Magical health in your traditional Lankan food | Sunday Observer

Magical health in your traditional Lankan food

18 October, 2020

My most recent meeting with Sri Lanka’s culinary legend and author of many books on the Lankan food heritage, Deshabandu Dr. Pabilis Silva (Tommadura Pubeliyes Sinno) was last Monday. I had made the appointment with him to talk especially of the native potato varieties of Sri Lanka. However, deciding that the country, at a time of another pandemic fear needed to benefit from his vastknowledge of using food for health and immunity, I decided to focus, in addition to yams,on a wide range of leafygreens that we may not have heard much about or view only as herbs.

Presented with an honorary doctorate by the Open International University of Sri Lanka in 2004 and awarded in 2017 by the then President of Sri Lanka, with the Deshabandu title, the third highest Sri Lankan national honor, for his valuable services to the nation, the specialty of Chef Pabilis is his never ending curiosity and re-search for knowledge in his chosen field.

He has written extensively, authoring over twenty books on the history, culture and nutrition of food/culinary tradition, covering every conceivable herb, fruit, leaf, vegetable,yam and grain variety and is now working on a new book on the Science of Cookery focusing on world cuisine, which is to be launched next year.His books includes Authentic Sri Lankan Cuisine, Sri Lanka Jatheenge IwumPihum and the culinary chronicle; the Mahasupawansaya, to name a few.

The philosophy of Pabilis ever since he began cooking at the Mt. Lavinia hotel some sixty years ago and took over as chief chef in 1 the 970is to look at the preparation of food as a science that will aid wellbeing and promote longevity.

Currently, serving as a board director of the hotel, he continues his mission of educating the public through his writings. His book on the Supavedaya reads as Supa for food and Vedaya for science and says that we need the doctor when we are ill but more important than the doctor, we need the Supavedaya to prevent illness.

“Why do you eat?” he queries and then proceeds to point out that if one eats to live, then to ‘purchase illness’ eating things that are merely ‘tasty’ but poisonous, is an act of sabotage. He is not referring to our traditional food in its natural form which is superior in both taste and health benefits, needing no artificial taste inducing substance that weakens our immunity.

Herbal spices

“There are 42 herbal spices (Rasa Karaka) in Sri Lanka that have incredible health benefits and we use most of them, if not all, for different dishes, if we cook a wide range as we should, he says.

With regard to everyday herbs he says that many can be used as medicine for minor ailments. For instance, if afflicted with a stomach pain one can roast cumin seed and drink it like coffee. Goraka consumed in moderation is excellent for cholesterol, he said.

He reminds us that Sri Lanka has 56 native potato varieties t which includes the following: Hathawariyaala (Asparagus racemosus), Manel Ala, Olu Ala, Seeni Kodol. Kiriala, DehiAla (Colocasia Sp. Green), Rajala (Dioscoreaalatavar), Innala (Solenostemonrotundifolius, DambalaAla (Psophocarpustetragonolobus), KatuAla (DioscoreaPentaphylla) and Angili Ala.

The difference between these varieties and the common ‘globally available’ light yellow potato variety is that this variety is not native to this country and needs a vast amount of chemical agriculture based effort. Asked if many of the other yam varieties are extinct, Pabilis says that they are not and that the reason they are rarely seen in the market is because there is no ‘demand’ for it.

Right now, many local potato varieties grow wild in different parts of the country but he says that there is possibility of them being cultivated ion a large scale with minimum effort if people know how nutritious they all are.

With proper education of the masses on the range of indigenous potatoes, rice/,leaves varieties/grain and their life-saving nutrition, he feels there will be a change in what is cultivated in mass scale.


When the topic turns to leaves of Sri Lanka that we often use as mallung he said that the paskolesambole/malluma and stresses that this is a sure way to ensure that even with only one more curry - even if it is just dhal, that a good nutrition level can be obtained if five kinds of leaves are consumed in one meal.

He said that over 90 per cent of leaves can be combined without any clash of nutrients. However,a leafy variety to be avoided in the combination with other leaves are the Aththora leaves that is best consumed as a single entity.

“Almost all leaves can be eaten raw and this is how most of the nutrition can be maximised,’ he says. Mukunuwenna is one of the best for sight as well as boosting brain performance. However, he advises that it is best to mix this leaf with Karapincha and Sarana but NOT Gotukola as both Mukunuwenna and Gotukola have equally strong nutrient properties which overpower each other.

