Wednesday, August 24, 2016

[Multiculturalism in Action Project 2016-17] Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan Culture Workshop


On 30 July, 2016, the Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan Culture Workshop organized its weekly seminar at Pearl Lanka, a Sri Lankan grocery store in To Kwa Wan. The first session of the seminar was about food culture in Sri Lanka, presented by Mr. P.B. Thilakarathne, then followed by the second session on gender and family issues in Sri Lanka, presented by Ms. Girtie Jirasihna and Mr. Kanishka Samarasinghe.

The first speaker Mr. Thilakarathne explained that the food culture in Sri Lanka has been influenced by different cultures, especially the Islamic, Indian, and Western cultures. Rice and coconuts were the basics in ancient Sri Lankan cuisine. Later, spices and tea were added to Sri Lankan cuisines as these products were encouraged to be planted by the colonial governments. Nowadays, most foods in Sri Lanka include a touch of rice, coconut, and curry.

Mr. Thilakarathne explaining Sri Lankan food culture

Coconut is an essential ingredient in Sri Lankan cuisine. Unlike the Chinese who put coconut mostly in soup, Sri Lankans have different ways of using coconuts. For example, coconut milk is added to almost all types of curry. Grated coconuts are mixed with spices for coconut sambol, serving as an accompaniment for rice and string hoppers (rice-noodles). Virgin coconut oil can be used in cooking as well as massage.

Mr. Thilakarathne showed us some cooking utensils, such as string hopper mat and presser, clay plot, and puttu (steamed rice cake with coconut) cooker.

String hopper presser (left) and mats (right)

Before the establishment of the first Sri Lankan grocery store in Hong Kong in 2012, Sri Lankan products were brought to Hong Kong occasionally through friends and relatives. Yet, bulky and fresh products such as rice and coconuts could not be brought to Hong Kong. Although the Sri Lankans tried to use substitutes (such as Indian rice and Chinese vegetables), Mr. Thilakarathne said they could not find substitutes for coconuts and fish, the two essential components in Sri Lankan cuisine. Hence, he decided to open a grocery store to serve the needs of Sri Lankans in Hong Kong.

Serving a limited population in Hong Kong, Mr. Thilakarathne admitted that it was tough to run the business, especially due to the high rent in Hong Kong. Besides, not all Sri Lankans would go for Sri Lankan products. For example, some domestic workers have gotten used to the food culture of their employers, and they seldom have time to cook Sri Lankan dishes. Despite these challenges, Mr. Thilakarathne persisted in his import business on high quality and healthy products.  

During the break, participants had a chance to enjoy some great-tasting Sri Lankan dishes including kiribath, string hoppers, koththu, and Sri Lankan doughnuts.

Sri Lankan dishes we had during the break

In the second part of the seminar, Ms. Girtie Jirasihna and Mr. Kanishka Samarasinghe shared with us their views on gender and family issues of the Sri Lankan community.

Mr. Samarasinghe said in ancient Sri Lanka, a family used to have eight to ten children because of the demand for labour in agricultural work.  Nowadays, a family usually has a maximum of four children.

In Sri Lanka, males are usually the breadwinners while females control the house keeping. It is a usual practice to wait for father to start dinner, and the mother will eat only after serving her husband and children. Mr. Samarasinghe said the situation has changed nowadays, as females also receive higher education and work as administrators in companies. Housework is shared by both husband and wife. Ms. Jirasihna told us that the Sri Lankan family expects the first child to be a daughter, as it is believed that the daughter can help to take care of the younger siblings, and to assist mother in housework.

According to Mr. Samarasinghe, arranged marriage is still practiced today but young adults will not be forced to marry someone he/she doesn’t like. It is a common practice for parents to match the horoscopes of the potential bride and groom to judge whether it will be a good or bad marriage. Moreover, parents identify a potential spouse for their children through advertisements in the newspaper. Mr. Thilakarathne said he also got to know his wife this way. Caste system was once a tradition in Sri Lanka, in which people believed that people cannot get married with those from a different caste. However, the speakers said the caste system is no longer a main concern in marriage nowadays, especially for families living in cities.

Mr. Samarasinghe (left) and Ms. Jirasinha (right)

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