. At some point during the four months living with this family, Appachchi learned how to scrape a coconut. But according to my Amma, he would do it very quickly because he wanted to get it over with. Again she would laugh and smile broadly as she said this. I tried my best to volunteer to scrape the coconuts. I say try my best because Amma made it difficult to help. I’ll give Appachchi some credit, it is a lot more challenging than it looks. She would interrupt me half-way through to take over because I was doing it wrong or too slowly. This was the case with all Sri Lankan cooking I attempted to assist with. I was only ever allowed to make one hopper or dosa. She was proud, creative and commanding in her kitchen.
My last week in Sri Lanka I decided to teach my Amma how to make Welsh Drop Scones, a family recipe from my father and a dish where I am able to proudly channel my heritage and British citizenship. Amma had taken off work that day to spend time with me. As I brought my ingredient back from the roadside shops we realized we were out of sugar. She tells me not to worry and scurries out of the house to return ten minutes later with the goods wrapped in a brown paper package tied up with string. As I explain the order of ingredients she timidly peers over my shoulder as I roughly measure them out into an unmarked cup. When I get to the step of kneading cream into the batter, she comes alive. “Well if I’m going to make this when you’re gone I should really practice. And I have the arms of a housewife.” With that being said, I moved aside to let me Amma do what she does best, create a masterpiece.