Telling the Sri Lankan story through food: In conversation with food blogger and recipe developer Jayani Senanayake
By Senashia Ekanayake
How did you get started with food blogging?
Well, it all started within a love triangle of words, food and photography. Before I was a food blogger, I was a poet, in love with the wildest stories and pretty, pretty words. I still am, before anything else, a writer and a poet. I published my first collection of poetry in 2012 and continue being published in anthologies and journals both locally and internationally while working on a few personal writing projects as well, the latest being the novel that I’m working on right now and a collection of short stories.
I also happen to come from a long line of instinctive cooks, so a love for food and cooking was instilled in me at a very young age. So what started as my way of keeping a record of my recipes and the stories I had to tell about the food that I’m making and the food that I’m fond of turned into what is known as food blogging now.
Mind you, there was no such thing as “food blogging” in Sri Lanka when I began about seven years ago. Let’s just say that it’s been somewhat of an uphill battle and I am proud of where I am today, especially while working a full-time job and managing my passions, cooking, blogging and writing.
What is your perspective on the Sri Lanka food scene?
Food will never go out of style, no matter where you are in the world, no matter how hard life will get. The food scene in Sri Lanka is thriving, and being a foodie, I’m so happy to see so many local and international food options popping up, giving customers a large variety to choose from. It is also refreshing to see local brands making use of local produce, imagining and re-imagining local themes, retelling Sri Lankan stories via food and putting those Sri Lankan elements to work. It has been my absolute pleasure working with a few of those brands as well of which the ethos I truly admire to which I have readily contributed. A lot has been achieved on this front in Sri Lanka today, but there is always potential to grow.
But it is heart-wrenching to see how many local food businesses have closed down due to the shortages in the market today. Sri Lankan food was only just making waves on the international food scene and Sri Lanka was just starting to lift its head after the pandemic when the financial crisis hit. I’ve seen many of my favourite restaurants announcing their closure due to the lack of resources and it has been heartbreaking to watch. But we are a resilient nation and I see a lot of brands coming up with creative means to overcome the challenges. There is hope for our nation yet!
How does Sri Lanka’s food culture compare to other countries that you have travelled to?
There is so much room for improvement when compared internationally, that’s for sure. For instance, for a country with soil so rich that anything blooms where you plant it, we are shamefully short of good, fresh local fruits, vegetables and greens. Whatever is available is doused in chemicals and pesticides that the product is not safe to eat. This is due to the lack of a proper system to regulate the quality of consumables here in Sri Lanka. Also when looking at our South Asian neighbours, they have embraced their culture and food habits and proudly flaunt it to the outside world. We have a lot to learn and improve when it comes to bringing forth our food, getting creative with the local produce and infusing our “Sri Lankanness”, our stories and culture into them.
Food has to tell a story and I find that this is something that we grossly neglect when marketing Sri Lankan food, even though we Sri Lankans are master storytellers with a wealth of substance that we are not talking about. Sri Lankan food is not just hoppers and kottu and it’s time that the world got to know that.
What do you think are some of the key elements holding the local food industry back?
I think we don’t focus enough on local produce and our heritage in general. Sri Lanka is naturally blessed with so many varieties of beautiful legumes, fruits and vegetables. Sri Lanka rates among the highest in biodiversity so its variety of edible flora is astounding, and it’s time that we got creative with them.
As a recipe creator and food blogger I always try to focus on the local produce whenever I am working with my clients and trying to give my audience easily attainable local ingredients when creating recipes. There is a lack of knowledge on the preparation of local produce and I think by creating enough awareness of these elements, the industry can significantly cut costs that they are currently spending on imported ingredients. I believe we need to employ our rich imaginations in all aspects of life, including food preparation, coupled together with knowledge about the ingredients and preserving their nutrition of course.
Do you think there is scope to see Sri Lankna food become a key component in the tourism sector?
I firmly believe that Sri Lankan food is very capable of stealing the spotlight in Sri Lankan tourism in the future. Sri Lankan food and our culture, in general, lean largely towards veganism and with the world cuisine leaning more and more towards veganism as well, there is a lot of potential to be explored here. Not only that, how the food is prepared in Sri Lanka – little elements like coupling a little grated coconut with your leafy greens to aid digestion, adding that bit of moringa leaves to your prawns and crab curries to balance out the heating element in the seafood, adding coconut milk to help fast absorption of nutrients in your herbal broth – is largely based on ancient Sri Lankan ayurvedic practices designed to keep one healthy. Coupled together with Sri Lanka emerging as a retreat destination, I believe Sri Lankan food has the potential to put Sri Lanka on the map in a significant way.
What are your thoughts on food blogging and the rise of social media influencers?
The scope of food blogging is a vast one – from knowledge about the quality of the ingredients used, the cooking methods, the nutritional value of the food, the cultural elements and the presentation of the food itself, the facets to focus on are countless. And this knowledge cannot be obtained overnight. You need to have your research and experimentation in place and a lot of effort goes into this. It is never as simple as looking pretty for a photograph with a plate of food in front of you!
But I am sad to say, there is a general perception that food reviewing is only about sitting at a restaurant and commenting on what is served superficially. Just because you have a great camera and state-of-the-art editing equipment does not make you a food blogger or reviewer. You need to be equipped with sufficient knowledge and experience to go with it. I firmly believe that if you are to emerge as an “influencer” or a blogger, you have the social responsibility of spreading the right message because the public looks up to you as a source of information and inspiration. And this can only be done if you are armed with the right knowledge to become a thought leader.
Nobody can be a jack-of-all-trades, you need to have your niche defined which allows you to be a specialist in that specific field. We see a lot of brands reaching out to influencers who specialise in different fields than their industry, solely based on the number of followers they have. When this happens, these influencers are not equipped to portray the brand in the light in which it needs to be portrayed.
They cannot talk about what matters in a brand simply because they do not know and also, their followers are not people who follow these influencers for their knowledge and insight on their industry. Brands need to understand that this limits their scope and question whether their investment is truly worth it when this happens because their investment needs to ultimately result in a sales conversion and mismatched brand collaborations, the conversion rates can be disappointing. And as “influencers” we have a responsibility to not take up assignments that do not deal with our areas of expertise nor go hand in hand with our brand integrity.
We have a responsibility to deliver the maximum value to the investment that our clients make in us. Only then you would be valued as a personal brand with integrity in the long term of things. Both influencers and brands need to understand that you are not defined by the number of followers you have, but by the integrity of your brand, the knowledge that you impart as a thought leader in your field and the value addition that you as an influencer add to a brand when you are employed by them.