Structures. Whether built by nature or by humans when they are magnificent for a few moments you forget the vagaries and the terrors of the day to day. Its inescapable power and effect takes over to the exclusion of all. Some bridges have that effect on me. Especially the bridges of my memory. The Kalutara Bridge, the Kelani Bridge and in its unique way even the Elephant Pass Bridge which one crossed on the Yal Devi. The bridge across the Nilwala in Matara where the kimbula swam with her baby and usually crossed at night as in a dream on trips from Yala and Kataragama and hardly noticed in the rush to get there. The abandoned truss bridges one finds running parallel to a better road on a more concrete bridge. The combination of a geographical transition and suspension does its trick heightened by the possibility it might all come crashing down in an instant. The old Kelani Bridge being the most accessible to the day to day of my memories.
There were and still probably are two Kelani bridges — the new bridge and the old bridge. The new bridge made of mostly concrete and cement with little steel to be seen and the sides of the bridge screening out much of the view unlike the old steel truss bridge with its geometric frames in sections leaving huge naked gaps through which one may fall straight into the river in the event the road or the railway track tipped sideways.
The old Kelani Bridge has such a sense of occasion and grandeur where it crosses the wide Kelani river at Grandpass in Colombo. On most trips out of town to Negombo, Kelani temple, to dear friends in Ja-Ela or if I took the bus with my mother to her school at Kelaniya; crossing the old truss bridge was always a thrill, craning my neck to look at the rolling muddy waters, the sand harvesting barges, and most of all the verdant green patches like little green handkerchiefs in different shades of jade that were way way below bridge level. The keera kotu where mukunuwanna, sarana and kankung grew. These patches of green seemed an unreachable and distant green paradise because they were far far below where the road was built and I always wanted to find my way there to touch them but never did.
I was told the sakkili people tended the verdant patches by the river. Cultivated to feed Colombo’s demand for mallung and kola thel daala or sarana kirata. The best leafy greens were brought right to our doorstep by these women who carried them on their heads with the greens all arranged in a woven reed basket, a wattiya. The women wearing saris with no blouses which never shocked me. They also wore heavy brass jewellery in their ears which made their ear lobes dangle close to their shoulders and their mouths were red from chewing copious quantities of beetle leaf with chunam. When I was little I wondered if the heavy jewellery was gold. Depending on which bundle of keera you bought the price was anywhere between ten to fifteen cents. As time went on I recall the price going up to 25 cents. Any good kitchen always produced a side dish of greens with every rice meal. These greens grew in somewhat waterlogged soil found in the flood-prone areas by the Kelani river where no one but the poorest and the most destitute lived in shacks. When the river flooded their fragile homes flooded too. Children lived in them and I could see from the bus little girls in tidy white uniforms being readied for school and their hair being braided on fragile doorsteps.
We had a few sakkili women who came regularly to our compound to do the dirty work that no one else wanted to do but which still needed doing; and they were paid a tiny fee for their services. Often we gave them our left over food which no one else wanted to eat. Mudira’s wife was one of my favourite persons. She cleaned our gully, the drains, the bathroom and lavatory. She scrubbed and washed the garbage can which in those days was used with no garbage bags or even patas putus bags to line them. She was tough and walked a tight rope eking out a living doing menial labour but still managed to keep strong boundaries. There was a line you could not cross with her. A line of authority that only I saw because I too was invisible. She gratefully took any old left over rice just on the verge of becoming inedible; happy to take home with her so we did not have to throw out more food. And old rice has a way of rotting in Colombo’s hot humidity turning it into a putrid hash in days when refrigerators were a luxury and the antique that was in our home was broken down most of the time. Mudira’s wife was a karupi or a sakkili but we never referred to her as that sakkili woman. She was Mudira’s woman instead. Tall, dark, strong, handsome just like Mudira who was more handsomer than most men and he only beat his wife when he had spent too much time at the local toddy tavern where a lot of sakkili men; and women; hung out at the end of their labours. Mudira was one of the strongest and nicest men I’ve come across again with the same reserve as his wife’s and could be relied upon to do the dirtiest jobs. A local family owned the toddy tavern and got ridiculously rich on it was the story going around in Kotahena. No one messed with them and they were mostly unseen; their women coddled and sheltered princesses driven around in nice cars wearing nice saris and nicer jewellery. They lived in even nicer houses. They were hated because of the toddy tavern which was seen as an eyesore by the purportedly respectable families of Kotahena. Once there was even a referendum to close down the toddy tavern and now in retrospect I wonder where Mudira’s people would have gone for their night’s libations after cleaning our septic tanks during the day.
