The way the middle class urban people of Ceylon kept home and cooked in the old days: (based on an interview conducted with a Burgher lady in Colombo whose Mum was 80 and living at the time). The lifestyle described applies to all middle and upper class urban communities of that bygone era in Sri Lanka.
1. What do you recall of your mother’s/grandmother’s dealings with preparing the meal for the household?
My paternal grandmother lived down High Street (now W A Silva Mawatha) in Wellawatte in Colombo 6. It was a very large and sprawling old house, very open and airy with big open Verandahs, and at the back of the house, was the Servants Quarters.
There was a cook, a houseboy, a driver and an "ayah" (maid). There was also the rickshaw man, and the tailor who lived in separate rooms outside. My grandmother would summon the cook, Jane, to her and would discuss with her the menu for the day, every morning.
I do not remember my grandmother ever doing much cooking herself, but when she wanted something special made (like her famous "Pol Kiri Badun” A coconut milk dish) which she always wanted made for her youngest child, my dad, she did it herself! Jane's was never good enough-- Jane herself told me this several times when she later worked in our home!!
2. Did they, as many of my relatives seem to have, sit down with a cook at the start of a day and decide what the meals for the day would be and then send the cook off with the money to buy the produce?
I think I have already answered that question by my answer above! I remember the driver being sent off to do the purchasing, but not daily. They bought quite a lot and stocked the fridges (referigerator’s). But probably they did so before fridges were a part of their lives.
3. Who dealt with the hawkers who came to the door?
My aunts remember that my granny was very particularly about the quality of the meat the cook brought home and wasn’t about sending her back to get something better.
My mother often told us of how her mother dealt with hawkers herself, and yes, she was so very particular about the quality. Mum used to say that the woman selling cashews would bring her entire basket of nuts to my grandmother (who was an expert sweet-meat maker) and Granny would choose all the biggest nuts. Of course they paid for the nuts by the 100 in those days. Also fresh live chickens used to be brought to the door by vendors, and Granny would chose the heaviest ones. The same with eggs and crabs etc My granny would make her famous Marzipans, Cheese Straws and Chocolate Fudge with the freshest of ingredients.
During the World War II, when nothing was imported, Cargills (and/or Millers) asked my Granny to supply them with her famous sweets to replace all the imported ones, and she became quite famous for it.
Furthermore, the older folk had the competitive knack of bargaining with the many vendors who used to call over at their doorstep on a daily basis. There were the fishmongers, of whom Martha Akka from Moratuwa was famous in Bambalapitiya and Wellawatte, the green “Keera” vendors, and the fruit vendors. They all carried wicker basketloads of produce on their weary heads and trekked all the way to Colombo from far corners, viz Panadura, Moratuwa, and even Gampaha.
Dealings with these vendors was done n Shillings (a legacy of the British Pound, Shilling & pence currency system of old), where One Shilling was equivalent to Ceylon Fifty Cents. The vendors were also smart enough to fix their prices according to the bargaining capabilities of the buyers and it was a cat and mouse game, so exciting to watch, every morning at these homes within the many towns of Colombo.
Then there was the broomstick vendor who trudged along on his four-wheeled contraption carrying all kinds of brooms, mops, Ekel Brooms for raking in the leaves, floor mats and cleaning equipment. On his footsteps came the Gotmaba Roti man in the evenings, clanging away his metal Gothamba ladle on to the sides of his cart making a din that could be heard a mile away. Complementing this gang was he Kadalai man, who carried his load in a basin on his head, filled with all varieties of spicy gram, chic peas, and nuts.
Gone are these door to door salesmen and saleswomen of yore who provided an excellent service of delivering fresh produce to almost every single home in the city.
4. Did they rely on the cook to cook the breakfast and the lunch, and have more of a hand in the dinner?
Yes! They did rely on the cooks to cook breakfast and lunch, but very often, they did the dinner themselves. Breakfast was always string-hoppers, hoppers, roti or other "local" food, mostly. I remember the “Ogurulang” (is that how it is spelt??) a kind of loose scrambled egg dish with lots of onions and dill seed which was always there with the string-hoppers and “kiri hodhi” (yelloe coconut milk gravy) and “pol sambol” (red hot chili-coconut scraping mix). The table was laid along with the teapot, full of steaming hot tea covered by a cloth tea-cosy on a separate wooden tray, along with the cups and saucers, sugar and milk and the tea strainer on a separate saucer.
Lunch always consisted of rice, beef curry and fish curry, three vegetable curries, a “mallun” (spicy green leaf mix), something fried, and several bottles of chutneys and pickles.
Fruit always followed.
5. Were there dishes that your mother/grandmother would never let the cooks make?
My Granny always made the Christmas cake, for example.
Of course! the revered Christmas Cake and Breudher were never made by anyone else! My maternal grandma did much more cooking than my paternal Nanna. Granny was a big strong Irish woman with her hair in a bun who did lots of cooking. Nanna was a petite genteel darling of a woman who married my grandfather when she was only 18 and the "Belle of Kalutara" and he a much older and previously married man. He wed her and brought her to Colombo and bought three houses for her, two in Wellawate and one in Colpetty. Needless to say, he spoiled her rotten, and she had servants at her beck and call, so did not do much cooking herself.