Among the leaves that we do not know much about and which we can cultivate and use for a varied diet/nutrients are Meyenadalu, Bata Kirilla (ErythroxylumMoonii), Kara Kola (Canthiumcoromande;icum), Pothupala (Aniseiamartinicensis), Genda (PortulacaOleracea), Thel Kola (Ipomeatribola), Pittawakka (Phylanthusdebilis), MaduDhalu (Cycascircinalis), Japan Jabara (Eichchorniacrassipes), DiyaThippila (Melochiacorchorifolia), Kirihenda (Celosia argenteavarspicaia). KaluHabarala (Mababuxifolia), DiyaNilla (Rhynchoglossumnotonianum), DiyaGova (Liminocharisflava), Neeralmulliya (Astercanthalongifolia), MonaraKudumbiya (Vernociacinerea), Kuppamenia (AcalyphaIndica), Aththikka (Ficusracemosa), Katupila (Maytenusheterophylla),Kidarang (Amorphophalluspaepnifolius), Ambu Ambilla, Kochhi leaves, Pranajeewa, Beli leaves, SuduThampala (Amaranthuspalmeri), KalukumBeriya (Solanumnigrum). The above list is sourced from the books authored by Chef Pabilis Silva but it is not a full list of the leaf varieties cited by him which is very extensive.

Talking to him about food and health is a philosophical treat.He describes both food preparation and consumption as a meditative and spiritual process which will seriously impact the quality of the food.

The preparation of the food he says has been traditionally carried out by mothers, infusing the most important ingredients; (adaraya, karunawa, maithriya) love, compassion and empathy. Food prepared in anger, extreme tiredness or with an apathetic/careless attitude has the opposite effect,” he says.

He said that prior to the absorption of the food into the body there is the direction followed by the nose (smell), eyes (sight) and fingers (touch). If the smell is not right, the sight not pleasing and the touch not conducive, then the rejection will occur before the food reaches the mouth, he said.

Sensory reaction

He uses the sensory reaction of touch as an example to explain that while the slippery (sewala) nature of cooked spinach (Nivithi), Ladies fingers (Bandakka//Okra) are not rejected by our touch based senses, a sevala reaction by spoilt meat or dhal or brinjal is automatically rejected just as we touch it.“If ever your hands reject some food, trust your touch based instinct and never consume it,” he advises.

Having visited over 33 countries as part of his official culinary tours ,he has throughout his career been a keen seeker of knowledge in general and a researcher of food in particular. How we came to eat what we are eating today has always piqued his curiosity.

“I started researching widely in all the countries I went to and made maximum use of global libraries. I rise by 3.30 am and by 6 am I would have finished much of my reading and writing. This is how I have managed to write 23 books so far and do very wide research,” he reveals.

Hunger he says is not something that should exist in Sri Lanka with trees such as Jak (Kos) and says that the nutritional value of this food is grossly underestimated by Lankans.

“Sri Lanka is among the few unique countries which has the kind of soil where innumerable varieties of fruits, herbs and vegetation thrive.

In the times I grew up in as a child ,each household had its own kitchen yard full of herbs as well as many vegetables and fruit trees. Hunger and illness shouldn’t ever exist in this country if every family had continued this tradition,” he said.He attributes his impeccable health, without a single ailment,to eating food as a continuous experiment of the adage ‘food as medicine.’

At 84 years young and quite easily mistaken to be 20 years younger, he credits his good health and slow aging, to a lifetime of eating traditional Lankan food with large amounts of fresh fruits and leaves. Eating a diversified diet for the best of health is his key example and although not a vegetarian (according to him no chef can be one!), he agrees that being vegan or vegetarian can result in very good health, if a varied diet is consistently followed to get ample plant protein.

“What do Sri Lankans eat most often? Many consume either bread with dhal or potato or some meat/ or fish curry or else gravy and sambol with stringhoppers /pittu or roti or sandwiches/rolls and pastry or a few common yams/vegetables that we often repeat. This is not what we can call a well balanced meal. When we eat continuously in this imbalanced way we gather a major deficit of nutrition and our immunity weakens,” he said. He notes that we should be eating sufficient leaf varieties(pas kole sambole/mallung being a best solution), fruits, vegetables, wide range of herbs and grains.

If this is followed as a regular dietary rule, consuming fresh leaves, rurally grown native fruits and vegetables, easilyand cheaply available in the pola, then he states that we would be sufficiently investing in our health collectively as a nation.

As he said,, cultivating our own, even in pots, if land space is limited, will enhance our self-sufficiency and health based power as a country akin to ancient times.