A chat with Ruzaina Hadgie of The Minority Taste
It’s officially Christmas season! While Christmas is a time for giving, joy, and peace, it is also, for most of us, a time for food. Food is, of course, an integral part of Sri Lankan culture. Any gathering must have food, and we are blessed in that we have such a diverse cuisine to draw on for any occasion.
Part of what makes Sri Lankan food so great is the many, many influences it draws from, from the Portuguese influencing our famous dosi, to the many influences the Dutch have left on our island’s foodscape (lamprais or kokis anyone?), to the Malay dishes (baabath and pastoles to name a few) that have found a forever pathway into our nation’s stomach.
So what does a Sri Lankan Christmas look like in terms of food? The Sunday Morning Brunch chatted with Ruzaina Hadgie, the content creator behind The Minority Taste, to find out. Ruzaina, being half Roman Catholic and half Malay, is from two minorities herself. The sheer magnitude of Christmas globally, and even in Sri Lanka, often makes us forget that from a national perspective, Christmas is a minority holiday. However, its universality makes it a holiday that almost all Sri Lankans celebrate in one form or another.
Telling untold local food stories
Ruzaina’s connection to food began as a child when she was living with her grandmother who, according to Ruzaina, only knew to show love and affection through food. “I grew up eating culturally integrated food,” Ruzaina explained. “As a kid I was very interested in food, and whenever we travelled, the first thing I wanted would be to eat from street vendors, buy fresh fruits, and so on. My love for food is just in me. A lot of Malays are big eaters so maybe it’s just in my genes.”
As an adult, Ruzaina worked as an air hostess for over 10 years, including for VIP flights which took her to locations others would rarely visit and her love for food grew from sampling the cuisines from all these different locations. “While my colleagues would buy bags and shoes, I would mainly shop for food. I wanted to understand that country and culture, to understand its street food and experience culture via food,” she said.
Ruzaina’s journey as a food content creator began in 2017. After marrying and relocating to Abu Dhabi, Ruzaina saw many big-name chefs like Nigella Lawson visit Sri Lanka but was underwhelmed by the range of dishes these chefs were tasting. “It was very limited food given to them and they would always, in later interviews, go on to say that Sri Lankan food is very simple and humble. This is not to say that it isn’t, but beyond being simple and humble, Sri Lankan food is also complex, vast, and diverse. It’s a melting pot of different cultures and cuisines,” Ruzaina said. This was what inspired her to begin what would become The Minority Taste.
“I decided to be the voice and set up my Instagram to talk about the true diversity of Sri Lankan food,” Ruzaina explained. “I was in the UAE at the time, and, you know, anywhere in the world, we Sri Lankans are a minority because we’re such a small country. Every time I’d speak to expats, they had never tried Sri Lankan food, and when they did, they’d compare it to Kerala cuisine. Yes, there is a similarity in cuisines, (in fact, Sri Lanka even had Kerala kings during the time of Sigiriya and they would no doubt have influenced what we eat), but there are both technical and cultural differences that make Sri Lankan food unique.”
Ruzaina’s content began reaching international food bloggers, and soon some of the biggest bloggers in the world began reaching out to Ruzaina and even wanted to make the trip to Sri Lanka to eat the unusual dishes Ruzaina highlighted. And thus The Minority Taste carved an international name for itself.
What makes Sri Lankan Christmas special?
Christmas is a period of celebration, and so, food is integral to it. Of course, as Ruzaina pointed out, this year, Christmas is likely to be very different with so many people struggling because of the economic crisis, but food will still form an essential part of every Sri Lankan’s Christmas.
“When it comes to Christmas and Sri Lanka, every race has really embraced the holiday. Even Buddhists tend to celebrate Christmas [in a non-denominational way],” Ruzaina said. “Also because it’s towards the end of the year, everyone appreciates the season and the spirit of Christmas and has embraced it even though it’s a celebration for minorities. They don’t see it as just a Christian or Catholic celebration.”
But what makes a Christmas feast truly Sri Lankan? Of course, it varies, but when asked to name what is possibly the most unique Sri Lankan Christmas treat, Ruzaina named the national favourite love cake. “It is truly Sri Lankan; it’s fermented months ahead. My Catholic aunts who make it hunt for cashews in August because a lot of large cashews come in August.”
Some Sri Lankan delicacies that make appearances at Christmastime include a special version of aluwa in the Negombo area that comes with black pepper to make a sweet treat with a bit of bite. The other more traditional dishes that spring to mind when you think of Christmas all come from our various colonists over the last 500 years; Breudher, different breads, and the many cheeses that have sadly become true luxuries now.
But what other Christmastime dishes arrive on our tables that are unique to us? Interestingly, turkey, as Ruzaina shared with us. “Especially in Negombo and Mattakkuliya, there’s lots of turkey, and one dish that usually makes an appearance at Christmas in those areas, and also in other areas all around Sri Lanka, is turkey in a black pepper curry, or ‘kalukun cariya’. It’s quite surprising, but when doing tours over the last six years, I’ve come across turkey quite often in village areas and village rice and curry shops, but because it is available, people are not really interested in eating it.” This is, of course, in stark contrast to how we view turkey in the city, where it is seen as something exclusively imported and exceedingly expensive.
Another thing that makes the Sri Lankan Christmas is the unique mix of beverages we craft ourselves, from milk wine to ‘thambili’ wine to the many soft drinks we create to excite our friends, family, and guests.
Sri Lanka’s food goes beyond just festivity
Another interesting aspect of Brunch’s chat with Ruzaina was on food tourism. Tourism is, of course, the top watchword for Sri Lanka – one of its core industries and one of the chief ways in which we can make foreign income and boost the economy to make our way out of the rut we are in. Celebrating the diversity of Sri Lakan food outside the conventional Sri Lankan food offerings is one important way Ruzaina feels we can boost tourism.
“There is a big community around the globe that travels the world just for food. In 2018, when I did my first tour around Sri Lanka with Trevor James (known on YouTube as The Food Ranger), food tourism was unheard of in Sri Lanka. I approached a lot of people and told them that there was a food blogger visiting, but it was difficult to get people to understand it,” Ruzaina said.
“There is 1% of the world that travels just for food. This was something I understood when I lived in the UAE. Everyone has a resort there, and people sometimes travel there just for the food. It makes me wonder about getting them to Sri Lanka. Our location is absolutely stunning and has so much to offer, not just in terms of international cuisine, but our own local cuisine is also so delicious and diverse. We can offer that to the world.”
Interestingly, Ruzaina also shared that in the years since organising that first tour with The Food Ranger, the potential of food tourism had hit home and the Tourism Board had since reached out to food YouTubers and bloggers to showcase Sri Lanka. She hopes this will continue and that food tourism in Sri Lanka will continue to develop.
The Minority Taste and the global stage
Ruzaina is continuing with her vision to showcase the untold side of Sri Lankan cuisine. After the events of 2020, in 2021, she collaborated with Classic Travels to get up-and-coming food Youtuber, Jay Palfrey, a creator with a huge following from the Middle East, down to explore local cuisines.
Her most recent project was with Sonny from The Best Ever Food Review Show and it’s one she has embarked upon in the spirit of doing small things to benefit the country. Currently, Ruzaina has been requested to compile all her old traditional recipes. “I’m not sure if it’s because we’re getting absorbed into modern culture or if young people just aren’t preserving, but we are losing a lot of traditional recipes. Take turkey – already no one knows that there is an authentic local dish featuring turkey,” she explained. “I’m trying to protect all these main recipes and showcase them as well.”