But I digress. Mudira’s wife had no name. It never occurred to me to ask. Long ago one did not know there was an alternative to the status quo in some places. I still think about them. They were a presence in my life growing up because Mudira was like a prince and he was always courteous; and big and strong. He had the loveliest smile. Mudira’s wife might have made a fine prime minister. Mudira’s wife was always pleasant but never talked too much and never cow towed. She had that kind of stature. I still see their son in my mind’s eye; then a strong toddler taking after his parents and he often came around with them when his parents came to do things. Or when they came by to pick up left overs which we packed in old milk powder tins. And once they had been to our house and scoured the drains, the gully, the garbage can, the lavatory, the bathroom, somehow life always seemed immensely more liveable. The way they scrubbed everything in an intense flurry using a tightly tied up bunch of short coconut ekels made me feel taken care of. My grandmother referred to them as the sakkili people. To call a non-sakkili person a sakkili or a karupi was usually an insult to mean you were the lowest of the low. But growing up any visit by these people be it the person who cleaned our garbage cans, or the woman who sold us our greens; they were a sign of stability for me to remind me that some things were working as they ought to in this adult managed world. They could be relied upon. Mudira was a pillar in our community but at its lower levels so to speak. If anything needed to be done like a difficult job in the garden or the drains; the cleaning of the septic tank; dirty dirty work; you could count on Mudira. But the women were always nameless.
Amma sometimes called our bringer of greens keerakaraing or sometimes we called her the keera woman. She regularly appeared at our gate and stood there. The dogs barked and she kept a safe distance and waited for the lady of the house or one of us to appear. She’d then come in through the gate and her wattiya basket squealed and creaked as she heaved it off her head and placed it on the red cement floor of our front verandah. She was so strong despite her petite build. In those days she brought mostly two types of greens. Mukunuwanna and kankung. Mukunuwanna makes wonderful mallung but just like other bundles of greens one had to carefully hand pick and pluck the good leaves and stems and discard the dried out and rotten slimy bits. Then you washed them and thoroughly shook off the water and gathered small bunches of them to finely cut with a sharp knife. The finer the better. No one would marry you if your mallung was not finely cut was the lie that was being propagated at the time.
On days that Amma did not buy mukunuwanna the other choice was kankung. Most greens were either made into a mallung with coconut or made thel daala. While I loved eating these greens; whenever a bundle of mukunuwanna or kankung was put in front of me to pick over and clean and then to cook them; it was always one of my least favourite sights. This meant seemingly hours spent picking, cleaning, breaking and washing so you ended up with the best bits and with little time to do more interesting things like sit in a corner and read and listen to the little people speaking and singing from inside radio. Sometimes if you were lucky only half the bunch was unusable because the stems were too tough or rotten or the leaves were dried out and yellow. Often these bunches were bundled in such a way to hide the unusable parts and to show off the more verdant aspects of the bunch. A chance one took whenever you bought the day’s greens. Amma had her favourite keera women who she was sure always gave her better greens with less to discard. But there was always a lot to discard after a long time spent picking over the greens. And one bunch was hardly enough for a household of eight to ten mouths needing to be fed.