Granny on the other hand, did loads of cooking! She had her specials. Jewel like Marzipans which were laid out to "bake" in the sun, and looked too good to eat! Then she made her famous trotter stew-- heavenly! Then there was her Turkish Delight, Marshmallows, Chocolate Fudge, etc.
6. Did your family follow the common pattern of having rice and curry for lunch and a more European style meal for dinner? Whose recipes were used for the latter, or for any of the European style meals?
Yes, dinner was and still is with us, a more European meal. I remember my mother throwing her hands up in exasperation when once interviewing a cook who, when asked what "issaraha kaama" (“the first meal” or European food) she knew, she replied "Istew, Bistake, Cutlis"!! (meaning Stew, Beef Steak and Cutlets). Mother exclaimed "that is all they know to make". The dinners I remember in my home (or at my grandmothers or aunts') usually was a Stew, or Steak and Kidney Pie, Kedgeree, Bombay Roast, Crumb Chops, with the accompanying vegetables etc. If we had string-hoppers for dinner, they would be accompanied by Mulligatawny, Beef Curry, Pol Mallun (A chillie hot coconut scraping mix with “Kooni” small dried shrimp) and sometimes Potato “Thel Dhala” (fried in oil).
My grandmother’s and Mother all had their own recipes for these dishes, and all of them tasted different when cooked by any of them, but equally delicious.
7. Did you have a cook at all? Was the cook male or female? How old were they when they came into service? Where did they come from? How did your mother/grandmother know about where to find them?
Yes, my grandmother's cook, Jane, came to work for us when my Dad got married to my Mum. She was already trained by Nanna, and knew exactly what Daddy liked to eat!! Nanna made sure of that! When she left, we had a male cook, a Tamil man from a tea estate who had cooked for the British planters and who always kept a poker face and stood stock still to attention when spoken to. My brother and I tried so hard to make him relax and laugh awhile, but he just refused to do so!
My cousins were planters, and usually servants were recruited from the old Colonial style Tea Estates. From what I know of my grandparent's servants, and my aunt’s, servants came to work for them at a very young age, and generally stayed on till a ripe old age.
Jane went to work for Nanna when she was very young, and worked for my parents for many years, taking care of me as a baby as well. She even came back to work for me after I married and cooked for me when I had my first baby! I have an aunt whose cook, Soma, has been with her for over 47 years!
Usually servants who worked for one person brought along others from their villages for family and friends whenever needed.
8. How were the cooks paid? Did they get holidays? Where did they sleep and eat?
The servants in our homes had their own quarters--separate rooms and bathrooms. Salaries of course varied with the times, but were usually not very much. These people were so very poor and had next to nothing in their villages, so it was a massive privilege to work in our homes and live comfortable lives. They were paid monthly, and were given holidays usually for the Sinhala & Tamil New Year, when they went home having spent a lot of their earnings on new colored cotton fabrics for the women’s “cloths" (traditional lower wrap-around garment) and jackets and also for the men's sarongs.
They would return from their villages with a box full of Sinhala/Tamil festival sweetmeats that consisted of “Kavun” (oil cakes), “Kokis” (Oil fried Cookies), “Bibikkan” (Jaggery & Coconut Cake), “Kalu Dodol” (Jaggery & Coconut Sweet), “Aasmi” (Coconut Oil fried Crispies) etc.!
9. Did the cook or other servant serve at table? Did they get specially dressed for it?
Yes, usually the houseboy attended to the serving at the table. He had to be nattily dressed, always, when doing so.
10. Did the cook or other servants speak much English? Could they read English?
No, they never spoke English, and considered it very rude to do so, but for sure they understood the language very well! Our old cook from the plantations, Arumugam, spoke English in a quaint way.
11. What was the feeling of the relationship(s) of the cook and servants to your family?
Servants of those days were very respectful, and humble. In our homes they were always treated very well--but were never allowed to eat with us at our table of course. They also had their own plates and cups--they could never use ours. They never sat on chairs, but on a low bench, doorstep, or on the bare floor. They slept on mats on the floor, never on beds. This was what they were used to in their villages. Usually the children in the family were closest to the servants, and next the lady of the household, but last of all the master. He would have little or nothing to do with the servants except maybe the driver.
12. Were any of the cooks/servants married and/or have kids during their service?
None of our servants were married as I remember.
13. What did they cook on? Was the kitchen inside or outside the house? What fuel was used?
They cooked, in the early years, on Wood Fires (a multi brick/stone contraption that held the cooking utensils on top of it and used firewood as fuel) and later on, on imported Keresone and Gas Cookers, inside the house. Most homes had two kitchens. One more or less used as a pantry for preparation and storage of utensils, while the other was the real kitchen, with chimney et al to disperse the smoke from the wood fires into the air and keep it away from the house.