My Citizens, few cuisines combine heat and spice better than Sri Lankan – this island off the southern coast of India has a long and storied history – first as Ceylon, the island of spices and gems, today as Sri Lanka. The feast I am going to share with you today is one known all over the island, and one that requires many hands to help make it. While supremely delicious, this set of recipes is by no means for the faint of heart!
Lamprais, commonly known as lump rice, is a Dutch Burgher-influenced dish, that is very popular in Sri Lanka. Lamprais is derived from the Dutch word “lomprijst”, which loosely translated means a packet of food.
It consists of two special curries (a three meat curry – beef, pork and lamb – and ash plantain with aubergine), seeni sambal, belacan, frikadeller meatballs and rice boiled in stock, all of which is wrapped in banana leaves and baked in an oven. The rice is made by frying raw short grain rice with onions and spices in butter or ghee and then cooking it in a meat stock.
The traditional recipe always contains three meat items, however modern versions include just a single meat, such as fish or chicken or as a vegetarian version with TVP or grilled, cubed veggie burgers.
From 1640 until 1796, Sri Lanka was under Dutch rule. The Dutch Burghers (an ethnic group of mixed Dutch, Portuguese Burghers and Sri Lankan descent) came up with this delicacy.
As noted on the excellent website explorepartsunknown.com:
Derived from the Dutch burg, or city, the word burgher translates to the “citizens” or “residents of a city.” However, sometime during the period between the 15th and 17th centuries, when Dutch ships set forth to establish a mercantile empire in Asia, the word came to be used to describe a new middle class composed of traders.
Many of these merchants, drawn not just from Holland but also from other northern European nations such as Germany, Britain, and France, joined the Vereenigde Oost Indische Compagnie (VOC), or Dutch East India Company, established in 1602. Their first port of call was Batavia—now Jakarta—on the island of Java in present-day Indonesia, which served as the VOC’s headquarters. Having established a strong command center, the VOC eventually wrested control of the lucrative spice trade in Ceylon from the Portuguese in 1640.
Over the next century that the Dutch ruled over Ceylon, the Dutch Burghers came to be loosely identified as a new social group of mixed northern European ethnicity intermingled with strands of Portuguese and Sinhalese lineage, acquired through intermarriage with the local population. When the VOC was dissolved in 1800, a few Dutch Burghers chose to stay behind in their adoptive homeland, negotiating a complex identity that was neither entirely European nor completely Sri Lankan in its ethos. Out of this mash-up of cultural and culinary influences was born the lamprais.
During my travels around Colombo in search of a good lamprais, I was routinely amazed by one fact: the number of elements that are neatly tucked into a packet that is barely larger than an adult’s hand. Inside each meticulously wrapped parcel sits a small mound of unctuous short-grained rice cooked in meat stock. A rich, deep-brown mixed-meat curry, usually a combination of chicken, pork, and beef, moistens the rice. The brown-and-white palette of the curry and rice camouflages the other accoutrements.
There is vambatu moju, a sweet-sour pickled-aubergine dish with the sharp tang of white vinegar; seeni sambol, a condiment made of caramelized onions speckled with bonito flakes and a smidgen of prawn blachang, or dried prawn relish. Two small frikkadels, or crisp-fried meatballs, crown the complex offering.
The lamprais doesn’t lend itself to niceties: The best way to savor it is to mix everything well and eat it with your fingers, so that the peppery heat of the curry is undercut by the sweet moju, and the fishy seeni sambol is complemented by the blachang, which packs a mighty umami punch.
It’s clear from its sheer construction that even in a more leisurely era, lamprais warranted sufficient effort to be considered a special-occasion meal. “Lamprais was a Sunday speciality, which all the ladies of the extended family got together to make,” Deloraine Brohier, historian and author of “A Taste of Sugar & Spice,” a rare resource on Dutch Burgher cuisine, told me in 2014. Brohier died in April at the age of 89.
In her 2012 book, the 86-year-old Brohier describes the preparation of almost theatrical scale that went into making each element of the lamprais when she was growing up in Colombo. “The night before, shin and meat were boiled for about two hours; and the meat, we must bear in mind, was not just beef but a medley of meats—chicken, pork, beef, and mutton.
The same night the plantain leaves would be washed, cleaned, and left to dry. Some long-grained rice too was cleaned, washed, and set aside.” Lamprais was the social glue that brought Dutch Burgher families together to partake in the communal pleasures of cooking and eating.
With the South Asian staple of rice as its beating heart, it seems safe to assume that the lamprais is definitely not of Dutch origin. “People in Holland to this day are completely ignorant of this savory rice meal, and the average Dutchman would not know should he be asked about the lamprais,” writes Brohier, who was conferred an honorary knighthood by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in 2002.
In fact, Dutch colonialists may have built upon a kernel of an idea they first had a taste of in Java. At that time, as it is to this day, lemper was a popular Indonesian snack made of glutinous rice filled with chicken, fish, or meat, encased in a banana leaf. When they brought the lemper to Sri Lanka, the Dutch embellished it with curries and condiments laden with local spices and flavors, including black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and cured bonito flakes, traditionally produced in the Maldives.
The prawn blachung—or belacan, as it was also known—a pungent paste of dried fermented shrimp, salt, and chilies, was also likely Indonesian or Malaysian in origin. In both countries it continues to be a much-loved relish. The frikkadels (or “forced meatballs” made of minced beef) may have been the only truly European element of the dish. In its entirety, braiding together eastern and western threads, the lamprais was a dish with a distinct Dutch Burgher identity, one the community could consider entirely its own.
This recipe set is not my own – I found it on a now moribund cooking website and share it with you now! I have cleaned up the numerous typos and grammar errors, but this is otherwise the same recipe I found years ago (which is why it does not have my name on it – I am unable to improve on this!). Don’t be intimidated by all the ingredients, just get yourself some help in the kitchen! Thank you to “EHO”, the unknown author in Sri Lanka who shared this recipe all the way back in 2003! 😀
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