My parents came to Britain from Sri Lanka in the 1960s and for as long as I can remember, my family has been made up of those related by shared ancestry and those who are as close as blood relatives simply due to the fact that their surnames have a lot of letters and cause no end of fun when you’re spelling them for the 17th time to a call centre employee who inevitably asks “oooh, how long did it take you to learn that then?” And then they ask you to pronounce it, to which my standard response is ‘how it’s spelled, obviously’. Because that’s just it.
Because of this large and sprawling family unit, food and feeding people has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. Weekends in Peterborough meant all the Sri Lankan families within my home town getting together at one person’s house, bringing a dish each, shoving all the children into a TV room upstairs whilst the women gossiped and the men folk drank whisky and solved all the problems “back home”.
Wherever these dinners took place, the format was always the same.
The grown ups would be of similar ages, brought together by a shared heritage. Within each family unit, there’d be at least one kid each, usually two. My sister was often the oldest, I was often the youngest. As there’s only four years between us, as grown ups that’s hardly anything, but as kids it was a lifetime apart.
The kids would always get shoved into a room together to ‘play’. If we were lucky, the house we were in would have a TV in a bedroom so we could all watch something together – Blind Date or Noel’s House Party (TV in the 1980s left a lot to be desired) and not have to play but if we did have to play something, it inevitably ended in tears for someone.
You’d be given a bowl of crisps or peanuts, a bottle of Coke or Fanta and left to get on with it. When dinner was ready, you’d be called downstairs and because no one had a table big enough for us all to fit around, we’d sit on the stairs because it’s weird to eat a plateful of curry in a bedroom, right? Whilst there were always variants, the basic meal was always the same – rice, a few vegetable curries, always paripu (dhal) and at least one meat curry – and if the meat curry was perceived to be too hot, one of the aunties would have roasted some chicken with milder spices ‘for the children’.
Desserts were also much the same every time: someone would have made a traditional Sri Lankan pudding – wattalapan was the worst (like a sludge coloured, spiced baked caramel pudding – I realise this doesn’t sound that weird, but my god it was disgusting). Or biscuit pudding – Marie biscuits soaked in milk, layered with chocolate mousse (actually not bad). Or pineapple fluff – sickly sweet and weirdly pink. The best of all dessert options was if someone had bought a Vienetta for the kids because it was the 1980s and that was the best dessert ever.
Whilst those regular gatherings stopped for me after I moved to London for university, it’s still incredibly lovely when the whole clan gets together for meals or events. The men’s conversation hasn’t changed – still solving the problems of the world, and the women continue to cook and feed us all. And I’m often still considered one of the kids – refreshing when you’re too old to shop at Forever 21…
For the last few months, I’ve been looking to do something that nourishes my soul and I’ve realised that cooking and entertaining is ingrained in me and energises me. I love to gather together groups of people I love and feed them until they are close to exploding, then forcing another small morsel down their throats. In a nice way. So that’s what I’m going to do. But more on that later.