When we think of the Veddas, we often think of them as hunters, chasing after anything they can make a meal of. However, little do we realise that they had, and still have, something of a culinary tradition of their own, including some unique meaty delicacies only a forest dweller could come up with. This was especially so in the olden days, when they could freely hunt game, which is now no longer possible with our strict wildlife protection laws. Back then, however, the Veddas had a gastronomic experience we townies could only dream of.
Here are ten of their best-known delicacies:
1. Smoked Venison
The Veddas simply loved venison. The Sinhala poetical work, the Parevi Sandesa (14th century) refers to the deer in the forest getting flustered upon seeing a troop of Veddas (sabara sen däkä miriki muvaňgana). This suggests that the Veddas have been hunting these creatures for centuries past. Deer made an easy kill and gave good meat, which made them a good choice for game.
A favourite method of processing venison was to cut it into strips and smoke it over a frame of wood. An English prisoner of the King of Kandy, Robert Knox, in his Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681) wrote of the Veddas of his day: “They kill Deer and dry the Flesh over the fire.” We also have it from Dr. Lamprey of the 15th Regiment: “Their chief food is deer’s flesh roasted on sticks over a fire.” (Natural History Review, July 1856). Today, the tradition of smoking meat (beef not venison) still survives among the Muslims of the Eastern Province, and this writer, who has savoured some of it given to him by a friend from Kattankudy, can vouch for its taste. Little wonder the Veddas loved their venison smoked!
2. Meat In Honey
The Veddas of old had devised a unique method of preserving meat. That was by saturating it in bees’ honey. The Englishman Robert Knox tells us in his Historical relation of Ceylon (1681):
“They have a peculiar way by themselves of preserving flesh. They cut a hollow tree and put honey in it, and then fill it up with flesh, and stop it up with clay which lyes for a reserve to eat in time of want.”
Besides the hollows of trees, hollow rocks were also used for the purpose. Dr. R. L. Spittel, in his charming book of forest life, Wild Ceylon (1924), refers to the Vedda custom of preserving venison in honey as follows:
“Into a hollow in a rock a little honey is poured; to this is added a few pieces of venison cut up small; more honey is then poured on, and more meat added; and so layer by layer, till honey and meat are well intermingled. A protecting slab is then placed over the mouth of the hole”.
We learned from Uruvarige Gunaratna of Gurukumbura, a Vedda settlement not far from Dambana, that in the olden days, some Veddas of the area used to produce honeyed meat in the hollow of a rock in the nearby mountain of Ulukätangoḍa. They would place a honeycomb at the bottom of the hollow, upon which they would place raw venison or sambhur meat, and after that, pour bees’ honey over it until a few layers of meat and honey had been formed to almost fill the hollow. Another honeycomb would then be placed upon it before it was covered over with leaves and a large circular piece of rock, after which it would be sealed around with clay to protect it from rainwater and wild animals.
3. Roasted Monkey
Yet another favourite of our Vedda friends was the flesh of the vaňdura or grey langur. The meat of this particular species of monkey was prepared in a variety of ways, depending on the parts concerned. R. L Spittel in his Wild Ceylon (1924) describes a monkey being prepared for food by the Veddas as follows: A slow fire was kindled in the garden; on this the carcass was placed, and turned over until well-singed, emitting a most appetising odour. It did not end with this, for Spittel adds that the half-roasted animal was placed on a stone, disembowelled, and quartered with the blade of an arrow. The head was then severed and split in half, the limbs dismembered, and the trunk broken flat. The various fragments were then put back to roast, and when all was ready, dainty morsels were served out on broad kenda leaves (the usual plates of these people). He adds that the Veddas regarded the brain and liver as ‘special delicacies’.
Vedda children were also fed vaňduru kulal, the brain and bone marrow of monkeys, which was much esteemed on account of its oily taste, so much so that it even came to feature in a Vedda lullaby as recorded in Dambane Gunavardhana’s Vädi Gī Vimasuma (2000).
4. Lizard Sausage
Vedda cuisine was not limited to just roasting game on the spit or smoking its meat. They even had something that could compare with the sausages we know of today. The Vedda called it piruma, meaning ‘filling’.
One such notable item was called goya-tel-piruma, which was made of the tail and flesh of the land monitor, locally known as thalagoya. Dambane Gunavardhana, himself a Vedda, in his fascinating novel on Vedda life titled Dadabimen Dadabimata (From hunting ground to hunting ground) published in 1993, described one such primitive sausage being prepared by a Vedda named Buranda. The youth first cut off the thick part of the tail of the thalagoya and then slit the thick chunk of tail into four from all four sides in such a way that the flesh was also slit. Removing the pieces of fat from the body of the thalagoya, he inserted them into the slits of the tail. Next, he tightly tied this with pieces of vine and placed it under hot sand, adding hot charcoal over it. The tail of the lizard, well roasted with the melted fat being absorbed into the flesh, was soon looking like a manioc yam. One can only imagine the Veddas greedily feasting on this delicacy, slurping and burping till their tummies could take no more.
