Thursday, April 7, 2016

Green gram for breakfast-not on the menu

A few weeks ago Janet noticed a new shop on the main road. There was a celebration going on outside, covered seats, music, families, flowers, and food being served, so she mentioned it later to our host, Mr. Thavaraja. Thava picked me up in his car and we tooled over that evening. It was short enough to walk but Janet and I are the only fools who walk around here, any distance more than say, 10 meters. Events had moved inside by that evening but there was still a crowd and still some finger food being served. By accident I took something sweet. "Too sweet, isn't it?" Thava mentioned, and took a piece from the savory tray. He read my mind. Sometimes I think we're "brothers from another mother." Thava walked gingerly down the aisles as is his wont, scrutinizing things, just touching a few items, examining in a measured way, and deciding what he'd buy to make an appropriate gesture on this important, auspicious opening day. He chose some toothpaste, a couple of disposable razors, maybe a packet of biscuits. As we moved along, him examining each shelf and each corner, I spied packages of beans. Among them, what we call at home mung beans (here they're called "green gram" in English).

"I love those things for breakfast!" I couldn't hold back. Hadn't seen them in months and I really did enjoy when our guesthouse host in Mt. Lavinia would invite us to his table to partake.

"Fine, I'll have the kitchen cook you up some of these for breakfast tomorrow. Would you like that?"

Once we were back at the guesthouse a few swift words to the front desk from Thavaraja. "What time would you like your breakfast?" he asked. I told him eight o'clock would be fine  and we said goodnight. 

Next morning green gram was served precisely at eight. It's unusual around here to get anything exactly at the appointed time. The beans, perfectly cooked, tender and slightly salty, were served with mildly sweet shredded coconut and the fiery accompaniment of coconut sambol. The recipe here for coconut sambol is always slightly unctuous with a touch of oil. To tell you the truth it doesn't sit that well with me some of the days I have it, but it is the perfect foil to the bland freshness of the gram, which has been soaked overnight and boiled just enough to make a few of the pieces "fight back" as you squish them with your fingers. By the way, this is one dish that you really must eat the Sri Lankan way, squishing bits of it with your fingers and plumping the bolus into your mouth. 

That first morning Prince came out with an amazed look on his face. "Green gram! How do you know about this food? It is not on the menu! Have you tried it before?"

We explained that we had tried it before at our guesthouse in Mt. Lavinia and that we liked it, though we don't have a breakfast like this in the United States. 

"But how do you like this food?" Prince continued. "It must be unusual for you. But you know, it is a perfect food."

"Yes perfect," we volunteered. "Healthy, simple, and very filling."

"Yes I like it very much as well," he intoned. "But do you know cowpeas? They are my favorite. Whenever I visit my mother it is cow peas she prepares for me. For cowpeas are my favorite food, and my mother wishes to provide me every day with nourishment and goodness, even though now I am a grown man, a married man, with a wife of my own and children." Yes Prince, we appreciated in silent smiles, our fingers in the breakfast food up to our knuckles. Prince, who we love, tends to soliloquize as a way to amplify his English skills. Often, usually that is, the themes are love for mother, for Sri Lanka, for family, for God, for his serving staff and yes, for self. I could go on about Prince and his love lectures but I'll save it for another time. Just today, at the dawn of the New Years holiday, he is barking orders to the staff as he has been for the past few days. Patience perhaps is not foremost among his many well-practiced virtues. But to be fair it's a busy time and on top of that, Prince's sister and her husband, a cardiologist, are coming to visit from Australia this Sunday. It will be a nine- or ten-day stay and his parents will be up from Kalmunai during some of the time. I suspect this place, and not Prince's actual home, is his "parlor," and he seems skittish that things should be just so, every serviette basket filled, every tablecloth swept, for the impending visit. 

Anyway, green gram caused a fuss. We also noticed on the first day that we weren't charged for breakfast. Reasonable enough. Thava bought the green gram as a treat for us. We're always making small exchanges of fruit or food or one of us doing some writing for the guesthouse or whatever. No biggie.

We liked the green gram so much that we ordered it a couple more times. I think we used up the initial package Thava had bought for us and I know one night they had to go out and pick up some more. Just to mention, this is not a huge investment. The amount used in a serving might cost less than Rs 10. Still, there's the effort that goes into scooting down the block to the store, choosing, buying, bringing back, soaking overnight and making a point to boil it up just right for the 8 AM deadline. 

Another morning when we had green gram we found out later the family had had a similar recipe from new beans from the green bean plants. The green beans, which had been massively planted at Thai Pongol, couldn't be consumed fast enough by staff during lunches or by the guests, who couldn't have known they were available as they weren't indicated on the menu and certainly wouldn't be mentioned by the servers without prodding. As the green bean pods became too tough to eat, the tender beans, which we've often enjoyed at home, substituted for the dried green gram the family might have enjoyed. Better than green gram. Just saying. I was jealous.

On subsequent breakfasts we noticed that we were still not charged for the green gram. I'm sure Thavaraja did not say, "serve these people green gram for free any time they order it," because he's not that kind of guy. Generous he is. A businessman he is. But around here, it also doesn't do to ask, "Can we pay you for the green gram breakfast we had today?"

Why not?

This why not is a big question Janet and I have explored over and over during our time in Sri Lanka. From what I can read from the signals people give out around me, it seems to be the same whether you're here in the Tamil East or over there in the other part of the island. Hospitality, graciousness, friendliness, a real joy in serving you are all there. A desire to ingratiate, to spoil you, to help you, to make you feel at home are all part of the equation. From every front however, from the dreadful university system and the horrible government to everyday interactions,  the practice of "thinking on your toes" seems to be missing. And this is from people who survived thirty years of civil war, people who are uniquely resilient in so many ways. 

What would be so hard for Prince to send our server out with a bill for breakfast, even a token amount? Is it because all the food items are in the computer that generates the bills and there's no category for "miscellaneous?" Is it because green gram isn't on the menu so it can't be accommodated or accompanied with a bill? Prince is devoted to this place. He loves "Uncle" and "Auntie," and he respects Darshan. Why not ask one of them what to do about this emergent situation? Why not find and assign a monetary amount to a breakfast that guests are enjoying, and which they are asking for again and again? 

Can we go back to war for a moment? Can it be that part of the resilience of people was to keep their heads down? Not to "innovate?" Not to question? The war, as we're coming to understand it, was carried out on so many fronts, in so many acts of random brutality, in so many ways. What could a person, a family, a community do? How could you cope psychologically, not just physically? Put down your heads. Weather the storm. Avoid confrontation. Wait it out. 

Yesterday in the pool I talked with Mr. Ezekiel, someone I met last month on the flight from Mumbai to Sri Lanka. He's from Jaffna originally, working on a livelihood project out here in the East and up North. He spoke of villagers who are doing their livelihood things, growing the livestock, taking care of the crops, cooperating with each other to package and market their products, but in a very limited way. What they are missing he thinks, what would improve their livelihood, would be to learn to market and brand their products. Same thing with the green gram. 

Will the coming years bring a new kind of thinking to Sri Lanka, one that matches the intelligence and inventiveness of its people? Will it feel safe, or appropriate for people to reach out and invent, struggle with entrepreneurship and innovation? So amazing to be submerged in this environment which in so many ways is still an environment of submergence.

No comments:

Post a Comment