Lamprais, the Dutch-influenced rice dish which is loved by all!
Lamprais is a complex Sri Lankan dish usually consisting of stock-cooked short-grained rice, three meat curries (beef, pork, and lamb), wambatu moju (eggplant pickle), seeni sambol (onion relish), blanchan (shrimp paste), frikadeller meatballs, eggplant and ash plantain curry.
From the 15th century, Dutch ships sailed across Asia with merchants from Northern Europe. These merchants from Holland, France, Germany, Switzerland, England and other European nations belonged to the newly emerging middle class. Many of them joined Vereenigde Oost Indische Compagnie (VOC), or the Dutch East India Company founded in 1602. Their headquarters were in Batavia, present-day Indonesian capital Jakarta.
During this time, the Portuguese, who invaded Sri Lanka in 1597, ruled over the low country coastal belt. They controlled the island’s rich spice trade. In 1658, Dutch took over the Portuguese to rule maritime Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, until the British arrival in 1796. Many of these Northern European merchants settled down in Sri Lanka and married people of Portuguese and local origin. This new social group of European descendants came to be identified as Burghers (this German-originated term translates to residents of a city). In Sinhala, the commonly used language in Sri Lanka, they were called Lansi, a term derived from Dutch Hollandsche, meaning inhabitant of Holland. From this sociocultural concoction birthed the Lamprais.
The word Lamprias comes from the Dutch word lomprijst, which loosely translates to, a packet of food. In her book A Taste of Sugar & Spice: Cuisine of the Dutch Burgher Huisvrouw in Olde Ceylon, author Deloraine Brohier writes that Lamprais was not European in origin, rather an improvisation of the Burghers, pairing the Asian staple rice and spices.
“Not to mention the plantain leaves in which they are packed which again are of tropical provenance,” writes Brohier. A common belief is that Lamprais has roots to the Indonesian dish Lemper, sticky rice sandwiched with a curried diced chicken mix that comes wrapped in a plantain leaf.
In traditional Burgher houses, preparing Sunday lamprais begins the previous night, with meat boiling for two hours and plantain leaves being cleaned. The next morning, women in the household begin their chores, adding curry leaves and pandan leaves to butter browning in a pot. Boiled rice goes into the frying mix, followed by the meat stock. A crushed mix of spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, lemongrass and peppercorns wrapped in a muslin cloth is placed in the pot, scenting and flavoring the rice as it cooks.
For one Lamprais, a lump of boiled rice accompanies a dessert-spoonful of the mixed meat curry cooked with diced chicken, pork, beef and mutton. A traditional Lamprais features exactly two frikkadels, meatballs spiced with finely chopped garlic and fresh green chile.
There are condiments like blachang, dried prawn ground into a paste with pepper and garlic; seeni sambol, a caramelized onion accompaniment sprinkled with fish flakes. There is brinjal pahi, pickled eggplant with notes of sour-sweetness, and a vinegar-infused tang.
But over the years, commercially made Lamprais took many forms, adapting to the demands of the dominant Sinhalese culture of the country, and even going through gross misinterpretations. Even at the Dutch Burgher Union in Colombo now, the Lamprais is a large packet of rice, as opposed to the handful of rice.
“It became very Sri Lankan,” says Rienzie Trek, food and beverage manager at the VOC cafe by DBU in Colombo, laughing as he talks to me about the history of the dish. “It was a snack in the past. When our ancestors tottered long journeys, they would carry a few packs of Lamprais with them,” he says. “But now everyone eats it as a main meal.”
In Sri Lanka, influenced by the majority Sinhalese culture, rice is the centrepiece of every dining table. A popular phrase in Sinhala “udetath bath, dawaltath bath, retath bath,” meaning “rice for the morning, afternoon and night,” suggests the island’s fondness in devouring rice for every meal. Ancient farmer-families gathered energy for hard labour from their carb-heavy rice meals. With time, societies and economies changed with people shifting to desk jobs and the common use of machinery in agriculture. However, the carb-rich rice culture (which birthed to fuel energy for hard labour) continues even today.
During the British colonial regime, many Dutch Burgher families adopted English as their mother tongue. English became a deciding tool for one’s status in society. It’s during these days that the Burghers rose as the new elite in the island, acquiring reputed administrative posts in British Ceylon as English speakers. British left in 1948, and in 1956, the Sri Lankan government passed Sinhala Only Act, replacing English with Sinhala as the sole official language of the country. This turn of events threatened the sociocultural status of the Dutch Burghers. Many families fled Sri Lanka in the coming decades. In her book, Brohier notes that a census done in the 1940s revealed that 0.8 percent of the total population were Dutch Burghers, which was reduced to 0.2 percent in 1981. In her 2012 book, Brohier mentions that Burghers number to only 15,000-30,000 today in a total population of 21.67 million.
The authentic Lamprais disappears fast and wide, just like its creators, the Dutch Burghers from the island. The quest to save the Lamprais is also a quest to reclaim the legacy of the Dutch Burghers.
Classic Sri Lanka strives to showcase culinary specialities like the Lamprai to our clientele and hope to impart the flavours of Sri Lanka to the world. A journey across Sri Lanka should also be one of trying the diverse flavours and specialities on offer on this vibrant island.