5. Lizard Gibbets
The Veddas also loved the gibbets of the monitor lizard, as we can see from the following song where a young Vedda man sings in jest:
Gōbindu kälē yamu dennā
Gōyā puccā kamu dennā
Gō akuma ṭika man kaññā
Gō baḍaväl ṭika tiṭa deññā
(Let us both go a hunting for monitor lizard in the forest
And let us burn and eat it
I’ll eat the liver
I’ll give you the intestines.)
The girl, upon hearing this, would feign anger by going silent, whereupon the youth would burst out into song again, this time saying that he would give her the (much favoured) liver and that he would eat the (discarded) intestines. (Vädi Gī Vimasuma, Dambane Gunavardhana, 2000).
6. Roasted Paws
The Veddas relished the roasted paws and tails of small animals. Dambane Gunavardhana, in his 1993 novel titled Dadabimen Dadabimata, refers to Veddas making meals of the paws of animals like the monkey and mouse deer, which were stored in gourd shells after they were roasted. He also refers to gourd shells filled with roasted meat of the paws of animals like the monitor lizard, which figured in a Vedda wedding feast.
The Vedda lullabies, recorded by Gunavardhana, also refer to smaller animal parts (paws and tails) known as kura, kure or kuriya in. One such lullaby had it:
Mundi marālā (Kill a monitor lizard
Kura puccālā Burn its parts
Kanna varev Come to eat
Maya lāmālā My children.)
There was also mundiga kuriya made from the parts of the monitor lizard, perumaga kuriya from monkeys, mayiraga kuriya from squirrels, and bokki kūrē from hares.
7. Birds’ Eggs
Birds’ eggs were plentiful those days and were much relished by the Veddas. They must have tasted a bit like quail eggs, which are still sold, but that’s only a guess. A Vedda song recorded by Charles and Brenda Seligmann, in their work Veddas (1911), has it:
Välkoggāyē cappigē gōtē
cappigē bittara dekama dekayi
puccā kālā diya bonnē nänā
(In the bird’s nest
On the wild Kon tree
There are two and two bird’s eggs
Having roasted and eaten (them) we drink water, cousin)
8. Bee Grubs
The hives of bees contain grubs known as ämbalō, which were once widely eaten by the Veddas. So favoured were these bee grubs, that they even found a place in Vedda lullabies, like the following recorded in the Language of the Veddas of Ceylon in the Ceylon Literary Register of March 17, 1891:
Atumilalan pelamilalan atuwe heenderi nangimo
malliadan kotala kelimo genennai piya appa giyemo
(Dear pa is gone to cut down branches of milla trees and milla plants
to fetch down bee larvae and honey sugar from the woods)
R. L. Spittel notes in his Vanished Trails: The Last of the Veddas (1950) that the Veddas ate browned bee grubs mixed with honey. The brood comb packed with milky larvae was placed on the flat of a Y-stick and heated over embers, first on one side and then on the other. The baked grubs, shaken out onto a kenda leaf, the plate of the jungle, would be mixed with honey and eaten like rice in handfuls or picked off singly.
The Veddas of old, besides living off the chase, also indulged in the produce of the land every once in a while. These included various kinds of yams, which were commonly harvested by the womenfolk. Among these were the tubers of the three Dioscorea species: gōnala (Dioscorea spicata), kaṭuvala (D. pentaphylla) and hiritala (D. oppositifolia). These yams were apparently much relished, particularly by children, as we see in a Vedda lullaby recorded in Dambane Gunavardhana’s Vädi Gī Vimasuma (2000):
Päṭi monnaṭa ānḍannē
Gōnala bokkiṭa ānḍannē
Ēkat dīpav päṭiṭa
(Why is the little one crying ?
It is crying for the gonala yam
Give that to the little one!)
Yams were roasted in hot ash. Sometimes they were boiled, especially the large yam, known as kaṭu-ala, which the Veddas call kaṭuala-bokka. This yam was prepared by peeling off the skin and cutting it into pieces, after which it was boiled in a vessel of water along with chillies and curry leaves, the place of salt being taken by the ash of the hävan root, or the ground nest of the swift known as sakala gōṭa, as Sandaruvan Lokuheva records in his interesting article Väddangē alamas tämbuma, published in the Divaina newspaper of February 10, 2008.
We tend to think of mushrooms as something the English introduced to us. But this is not so. The Veddas of old harvested edible mushrooms for food, too. These included the Lentinus regium, as Paul and Fritz Sarasin record in their book, Weddas von Ceylon und die sie umgebenden völkerschaften (1893). It is possible that other kinds of mushrooms that grew in the forests were harvested, too. It is probably one such forest mushroom which Christine Wilson refers to in her book about her father Surgeon of the Wilderness (2001). Here, she refers to a Vedda woman preparing “a curry with jungle fungi, fiery chilies and water.”
The Veddas of the Dambana region and thereabouts might still be consuming mushrooms. During a visit to the region in October 2010, we found that a favourite here was the kiri-hatu, a small white mushroom that grows on the stumps of trees such as Nuga, Äṭamba and Dunumalla. Other favourites include iňdurullā, a large white mushroom, and badaväl hatu, a smaller white mushroom, both of which grow on white ant mounds. Such mushrooms are often cooked, the edible portion comprising the cap being torn into little pieces before being cooked.
We can see from all this that the Veddas were not such bad cooks after all. Who else could come up with something as scrumptious as lizard sausage?
Featured illustration: Roar/Isuru Chaminda