My mother-in-law has never told me she loves me; unlike her son, I wouldn’t take it for granted. But I am always reassured by what I taste in her food.
I go grocery shopping with her sometimes, trailing in her wake as she cuts a swathe through the crowded isles of Sri Lanka’s Wellawatte market, disregarding the calls of jostling vendors and making her way straight to those she knows best, and who know her. They have their routine, and there is always a friendly argument as money and bags of produce are exchanged.
Often, she will return from these jaunts bearing bunches of greens, some of which she will turn into a kola kanda—or herbal porridge—for our breakfast. Her main ingredient is most often gotu kola (Centella asiatica). A member of the parsley family, the plant grows well in and around water. Its small, fan-shaped leaves taste ever so slightly bitter. When blended with coconut milk and garlic they morph into a bright green, nourishing soup into which fat grains of red rice are added.
Local wisdom has it that the gotu kola has medicinal properties, combating everything from colds to skin conditions. The rice, high in fiber, is slow to digest but rich in energy.
Though homemade is best, early birds may still find this treat for breakfast in some local eateries or at a kanda van, where a man dishes out steaming cups to morning commuters. Each helping (Rs.30, the last time I checked, which is less than an American cent) is accompanied by a small square of crumbly, sweet jaggery for additional flavor. There are other kandas, and many households have a preferred version. One made with red rice and another with rice flakes are both thickened with coconut milk and flavored simply with the garlic, onion, and curry leaves.
I confess that gotu kola was an acquired but ultimately addictive taste for me. Now I might eat it twice in one day, especially when it makes an appearance at lunchtime in a mallung. Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese population make their version of the mallung bright and tart with chilli, lime, and onions, dicing the leaves finely and serving it raw. Tamils cook it in a quick, dry roast, seasoning the roughly chopped greens with slivers of white coconut and subtle spices.
I have watched my mother-in-law make mallungs in both styles in her impeccably clean kitchen, but the kanda remains a favorite, and tastes of comfort. She will deliver it to me through Lionel, our neighborhood trishaw man, along with a dozen vegetables and curries in containers with her initials—A.S.—inscribed on them. Sometimes, I open the refrigerator and marvel at how well my husband and I—busy and uninspired to cook—eat everyday thanks to her thoughtfulness. Hers is, in every way, a labor of love.