Eating kiri bath for Sinhalese new year is the auspicious ritual I never skip — here's how to make it
You can enjoy Ruwanmali Samarakoon-Amunugama’s recipe for this milky rice on important days, or any day
In Sri Lanka, India and elsewhere, Sinhalese and Tamil people celebrate the new year around April 13-14; the exact day is determined by astrologers in accordance with the zodiac. And if you partake in the holiday, you may know that the date is only one of several pronouncements to come. Once calculations are made, we'll be advised of the most auspicious times to stop work in the outgoing year and resume it in the next, to cook and more, as well as an auspicious colour to wear and a direction to face while doing things.
I've never been good at sticking to the right times or procuring a new light-blue outfit to wear, as the case may be. Yet I stick to one cultural requirement for Sinhalese people: I always enjoy kiri bath on the first day of the new year. The savoury, milk-steeped rice is a must on this day — and birthdays and other important days, too — with rice and milk being symbols of prosperity. What happens if I don't eat it on New Year's Day is just not something I've ever wanted to find out. Somehow, even though I devour the delicacy when it's in front of me and it's not at all laborious to make, it seems relegated to those special days in my life, and I never eat it at other times of the year.
It's much the same for Ruwanmali Samarakoon-Amunugama, author of the Sri Lankan cookbook Milk, Spice and Curry Leaves, who mostly enjoys kiri bath on New Year's Day. "Growing up [in Sri Lanka], we observed the boiling of milk at the stroke of midnight," she said. "My mother would fill a pot — clay or otherwise — with milk, and we children would watch the hot milk bubble and spill over the brim of the pot, a sign that signalled prosperity and abundance for the new year." It's something she still does in Canada with her family today.
Of course in Sri Lanka, the celebrations have an even more special air: "There would be more sweet and savoury foods to eat … and a host of lively activities and games with young and old in celebration," she said. "In current times, many families are still finding it different and economically hard. But the old rituals that mark the ancient astrological significance will be observed."
Since I observe only one aspect, I can take the idea of auspiciousness too far. Sometimes I wonder if I'm wearing a very wrong colour while cooking kiri bath if I've forgotten to look it up. Then I worry that it's probably not auspicious to wonder about inauspiciousness while stirring a pot of auspicious food. Will eating kiri bath be enough to set me up for a good year ahead? Who can be sure?
What I am sure of is there's never a bad reason, or any reason needed, to make Samarakoon-Amunugama's kiri bath recipe below. Enjoy it whether or not you celebrate Sinhalese or Tamil new year. And to everyone celebrating, I wish you the most auspicious days ahead.
Kiri Bath (Milk Rice)
Recipe by Ruwanmali Samarakoon-Amunugama
This simple dish has strong cultural significance and is mostly reserved for special occasions, and in particular, for Sinhalese New Year's Day, on April 14. Served at breakfast time, it is a symbol for abundance, prosperity, harvest, and good fortune. My grandmother's milk rice was prepared in a clay pot (muttiya) over an open hearth with red rice and fresh coconut milk. The kernel of the coconut would be scraped and then pressed for several extracts of milk, with the first extract being the thickest and the following extracts being increasingly thinner. The rice would be cooked first with the thin milk and finished with the first press of thick milk.
In Sri Lanka, a short-grain red rice (kakulu hal) is typically used for the preparation of milk rice. Kakulu rice is unmilled rice. For this recipe, I suggest using jasmine rice for its naturally sticky texture and faster cooking time. Milk rice is often served with relish-style accompaniments — for example, lunu miris sambol, and seeni sambol — or with beef curry and pol sambol. And if you are able to acquire them, milk rice is also often eaten simply with sweet treacle (palm tree syrup) or jaggery (unrefined palm tree sugar) and a side plate of baby (sugar) bananas (seeni kesel).
- 2 cups jasmine rice
- 1½ tsp salt, or to taste
- 1 cup coconut milk
Note: Use jasmine rice, which already has a sticky texture when cooked.
Wash the rice and place it in a large pot. Start with adding 3 cups water and the salt. Place the pot of rice over medium-high heat and bring the rice, uncovered, to a boil. Turn down the heat to medium-low and let cook, covered, stirring occasionally, until the rice grains are cooked completely through. To test for doneness, try biting a grain of rice; it should not be mushy but rather firm and cooked through. Add water if needed.
Once the rice is cooked, and the water is gone, turn down the heat to low and add the coconut milk and additional salt (if needed) to the rice and stir gently with a wooden spoon to combine. Let cook until the milk is completely absorbed, about 10 minutes. The milk rice should be the consistency of thick porridge.
Pour out the milk rice in the centre of a large round or oval serving dish. It should almost fall out of the pot in one lump. Spread and smooth the rice into a round or oval (match the shape of the dish you're using) using the back of a broad spoon (or spatula), about an inch from the edge of the dish. Smooth the edges of the milk rice.
Using a sharp knife, neatly cut criss-cross lines across the rice to create a diamond pattern. Serve with suggested accompaniments.
Lunu Miris Sambol (Onion Chili Sambol)
A common relish-like accompaniment to milk rice, lunu miris translates literally as "onion chili" and gets its bite from the raw red onion, dried red chili, and the generous addition of salt. The addition of Maldives fish is common in Sri Lanka, but optional. Traditionally, all ingredients are ground together using a grinding stone to create a paste-like consistency. Alternatively, finely dicing the ingredients and then combining them in a bowl with a spoon also provides a pleasing and crunchy texture.
- 1 Tbsp crushed dried chili pepper flakes or 1 tsp cayenne powder + 1 tsp paprika
- 1 tsp fine sea salt
- 1–2 Tbsp lime juice
- 1½ tsp dried Maldives fish (optional)
If you are using a mortar and pestle, pound all the ingredients together to almost a paste-like consistency.
If you are cutting by hand, finely chop the red onion. Put the onion into a bowl, add all the other ingredients, and combine with a spoon.
If you are using a chopper, pulse everything to achieve a very fine but not wet texture.
Pol Sambol (Coconut Sambol)
I recall my father being in the kitchen and preparing a large bowl of his freshly scraped coconut sambol — his sleeves rolled up, and his hands working away at making sure that all the ingredients and the coconut were well combined, sprinkling in the chili and the Maldives fish. A final squeeze of lime would finish the dish.
Coconut sambol is one of my favourite Sri Lankan treats, although it is really a side dish for main grains such as string hoppers, hoppers, coconut roti, and milk rice. Coconut sambol is a striking dish because of its orange hue — a result of the addition of cayenne and/or paprika.
- 2 cups finely scraped coconut (either fresh, frozen, or desiccated)
- ½ small red onion, peeled and finely chopped
- 2 tsp cayenne powder
- 2 Tbsp paprika
- 1 tsp dried Maldives fish, ground, or to taste (optional)
- 1 tsp fine sea salt, or to taste
- 2 Tbsp lime juice, or to taste
Place the coconut, onion, cayenne, paprika, Maldives fish (if using), and salt in a large bowl. Using your hands, mix all the ingredients together to ensure all of the coconut is coated. Taste and adjust the salt. Add the lime juice over everything, mix again to combine, and taste, adding more lime juice if preferred. Serve fresh.
All recipes by Ruwanmali Samarakoon-Amunugama, from Milk, Spice and Curry Leaves, copyright © 2020 by Ruwanmali Samarakoon-Amunugama. Reprinted with permission of TouchWood Editions.
Yasmin Seneviratne is a producer at CBC Life and the creator of Le Sauce Magazine.