In those days most of the time that was spent in preparing food was spent not actually cooking it but in the preparation of it. Ensuring what went in the pot was clean and good took a long time. Not rotten, not dried out, not past its prime and to ensure there was no dirt, sand or grime that ended up in the pot. It is not that much different today when you go to the Nugegoda market to buy greens except that the variety of greens have broadened immensely and the women who sell them are Sinhalese last I saw. I wonder where the keerakaraing went and where Mudira’s people are. I asked my niece in Colombo on an online chat the other day about the sakkili or karupis and she told me that she had never met one but that her mother had told her about the work they did in our old house in Kotahena.
When one leaves home you miss these everyday things like mukunuwanna mallung and kankung thel daala. You forget the tedium of all the seemingly wasted hours of your girlhood and youth relegated to picking over keera. In Sri Lanka some call greens palaa the Sinhala term for greens; and I still call it keera because that is what my mother and my grandmother called them growing up. I went for years without kankung or mukunuwanna until I discovered kankung in our local Chinatown here in Toronto well over a decade ago. Kankung is always more expensive than most other Chinatown greens. Consequently I only buy it when I am brave enough to splurge or when I am pining for something from home so badly that I throw all caution to the wind.
The way I was taught to make kankung theldaala however has often resulted in failures of soupy outcome with too much liquid requiring lengthy keera abuse over a hot stove to boil down the excess. My cousin’s wife taught me how to make it. You clean the greens and put it in a pot with all the ingredients. No liquid is added except for a little tamarind mixed in water; and a little oil for it to somewhat fry in at the end when the liquid has dissipated. On lucky days I have less liquid but most days the kankung ends up swimming in a pool of excess liquid. These greens are indeed mostly water more so than the sturdier kale or collard. Its no wonder that all the liquid seeps out especially when the pot is covered which one must do so as not to dry it out. However a good kankung thel daala is a dryish dish of wilted and spiced up and slightly tart greens cooked somewhat slowly in its own liquid and a little oil resulting in crunchy tasty greens that go beautifully with rice and other curries.
So it was quite the revelation to me when I discovered while skimming over an old cook book* purchased for seventy-five rupees in Colombo perhaps over thirty years ago; a kankung thel daala recipe which seems to have overcome this waterlogged problem. Here is my version of it with very slight tweaking. A whole new world awaits.
By way of explanation “thel daala” is to cook covered, a vegetable or greens in a little oil and in its own liquid mostly; not to boil but cook gently in its own steam and some oil until most of the liquid is dried out and the vegetable or green is cooked till near tender and then it simmers in a covered pan in the residual oil so it is crisp on the tooth yet tender; not crispy crunchy but just a slight crunch with texture. The term “thel daala” is unique. It does not translate to devilled or to sautéing either. I still believe a proper thel daala is done in the way that I was taught but this recipe is a solution to the problem of excess liquid though the process is somewhat unorthodox which does worry me a little. Incidentally when I cook dandelion leaves in the manner I was originally taught to make kankung theldaala it works beautifully.
And the further good news is that the kankung you get from the local Chinatown here in Toronto is so good in quality there is very little to discard; and the time spent picking over the greens is minimal though it is always good to leave yourself some extra time. What was once utter resentful tedium has now become a heart soothing ritual of comfort for me.
I did grow up long before I left home to clean the gully, and scrub the drains, the toilet and the bathroom and a lot more though I never had to clean a septic tank; not yet. I still remember those women and some men that lit up my girlhood and early youth with their presence whenever they came to our house to do the dirty work that we did not want to do at sometime in our lives. I remember how hard their lives were. I remember how the excess food that we did not want was so easily gotten rid of on them and I sensed that something was not right with that equation. I remember their children. I remember the grace with which they seemed to welcome and endure their existence; something I ought to learn from. Where are they now and where are their children and their children’s children. Do they still clean the drains and gullies of people with houses so they can feed their children? And where are the keera women? I’d give a kingdom to hear the music of her creaking basket heavy with the weight of bundles of keera being set down on our front verandah. And what was Mudira’s wife’s name? Does anyone know? I wish I could talk to her now.
