Banana Flower Sambal: A Connection Between Southeast Asian and Sri Lankan Cuisines

I knew that, even though the commonly seen sambals in Singapore are sambal tumis and sambal belacan, there are many varieties of this chilli paste, especially in the neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia. There is sambal tempoyak that is made of fermented durian, there is sambal balado comprising of tomato besides the usual suspects, and there are sambal petai, sambal setan, sambal rica rica…

But I didn’t expect to find, while browsing old newspaper archives, sambal recipes that call for, separately, binjal, salted fish roe, and banana flower. While a quick search online gave me little leads about the first two renditions, I found contemporary recipes for banana flower sambal—many from Sri Lanka, and one by renown Singaporean cookbook author Sylvia Tan. The old recipe that I found was published in The Singapore Free Press in 1912. It was among three sambal recipes all of which written in both English and Malay. Interestingly, the recipes had a preceding story describing the festivities of Hari Raya. There was no byline, although I speculate that the writer was a British, because he or she made a reference to the old Oxford saying “Fingers were made before forks” when describing the Malays’ preference to eat with their hands. The writer also drew a parallel between the sambal-curry and the English roast beef-Yorkshire pudding relationships.

What is Banana Flower Sambal?

The banana flower sambal recipe (jantong pisang sambal) caught my eye because it was made by boiling banana flowers, cucumber, and chilli in coconut milk. Boiling as a method of combining the ingredients is rather unusual since the sambals that we come across today are typically stir-fried.

Screenshot of Singapore National Library Board's newspaper digital archive

Screenshot of Singapore National Library Board’s newspaper digital archive

Sylvia Tan’s recipe was strikingly similar, although she referred to it as a salad. She did not cook the ingredients in coconut milk but treated them separately and then poured the heated and lightly salted milk over. I would love to test this recipe, but if leaves (laksa, curry leaves) are hard to come by in New York, I’m not positive about flowers.

The Sri Lankan Sambola

What comes as a surprise is that the Sri Lankans also have their own version of banana flower sambal, which they call kesel muwa seeni sambol/sambola. In several recipes, banana flower is stir-fried with chilli and other ingredients like saffron powder and curry leaves. Now, if sambal (both the name and the condiment), as I boldly assume, is of Malay origin and is common only in Southeast Asia, the Sri Lankan’s rendition of this dish and the similar sounding “sambol” or “sambola” is a case for study.

When I Googled “sambola Tamil” to find out if “sambola” could be Tamil, one of the languages spoken in Sri Lanka, it brought me to an interesting discovery—a journal article that discusses the origins of many Ceylon (old name for Sri Lanka) dishes. A man named Louis Nell wrote an article titled “The Archeology of Ceylon Eurasian Gastronomy” to debunk a Dutch man’s earlier claim that dishes like tempradu with ghee and onion (soup mixed with onions cooked in ghee), empada (pie), and lateria (threadcakes) were of Dutch origin. Nell made a convincing argument that these foods were actually Portuguese, introduced to Ceylon when it was Portuguese colony, even before the Dutch arrived.

The Dutch man also tried to claim “sambola” as theirs, which led Nell to make the following argument:

Screenshot from The Orientalist Volume 2-3

Screenshot from The Orientalist Volume 2-3

Unfortunately Nell did not explain how “sambola” was “clearly Malayan,” or when and how the Dutch (or Portuguese, who also landed on Indonesia before the Dutch did) introduced sambal to the Ceylonese. The opposite could have happened. Sambal could have travelled from Ceylon to Southeast Asia through the colonists.

The Sri Lanka-Southeast Asia Food Connection

The etymology of sambal reveals, in The American Heritage Dictionary, that the word had came from sambhar, a Tamil word for a lentil-based broth, which in turn originated from the Sanskrit sambharayati. also traces back to the same Sanskrit word although the evolution took a different route, through the Marathi sabhar (a seasoning) and the Tamil campal (another seasoning). Sambharayati, according to both sources, means “causes to be brought together.” This makes sense if we think about how making sambal requires combining various ingredients.

Sanskrit was not only used in South Asia but also in most of Malay Peninsula and Indonesia during the Srivijaya dynasty. This means that the travel of sambal between Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka could have gone either way.

Of course, there is more that one can do to determine the “creators” of sambal, but it will be a meaningless pursuit. Most cuisines in the world have elements borrowed from somewhere else. While the study of food history reveals the interconnectedness of global cultures, an obsession to claim ownership of a certain food only draws divide. In the spirit of sambharayati, to bring together, I content myself with concluding at the sambal affinity between Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka.

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