(The sixth article in a series exploring the journey of a Sri Lankan immigrant teen to NZ)

After we arrived home from the Wellington airport, I sat and stared for a moment in awe. My dream of going overseas had come true. It was a feeling of elation entangled with fear of the unknown. My father said, “you must be hungry, let me get you something unique to New Zealand”. Off he went to the local takeaway. This was the first encounter with one of NZ’s staple meals, fish and chips. As I bit into my first battered fish, I realised that NZ cuisine was drastically different. The intense flavour explosion of Sri Lankan five spice was replaced with the delicate flavour of the fish. I was intrigued by this new cuisine.

Another contrasting factor between Sri Lanka and Aotearoa is the quantity of food consumed. In Sri Lanka, a whole chicken would last a few meals for an average family. In NZ, a whole chicken would get us through a single meal. It was a novel concept to consume less rice and more side dishes. As I grew up, I realised that overconsumption was a hallmark of a first-world nation. My parents loved to entertain guests for dinner. It was a way to share their lives and connect with the community. Hence, sharing and enjoying great Sri Lankan meals with our family friends was a crucial part of my teen years. Perhaps this influence on my upbringing is the primary reason I am still excited to have guests for dinner.

A distinct memory in my early NZ food journey was standing in line at the Hutt Valley High School canteen. It was the first day I had been given money to buy lunch. I did not know what to ask. The menu was foreign and a challenge to decipher. I was unfamiliar with pies and paninis on offer. With ten dollars in hand, it was not worth risking it on an unknown dish. As I glanced across the canteen menu lost for ideas, sausage roles caught my gaze. In Sri Lanka, hot dogs are sausage rolls. I recall how my heart sank when I was handed a roll with a flaky pastry in a packet. Over the years, sausage rolls did come to the rescue of my grumbling stomach when I am starving. The first few months of buying food at the canteen were exciting as I discovered the gooey centre of pies and the sweet flavour of jam and cream buns.

Self-image rules the mind of most teens. Simple rules apply as you stand out from the crowd by “looking good, smelling good, and talking good”. The continuous spraying of Lynx and other deodorants are a central survival tool in the life of most Kiwi teenage boys as they transition through a minefield of physical changes. As an immigrant, opening a lunch box dowsed in Sri Lankan fives spice, and letting your classmates bask in its complex aroma was not a ticket to fitting in. It was important not to choose food for lunch that told others, “curry got you going on the inside and out”. As I grew up and the relentless self-consciousness veined, opening a lunch box of good warmed up curry has become a more joyous occasion. With the diversity of international food available in New Zealand expanding rapidly, most people are curious about the mouth-watering scent of Sri Lankan cooking. Necessary to not here, I do not condone having a lunch consisting of biological weapons-grade Bombili Karola (a type of dried fish) in any crowd even if they are fellow Lankans.

Food is a lubricant that brings together the family around the world. As everyone gathers around the dinner table, conversation flows and a bond forms that may be amiss at other times. As one of three children, eating together provided an opportunity to share stories and connect at a deeper level. The dinner conversation was further aided by the diversity of Sri Lankan cuisine. To this day, great food and good conversation provide me with boundless joy. Hoppers, kottu roti, dhal (parippu) curry with bread, Wambatu moju (eggplant pickle), polos (jackfruit), chicken curry, lamprais, fish ambul thiyal (sour fish curry), string hoppers, kiribath (milk rice) with lunumiris (chilli and onion sambol), gotu kola sambol, pol (coconut) sambol are some of the foods central to a Sri Lankan diet. These dishes are complemented by the incredible diversity of tropical fruit, drinks, and desserts. During the first few years in NZ, I missed Sri Lankan food. Fortunately, my Amma’s (mother) incredible cooking skills softened the blow.

With time I adjusted to the less bold cuisine of New Zealand. Where Sri Lankan food strives to modify the flavour of vegetables and meat, Kiwi food attempts to accentuate ingredients’ natural flavour. Savoury dishes in NZ include lamb, fish and chips, green-lipped mussels, Bluff oysters, cod, savoury pies, whitebait fritters, kumara, Kiwi burgers, NZ salmon, snapper, scallops, crayfish, and NZ cheeses such as NZ blue, brie, and camembert. The food is complemented by drinks such as Lewis road creamery chocolate milk, L & P, and Raro powdered drinks. Pavlovas, jaffas, hokey pokey ice cream, manuka honey, chocolate fish, Anzac biscuits, Whittaker’s chocolate, Pascall pineapple lumps, Cookie time cookies, Pascall milk bottles, lolly cake, Afghan biscuits, and Griffin’s biscuits, satisfies the sweet cravings.

In both Sri Lanka and New Zealand, enjoying food together is central to life. A family gathering around a Sri Lankan new year table is not different in principle to a Christmas family barbeque in NZ. Occasions for bonding and sharing, rely heavily on good food to provide a glue that unites everyone. This unity is critical to the health and wellbeing throughout our lives. In the next article, I will explore some of the tools I utilised for my mental wellbeing as I continued the journey to find my place in the land of the long white cloud.

Dr. Nehan Ruwantha Munasinghe (University of Sydney).