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From Bread to Identity

The Paan on My Plate

Brought to India from the tea estates of Sri Lanka, paan is a humble bread that tells the story of Indian Tamils who migrated to Ceylon as indentured labour.

Our Thursday dinners were always the same: paan, a crudely made coarse bread with fluffy insides, which makes a loud crunch with each bite. It is usually paired with sambal, a spicy Ceylonese preparation made by pounding freshly grated coconut with grated fiery red chillies. My grandmother says that sambal tastes best when maasi (powdered dry fish) is sprinkled over it, adding a tangy and earthy flavour which cannot be replicated by anything else. In fact, during her childhood in Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it is still nostalgically referred to by most Indian Tamils from Ceylon, maasi was as ubiquitous as salt in their everyday cuisine. Today, we continue to use maasi in our household, but sparingly, almost like a guilty pleasure, to add zing to an otherwise boring lunch of pumpkin sambar, rice, and sautéed carrots and beans.

My grandparents were among the hundreds of Indian Tamils (or Hill Country Tamils) who returned to India from Ceylon in the 20th century during the civil wars that ravaged the teardrop-shaped island. My childhood memories are peppered with oral stories of ship voyages, telegrams to India, wartime rationing of food and, more importantly, spicy Ceylonese food and food habits. Today, as I try to trace my history, I see its linkages to Ceylon most prominently on my plate. Ironically, that phase of our history began due to the emptiness of my ancestors’ plates. During the disastrous famines in South India in the late 19th century, hunger deaths became an ordinary, everyday occurrence. As a result, several farmers from the rice-growing belt along River Kaveri migrated as indentured labourers, to the newly created Ceylonese tea plantations—and among them were my emaciated ancestors.

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Updated On : 4th May, 2020

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