My first memory of kiribath goes back to 2013 New Year celebrations in Sri Lanka. Not the kind of New Year you greet on the night of 31st of December with a glass of champagne and fireworks, but the kind you welcome on 13th of April with rice, deep fried pastries and a fire pit in the middle of the living room – Sinhalese and Tamil New Year.
It couldn’t be the first time I had kiribath – I’ve already spent a year in Sri Lanka by 2013. But for some reason, I have no recollection of having milk rice prior to that moment. Probably, because you remember food better when somebody puts it in your mouth while you have to stand in the direction of North at 6 am in the morning. I will return to this memory later on.
Kiribath, or traditional milk rice, is prepared for all special occasions in Sri Lanka like birthdays, weddings, New Year, or moving into a new house. Wikipedia suggests that Sri Lankans also make it on the first day of every month, which is not true. Maybe it was done decades ago and maybe you could find somebody who still does it, but it’s definitely not common.
Kiribath is also the first meal babies have when they transition from breast milk to solid food at the age of 6 months. I have to explain this one, since when I heard it first, my jaw dropped: “Whaaaaat? 6-months-old babies eat rice?” They don’t really. It’s more of a ritual when kiribath is prepared for family and friends who gather to celebrate this transition. The baby gets only one symbolic grain of rice.
The reason why this dish is prepared for every special occasion is that rice and coconut milk, being the main ingredients of Sri Lankan cuisine, symbolize prosperity. Since my mother-in-law is visiting us from Sri Lanka, we are making kiribath for breakfast today!
Preparation starts with choosing the right type of rice. The one you need is called samba kekulu which can be white or red. Choosing one or another only depends on your personal preferences. Since we are preparing kiribath in the heart of Texas – Austin, and not in Sri Lanka, the best I could get here was basmathi rice. It’s not usually used for kiribath, but it works quite well if you don’t have other options.
In my humble opinion, bamathi is even better. Why? Because samba rice has a very strong and not the most pleasant smell. Unaware of this little detail, the first time I cooked samba rice in Colombo I couldn’t stop circling the kitchen trying to place the smell that appeared out of nowhere. Until I realized it’s the rice on the stove. People would tell me the smell disappears once the rice is done. It doesn’t. So basmathi it is!
Interesting thing about cooking rice in Sri Lanka is how you measure ingredients. In USA you would use cups, in European countries – grams and milliliters, but in Sri Lanka you use fingers. Rice is simply poured into a pan, then water is added. If you insert your index finger into a pan and touch the top of rice, water shouldn’t be higher than the first phalange of your finger (if you cook samba rice). And only as high as half of the first phalange if you cook basmathi.
Coconut milk is added at the last stage, when rice is almost ready. Rice in Sinahlese language is bath and milk is kiri, hence the name kiribath. Coconut milk is extracted from a scraped coconut by squeezing the flesh (coconut milk is NOT the water inside coconut as I thought before coming to Sri Lanka). Once again using my location as excuse – breaking and scraping a coconut in Austin’s apartment would be messy – we prepare rice with canned coconut milk. The right consistency is a bit tricky to achieve. It should be moist and sticky enough to form a block.
Then comes the most surprising part: cutting rice into pieces. It would never occur to me to cut grains with a knife but the mixture is so sticky, it really looks more like a cake than porridge: you can pick up a piece with your fingers.
Eating kiribath with a spicy onion paste is another revelation. Milk rice, in my culture, calls for something sweet like honey and berries. That’s exactly how my mother would serve it when I was little (milk rice would mean addition of cow milk, though, not coconut milk). But the most popular accompaniment for kiribath in Sri Lanka is lunu miris – a paste made of red onions, mixed with chili flakes, Maldive fish (dried fish), salt and lime.
Although very popular, lunu miris is not the only option to go hand in hand with kiribath. Another spicy relish made of onions – seeni sambol – is often served with it, too. You can always make it sweet, too, by adding honey, kithul treacle or jaggery.
I personally prefer it sweet, with kithul treacle. That’s exactly how I had it during that New Year in 2013. But before we sat at the New Year table, each family member had a bite of kiribath offered by the head of the family. You have to make the first bite at certain time and facing a certain direction, appointed by astrologist. The time was 6 am; I was sleepy and with no idea what’s going on, but dutifully followed all the instructions.
Kiribath since then is a staple on my table, too, during Sri Lankan celebrations. I use basmathi rice instead of samba and canned coconut milk instead of actual coconut. It’s not the most authentic version, but definitely delicious.
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AUTHOR: YULIA DYUKOVA
Yulia is a Russian food and travel blogger who found home first in Sri Lanka for 3 years, then in Brazil for a year and is currently based in Austin, Texas. She is the kind of person who starts a research of the new country by googling “what to eat in…” instead of “what to visit in…” Yulia is a self-proclaimed “food nerd” who will spend hours reading on the origins of pecan pie before trying it and who doesn’t consider waiting in line of 50 people to get a cronut a waste of time. She finds it hard to keep her delicious findings to herself and that is the reason why this blog exists.