The good things which belong to prosperity are to be wished. The good things that belong to adversity are here now to be admired and enjoyed,” so wrote my father in 1976 quoting Francis Bacon.
“Siri Niwasa ” The maintenance of the family house “Siri Niwasa” during the monsoon was weighing heavily on him and my letter to him from Penang had been sent without insufficient stamps. The letter had come by surface mail and in the meantime he was worrying and imagining “all sorts of illnesses and hospitals etc . … so I got told off right royally by Father B who said “So next time you take into your block head that for every half an oz. stamps go up. And when you write why not write on both sides of the paper – when the letter is illegible it is tastier reading slowly and over and over again.”
Six years after his death I still missed him. I had opened a whole box of letter I had ferreted away like the squirrels to dig out on a day like this. Listening to the Koha (Asian Koel) make his mating call which heralds the New Year; the chattering squirrels on my little patch of green I could see him picture him and even hear my father’s voice. Yes, amidst adversity there are things to be admired and enjoyed.
So the doom and gloom articles in the Sunday papers didn’t dampen the waking up of the avurudhu spirit. The Sunday Times interestingly was looking at astrologers to give economic predictions – in life everything comes back a full circle but there was something else in the ST that caught my eye – The word kavum is derived from Sinhala term”what is eaten,” according to Kalakeerthi Rohana Pradeepa Edwin Ariyadasa says the article “A new year and a new life”.
My first born son Suren when first introduced to Kavum called them “cookie monsters” an apt term as the ugly shape has led to derogatory comments like “has a face like a kavuma.” Robert Knox talks of Caown likening it to a fritter made of rice-flower and juggery. When the Dutch came first to Colombo the King had ordered that Caown should be sent as a Royal treat. Apparently the Dutch had asked whether they grew on trees.
Here the pre-avurudhu ads on radio was talking of Chocolate Kavum from Kandos for the new age. The price of the Choci Cookie monster were not know but in the pastry shop that is Fab in Colombo , a pale looking variety was priced@ Rs.25 on Friday night. As Mr. Ariyadasa said who these days can pay Rs25 for one miserly looking cookie monster.
However, my interest in Kavum’s was kindled and I needed to know more — so out came more books on Ceylon including “Society in Mediaeval Ceylon” to see if there was any reference to Kavums. I had an autograph copy of the book that I had paid a grand sum of Rs.13.75 probably a couple of decades ago. The author Prof. M.B. Ariyapala says Kavum (rice-cake), Pani Kavum (rice-cake with honey or molasses) ; Kudu Kavum ( rice-cake or sweetmeat made with bran solely of rice bran sans oil — are all mentioned in the scholarly Sinhala literary work Saddharma-ratnavaliya. So the good old Kavum has been around for many centuries.
By now I could almost smell the Kavums being made and picture the work that went before the making as they did in Panadura in my grandmother country. The rice had to be soaked overnight and two women would be hired to pound the rice. They would move rhythmically, each one bringing the heavy Mole gaha (pounding pole) alternatively down on the rice in the pounding “wang gediya” (carved out of a wooden tree trunk), till the rice turned to powder. Next it was sieved separating the fine powder from the coarse and the coarse bits pounded again. The treacle for kavums was freshly made from the sap of the coconut flower in my grand mothers kitchen. One had to have a license then as now to tap the coconut flower to get the toddy as it is called. I could also remember, sitting on my haunches next to the big cauldron over a wood fire in my great grandmother’s house and begging to have a go at making one Kavum. The cook woman would pour a spoonful of batter, insert an ekel in the middle twirling it around while swirling oil on to the middle, and pressing down on the sides till the middle came up like a knob.
The tummy was growling and the next logical step was to seek out the cookery books as my desire to have a go at making these got stronger. All you needed was rice flour, pani – treacle from the coconut or kitul palm tree and oil to fry. No need to start from dot soaking rice these days it comes sieved and packeted. All stuff needed I had in the store cupboard and mixing the batter seemed simple. For good measure I put in extra pani. Armed with a skewer, it was heigh ho, Kavum making time here I go.
Up to now I had ignored the little voice that kept telling me that getting the stump in the middle called the konde or the nose was not an easy task. Undeterred and quite confident I could do it I dropped the first spoon into the oil expecting a kavun to turn up sans nose even but what I got was a lot of spluttering and the whole batter disintegrating into million crunchy bits. Fished out with a slotted spoon the bits were all tasty. But no it was not yet time to give up. It was back to the batter — add more flour, a little more warm water and the resulting sludge looked somewhat more promising.
Second time around the discovery was that the steel skewer was too big and without getting the batter in the middle to rise what I had done was create a big hole in the middle. I tried to cover the hole and it ended up looking like the dentures of the cookie monster.
It was back to the drawing board and I also needed to go for a walk down the road to look for a coconut leaf to get an ekel and start Kavum making all over again.
So here are three cookie monsters and something else that was found in mediaeval times –
“ sundangiya” a.k.a. as Thala guli ( sesame seed balls with juggery). The white and pink big cookie is Asme (not ask me) a favourite of mine and the white cubes are potato fudge. And did I make them??? — No, sadly no. My noseless kavums were so good I decided they would be my lunch. These are from a gift plate of goodies I received today — all things good bringing hopefully good tidings at Avurudhu.
©Chulie de Silva