Tony has a local guide for today’s on-camera segments so I’m technically off-duty, but I tag along anyway because I cannot pass up the chance to indulge in another one of my favorite Sri Lankan dishes, Lampreis. The Dutch name–pronounced “lump rice,” and meaning the same–describes its main component, a generous mound of short-grain samba cooked in a flavorful stock. On top of the rice nests a special mixed-meat curry of chicken, beef, and pork; brinjal moju, which is deep-fried eggplant sautéed in onions and spices; ash plantain curry, made from the flower of the banana tree; blachan, a type of spicy shrimp paste; a frikadel or meatball made of beef or fish, and a hard-boiled egg to top it off. And that’s not all. The whole meal comes wrapped up in a fresh banana leaf and steamed, allowing all the juices of the contents to infuse the rice with an indescribably rich flavor. Lampreis represents the original bag lunch—island style–though in the Dutch Burgher community of Sri Lanka, it is usually reserved for special occasions.
For me, eating lampreis makes any day a special occasion. Its individual components make it such a labor-intensive and time-consuming dish, however, that it is best left to the experts to prepare. Most of these experts claim the heritage of the Dutch Burghers, a tiny (and dwindling) community of mixed race Sri Lankans, who are fiercely proud of their European stock as we soon discover when we visit Colombo’s Dutch Burgher Union, located on a pleasant tree-lined street in Bambalapitiya.
A throwback to the colonial era, the clubhouse walls are adorned with framed black and white portraits of former club presidents. Wooden ceiling fans provide the only respite from the heat. Upstairs, members can trace back their lineage in the library or play snooker at the bar. Tony opts for the bar, where he receives a lively briefing on the good old days when these descendents of the Dutch held a favored place in society. Despite their strong connection to Holland many Burghers left for England or Australia in the late 50s when Sinhala was made the official language of Sri Lanka.
One who stayed put is Lorraine Bartholomeusz, a feisty lady who is smoking a cigarette and listening to an album by Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66 when we arrive at her modest but well-kept flat. She is fair-skinned like most Dutch Burghers, and speaks English with only a hint of a Sinhalese accent. Mrs. Bartholomeusz is one of a handful of Burgher ladies in town who still make lampreis according to the traditional recipe, and she has kindly agreed to make some for the show. The lady I originally suggested, who also makes a superb lampreis, turned out to be camera shy, but Mrs. Bartholomeusz has arranged her kitchen like a cooking show with all the pre-measured ingredients lined up in identical small bowls.
Unfortunately, the set-up gives segment producer Jared a mild panic attack. “We want authenticity, “he confides. He is able to persuade our hostess to move the demonstration to the more rustic outdoor kitchen behind the house by telling her the natural light is better there. But before filming the preparation of the lampreis, they go right for the actual meal, so Tony can eat and run (as this will not be his only feed of the day, and the Jacuzzi apparently aids in digestion). As Mrs. Bartholomeusz explains the finer points of lampreis, which they eat with a fork and spoon, I catch Tony saying, “Wow, this is my favorite Sri Lankan food,” for the second time of the shoot.
When Tony returns to the hotel, and the crew shoots the food prep outside, I sit down to try the lampreis. Stacked on a platter like delicate green bricks, shiny and wet from their recent steaming, they are smaller than most lampreis I’ve had, but sometimes good things are said to come in small packages. Opening up the banana leaf certainly releases an aromatic cloud of goodness directly into my nasal passages. The patchwork design of rice and curry against the green leaf also looks incredibly inviting. But I try the rice on its own first, savoring the infused flavors and oily texture. I can also clearly taste the earthy influence of the leaf itself. Then I mix in some meat, which is cut in pieces so small as to be unidentifiable. The only Sri Lankan dish I know that combines three different meats together, lampreis also distinguishes itself with the use of blachan, an Indonesian condiment no doubt brought here by Malay slaves. The eggplant has a slighty sweet flavor, due to a pinch of added sugar, and the ash plantain, a popular dish in Sri Lanka, tastes starchy–unlike what you’d expect from a flower. The frikadel, is usually replaced these days with a cutlet (a round, breaded, deep-fried mixture of meat or fish and potato), though Mrs. Bartholomeusz stays true to form. The egg almost seems like an afterthought for such a rich meal. But, all in all, I agree with Tony on this one, and immediately reach for another.