Welcome Merchant speaks to Niro Vithyesakar, a Sri Lankan-born refugee who 15 years ago made the move to Australia. He spends his time using his hospitality and business skills to provide authentic Sri Lankan street food. At various events, he has sold his dishes through his market stall Tuka Tuka Kothuroti Man for the past 5 years. He has expanded his menu from only selling kottu roti to now roti and curry, masala dosa, vadas, vegetable rotis and some snacks. There are drinks on offer too from mango lassi and chai if you fancy a drink.
We had the privilege to discuss what Sinhalese and Tamil New Year entails from its significance, to cultural rituals, traditional dishes, clothing, and games. We also touched upon the situation in Sri Lanka and whether there have been any changes. Read on below to find out more.
Sri Lankan New Year, also known as Sinhalese and Tamil New Year, is celebrated on the 13th or 14th of April. It is a traditional holiday celebrated by most Sri Lankans, especially Sinhalese and Tamil people. It is based on the movement of the sun from Meena Rashiya (House of Pieces) to the Mesha Rashiya (House of Aries). The Sinhala and Tamil New Years are celebrated with an abundance of fireworks, games, gifts and traditional food which “the whole island celebrates”. It is important to note that Sinhalese and Tamil people both have their traditions to bring in the new year. However, the overarching message is to enjoy your time with family, friends and neighbours.
To ring in Sinhalese and Tamil New Year, the first ritual is called the Nonagathe (neutral period). This means no work can be be done but solely engage in religious activities to gain blessings from their religion, in preparation for the new year. “We go to the temple to pray to get our blessings then head home to continue blessing our parents and elders” he says. After a visit to the temple with family, it is common for Sri Lankan households to boil milk in a new clay pot, symbolising prosperity and bringing luck to the entire family. It is then time for lighting the hearth, this is to prepare the milk rice a traditional dish included in the feast which symbolises prosperity. It is an enjoyable time to celebrate with friends and family. Niro explains “We get to buy new clothes from the money received from our family, and eat lots of delicious food and sweets”. “Then we have our first meal with friends and family before we visit other events happening in our village”.
The first meal eaten by friends and family consists of various vegetarian dishes and traditional sweets. When the time arrives, all Sri Lankans taste their New Year’s meal simultaneously. “It is a feast that brings family and friends together to enjoy and that we also share with our neighbours”. He states, “There are people who may not even know us that share their food to celebrate the occasion”. The assortment of sweet dishes is eaten throughout the day. These consist of:
- Milk Rice
Milk rice or Kiribath is a popular festive dish for any auspicious moment. This dish is prepared by steaming rice and cooking it with thick coconut milk with the right amount of salt. The consistency of the dish needs to resemble a porridge which is then cut into diamond pieces ready to serve. It is paired with a chilli paste or Lunu Miris, a relish made of onions, red chillies and salt. This is a perfect spicy condiment to complement the dish.
2. Peni Walalu
Peni Walalu or Unduwel also known as Honey Rings in English is a sweet deep-fired dish. The coils from Ulundu and rice flour are fried and soaked in honey or sugar syrup. Through the use of coconut milk and treacle, it brings a sweet yet mellow taste. This is a favourite among kids in the New Year.
Kokis is a crispy, deep-fried traditional snack made from rice flour and coconut milk. It is one of the dishes essential to Sinhala and Tamil New Year and is popular amongst each household. It is one of the only dishes which isn’t sweetened due to the lack of sugar. It is favoured for those who prefer fewer sweet dishes. A mould is created to achieve the unique shape of the dish which is coated in a thick batter consisting of rice flour, coconut milk and beaten eggs. There is a pinch of sugar and salt added to enhance the taste which is then put in boiling coconut oil. This allows the Kokis to fry and turn a beautiful golden brown. It is a dish most sought-after in Sri Lanka.
Kavum or an oil cake is another deep-fired sweet made from rice flour and Kitul treacle. This is another staple for Sinhala and Tamil New Year and is offered at the feast table. It is soft and moist on the inside while the thin caramelised crust is crunchy. Once bitten into it provides a sweet, soft, oily and crunchy taste perfect for a festive occasion.
5. Mung Kavum
Mung Kavum another deep fired sweet dish from a combination of Mung beans flour, rice flour and Kitul treacle. It is another staple for Sinhala and Tamil New Year with its mung bean flavour a hit among Sri Lankan households.
Traditional Clothes and Games
A celebration of a New Year always means showing up with your best outfits for the majority of the celebrations. It is common for women to wear saris when they visit the temple or for the reminder of the occasion, and then change into a salwar if needed. The men typically wear sarongs or trousers with a top throughout the occasion. As long as you’re nicely dressed you can’t go wrong. After their meal, certain events take place where friends, families and neighbours participate in the games being held. “There are traditional sports often held such as kabaddi, tug-o-war, palm tree climbing competition, coconut breaking competition, musical chairs and so much more”. “It is a time to enjoy each other’s company and the events being held in the community” Niro shares.
Memories from Home
He shares memories of celebrating Sinhalese and Tamil New Year with his family and receiving money from his parents to spend on whatever he wished. “We were allowed to stay out later than usual in our village celebrating with friends and going from one event to another”. “There would usually be a Tamil/Hindi movie screening especially for the new year, so everyone would go to the movies together”.
Update on the situation in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has been experiencing an economic crisis that started due to an unsustainable amount of debt and continual loss, from both the international balance of payments and the government budget. Last year, Ellie Stamelos published a blog about it here. This resulted in a severe shortage of foreign exchange currency. It also created shortages of necessities such as food, electricity, water and medicines.
Niro explains that “people don’t have any money at the moment and even if they do, they are unable to buy things as, it’s either too expensive or there are no available products”. “This also makes it harder to celebrate Sri Lankan New Year as there is a lack of resources”. He then mentions “I heard on the news that the IMF funding are helping Sri Lanka out so maybe this might assist them”. It has been reported that the IMF funding has extended a helping hand which may ease the situation in Sri Lanka. The IMF executive board has agreed to a 48-month extended arrangement of SDR $2.286 billion under the Extended Fund Facility. The aim is to support Sri Lanka’s economic policies and reforms to aid the citizens of Sri Lanka who are in a vulnerable position. “They are importing resources from other countries which allows Sri Lankan citizens to get more things for cheaper”. “Before the IMF stepped in there would be queues of people waiting to receive a kilo of sugar or even petrol for their vehicles”. The best way for us to help is to donate to organisations who are providing humanitarian assistance by providing food, health and protection support, improving employment opportunities etc.
If you fancy tasting some delicious Sri Lankan street food, make sure you visit the Sri Lankan pop-up stall at the Foreigner Brewing in Melbourne on Saturday 29th of April. Niro’s stall Tuka Tuka Kothuroti Man will be there ready to serve you a delicious meal. Don’t miss out, register here.