Kankung Thel Daala (Serves 2 – 4)
1 large bunch of kankung (about 1 to 1.5 lbs)
1 teaspoon chilli flakes (hot) or to taste – then ground up to a rough powder in electric spice grinder
1/3 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 to 2 tablespoons maldive fish roughly broken (pounded or ground in electric spice grinder) to small pieces; but do not powder.
2 – 4 fresh green chillies including a ripe red one sliced diagonally
A sprig of fresh curry leaves or just the leaves.
A walnut sized ball of fresh tamarind soaked in hot water in a small cup/bowl.
salt to taste
2 – 3 tablespoons coconut oil or other neutral tasting cooking oil
1 or 2 sprigs fresh curry leaves or just the leaves
½ cup to 3/4 cup of thinly sliced Ceylon shallots; or other sliced shallots.
1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 or 3 whole dried chillies broken to a few pieces.
Rinse all fresh ingredients and set aside. Slice shallots and set aside. Soak the tamarind in a small cup/bowl and cover with just enough boiling water to soak it. Once it is somewhat cool mix softened tamarind with fingers and squeeze in water to dissolve and then set aside for about ten minutes to settle the sediment. Then strain liquid being careful not to let any sediment come through. Reserve liquid and discard the residue.
Pick over the kankung carefully and discard any tough stems or stem parts by breaking them. Pick off any dead or wilted leaves or stems so you are left with fresh green and tender stems and leaves. If the stem snaps easily with a plop sound it is good. As it goes to the thicker end of stem they get tougher depending on the bunch. Do not use the thicker tougher parts of the stem.
Wash thoroughly and drain. Break the stems into about 2 or 3 inch pieces with leaves intact. At this stage you may dry the kankung in a salad spinner. The salad spinner sounds like more work but may be worth it because you are left with much less water.
Place spun and/or drained greens in a suitably sized pan just enough to fill it up. Now add all ingredients in Stage 1 to the greens along with the prepared tamarind water which you should pour over the greens once it is in the pan.
Cover with a tight fitting lid and bring to boil and immediately lower to a simmer. Stir, cover and cook till all the liquid is nearly dried out being careful not to let it burn. It will take anything from 7 – 15 minutes or so depending on amount of liquid. The greens will be wilted and now take them off the burner. Using this method there should be little to no liquid left. If there is still obvious liquid then uncover and cook over high heat, stirring occasionally, being careful not to let it burn.
Kankung at end of Stage 1 with barely any liquid left.
Use a wok or similar vessel or a large skillet as we move to Stage 2 ingredients. Ensure your your wok is non-reactive to acid due to tamarind content. Be careful and use a splatter shield because the oil will splatter. Heat the oil in pan or wok. Fry the curry leaves and in a few seconds add the fennel seeds and broken dry chillies and when they start to pop and toast add the sliced shallots and fry them.
At outset try to gauge the amount of oil you might need depending on the amount of shallots you plan to use. Once the shallots are fried and near golden and some of them are starting to crisp up add the greens mixture and stir frequently over a medium heat till the greens are crisp and any liquid is almost dried out. Check for seasoning and adjust for salt and tartness. You may add lime juice at the end.
Kankung good to go.
The quantities mentioned in this recipe are somewhat malleable. The type of chillies and quantity used will make the dish more or less hot so be careful if you do not tolerate chillies to be judicious as to how much is used. The greens once cooked will reduce to about half and that too depends on each batch you buy. Thus one has to have a few trial and error episodes to get this to a somewhat predictable method. Also there is usually less liquid in the kankung I remember and much more in the Kankung I buy in Toronto and probably they must be slightly different species. A word on pronunciation. Malaysians say kankung just like Sri Lankans. For pronunciation go to - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=57gnA_JSxoI
*A Ceylon Cookery Book, A practical guide by Doreen Peiris. 6th Edition. (no publisher is named but Printed at D.P. Dodangoda & Co. Moratuwa). 1983. At Page 44.