There are only five in existence. Ananda Pilimatalavuva’s ola leaf manuscript is more than two centuries old, and he treats the long, dried palm leaves with care. Typically, the thin, spidery writing would belong to an astrologer or a priest, but this is actually the work of royal chefs. On its pages are 103 recipes from the kitchens of the Nayakkar Kings. The last dynasty to do so, the Nayakkar ruled from the city of Kandy in Sri Lanka until they were overthrown by the British in 1815.
The manuscript has been in the possession of Pilimatalavuva’s family for generations. He believes his distant relative, a chief adigar, or minister, who served under two kings, simply commissioned a copy of the royal cookbook. Now, after his retirement from managing tea plantations, Pilimatalavuva is the first to translate it in full and has published it as Recipes from the Cookery Book of the Last Kandyan Dynasty. It is, as you would expect, unusual in more ways than one. Among the manuscript’s 332 stanzas, 67 are not, in fact, recipes at all. A salutation to the triple gems—the Buddha, Sangha and Dharma, the three things Buddhists are supposed to take refuge in—kicks off a wide-ranging discussion: From the physical attributes a royal chef should possess to the tell-tale signs that will give away any poisoner lurking in your kitchen, it’s all in there.
The recipes present their own surprises, and are clearly intended for experienced cooks—the instructions are brief, and there are no quantities listed. Throw in some obscure ingredients and a range of cooking techniques and demanding preparations, and you have something to intimidate any modern chef. Persevere, however, and you can actually put together a multi-course meal fit to grace a royal table. There are even two recipes for drinks and several suggestions for desserts.
Pilimatalavuva speculates on the multiple influences the recipes reveal—some are clearly Indian in origin. The liberal use of jaggery, pulses and coconut, alongside digestive spices such as green ginger and pepper, are all associated with the Dravidian culinary tradition, he says. Other ingredients are to be found in the island’s indigenous cuisine—jackfruit, leaves of the Bo tree (peepal), wood apple seeds,kaneyya honey, stamen of the naa flower, nelli fruit, bark of the kumbuk tree, and the water lily known asmanel.
For sheer entertainment, though, it’s difficult to top the pages at the end of the book that list taboo food combinations (if you didn’t already know this, combining toddy with stork flesh can only end badly). It’s also clear that several ingredients are chosen for their health benefits. “The spices and herbs they used had medicinal values…in their cooking, these little ingredients were added so that they had a long-term beneficial effect on your system,” explains Pilimatalavuva, adding that it’s likely the recipes here only hint at the variety that was available in the royal kitchens.
Recipes from the Cookery Book of the Last Kandyan Dynasty can be purchased online atwww.vijithayapa.com for Sri Lankan Rs3,450 (around Rs1,550).
Published in LiiveMint on October 11, 2011. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Sanka Vidanage.