HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS
SULTAN NAZRIN MUIZZUDDIN SHAH
AT THE LAUNCH OF
‘THEY CAME FROM JAFFNA : A HISTORICAL CULINARY JOURNEY AND ENCHANTING TALE OF ROOTS, ROUTES AND VIVID MEMOIRES, AS TOLD BY A PIONEER’S GRANDDAUGHTER’
DATE: THURSDAY, 25 AUGUST 2022; TIME: 10.50 AM
VENUE: DEWAN TUNKU CANSELOR
UNIVERSITY OF MALAYA, KUALA LUMPUR.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
- To write any book is not an easy task. But to produce a beautifully-illustrated one of over 500 pages in length, and with over 300 recipes, can be considered an outstanding achievement. I want to congratulate Mrs Iswaran for this, and for the contribution that her book makes to both Jaffna Tamil and Malaysian culture.
- The author draws on a diverse range of sources for inspiration and information. These include what she calls ‘oral narratives’; as well as ‘researching from history, archeology and anthropology’; and not to forget the all-important ‘recipes that have been passed down through generations.’ She weaves these various strands together most effectively. Insightful tales of personal and national history are brought to life in the many evocative photographs and drawings. And all through the book can be found the detailed instructions on how to recreate the delicious-looking food that is pictured. These elements all combine to produce a truly unique and very special volume.
- I found the personal accounts that are related throughout the book to be particularly engaging. These are intimate tales of marriage, migration, family and friends, based loosely on the memories of the author’s own relatives. Although they are imaginary reconstructions, they vividly convey some of the most important events and trends in our history, from migration during colonial times, to the Second World War and Japanese occupation.
- Through these means, we can see how people lived in Jaffna at the time her forebears set out from there, destined for northern Malaya. The small details and the vibrant illustrations invoke the Jaffna of those days far more effectively than some dry historical account. So we learn about everything from how local products were processed, to how the dowry system served to protect the Jaffna daughters being married to migrants headed for far-away places. As an economic historian, I particularly appreciated the many interesting historical insights that the book contains.
- These historical nuggets are accompanied, of course, by the culinary ones, found in the numerous recipes contained in the book. There are recipes for sumptuous marriage feasts; for strictly vegetarian religious festivals and funerals; and for far more modest dishes intended for more mundane occasions. There are even instructions for the preparation of tapioca and millet, humble ingredients which helped to sustain people during the difficult times of the war and Emergency. Many of these dishes are endowed with rich cultural meaning. They represent a core element of Jaffna Tamil heritage, which has been nurtured, protected and carefully passed down, no matter how far from Jaffna its original inhabitants have travelled.
- It is this food itself that ultimately brings the past to life so vividly. The photos of the dishes and feasts, and the lists of their ingredients, take us right back to those days. Back to the remembered smells and tastes of childhood dishes and old favourites, and even the less preferred ones as well! These dishes then conjure up their own memories, of places and times; of the people who made them; and of the people with whom they were shared. These memories strongly convey the inter-mingling and blending that is so apparent in our unique ‘rojak’ food culture.
- As Malaysians, we pride ourselves on our rich and varied culinary landscape. We equally enjoy sampling this choice array whenever possible. To say we love food is an understatement! This shared love of food is one of the things that brings us together as Malaysians. It is a special part of our national identity. One reason I appreciate this book is because it encapsulates both the cultural authenticity of one particular community, as well as the fusing of this specific culinary heritage with other local and international influences.
- The author’s own life, and that of her family, also reflect the way in which our shared heritage and culture continues to mix and evolve. The book effectively captures this aspect as well. And as many of you know, Mrs Iswaran’s own endeavors, and her contributions to her community’s culture, go well beyond food. They include her other publications, productions, and temple conservation activities, as well as her leadership roles.
- This service forms part of the broader pattern found in her community of punching above their weight, both here and in Singapore. The Jaffna, or Ceylon, Tamils have contributed in multiple and significant ways to the development of both nations since their migration to this part of the world in the late nineteenth century. Traveling by rail back in the old days, one would have encountered many Ceylon Tamil stationmasters. Many of the chief clerks in government offices and business agencies also came from this community. They could be found in the postal service, in public works departments, and managing plantations. Many Ceylon Tamils also became teachers, reflecting their sound grasp of the English language.
- Today as before, Jaffna Tamils play important roles in every facet of our society. They continue to produce influential and impactful professionals in fields from medicine, education and engineering, to politics, the civil service and the law. They continue to engage with culture and heritage – in music, in dance, in movies, and in the culinary arts such as with this book. These contributions are an integral component of the multi-cultural nature of Malaysia that we all cherish.
- As we celebrate this community today with the launch of this book, I also want to acknowledge the Sri Lanka Endowment Fund, based in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Malaya. As one of the oldest endowment funds at the university, the fund has grown from strength to strength. Since its establishment in 1950, it has supported many scholarly activities. These engage with Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan community, as well as with the broader Indian community in Malaysia and across the region. Today’s book launch is yet another milestone in the Fund’s long history. I want to commend the committee that administers the fund for their achievements thus far, and I look forward to more activities in the future.
Ladies and gentlemen,
- This unique book manages to engage all the senses – from the intellectual reward of the historical details it contains; to the aesthetic pleasure gained from the beautiful illustrations and photos; to the remembered and imagined smells and tastes that are conjured up by all the detailed recipes. For me as a historian, this interweaving of images, voices, and tastes from the past provides a very special window into those long-ago times. At the same time, I am very much looking forward to trying out the recipes for some of my own favourite dishes that are found in the book.
- I want to heartily congratulate Mrs. Iswaran for the wonderful book she has produced, and strongly recommend this book to all. Enjoy it for the history and the culture it contains, and above all, enjoy some of the delicious-looking Jaffna Tamil, and Malaysian food, that it showcases. And on that note, it gives me great pleasure to launch this wonderfully entertaining and enlightening book, ‘They came from Jaffna’, by Mrs. Indra R. L. Iswaran.