Effects of inflation are reflected in a Kevum, the traditional oil cake, literally. In the 1980s the people of Duva, a village off Kiribathgoda in Kelaniya, made sweetmeats to sell to the well-to-do of Colombo’s folks. A single Kevum was sold for as little as 30 cents and today Duwa villagers can fetch Rs. 20 for each of them.
No Sinhala Avurudu ceremonial table is complete without Kavum which has been deemed worthy of mention in 13th Century Buddhist texts such as Saddharma Ratnawaliya and Pujawaliya.
The Dhathuwansaya mentions 18 varieties of Kevum, including Mung Kevum, Hendi Kevum, Ulundu Kevum, Uthupu and Narang Kevum. Robert Knox, the British sea-farer who was imprisoned in Kandy for 19 years, termed it ‘a sweetmeat fit for a king’, implying that the palace placed special orders for sweetmeats such as Kevum.
When king Rajasinghe II presented this delicacy to the Dutch, they mistook it for a fruit.
Forty-five-year-old, PD Indrani of Nathuduwa, Kelaniya wakes up at 3 am in the morning during the Avurudu season to make sweetmeats. She has been in the business for 15 years. When the Nation met her, Indrani was making 150 Konda Kevums for a school programme. Konda Kevum is often considered the queen of Kevum.
“Some Avurudu programmes like the ones held at school always start early before school vacation”, says Indrani. “Some make early orders, just before the Avurudu season to be sent overseas.”
She said that there is a high demand for sweetmeats just before January 1 and even Christmas as well.
She learned the ropes while watching the women of Duva while she lived in the village as a kid. “Even my mother didn’t know how to make Kavum and Kokis,” recalled Indrani.
She learned to make Welithalapa, Halva, Helapa and of course Kevum and Kokis. Her Kevum melts like butter in the mouth. She gets the perfect Kevum mix, mixing rice flour, wheat flour, coconut treacle and sugar. She lets the mixture rest for an hour. Then she tests the consistency while making the Kavum depending on their mouldability and taste.
“It’s a changing lifestyle,” points out Indrani. “Women from well-to-do families are too lazy to make sweetmeats at home these days. Some women want to give it a try even if it doesn’t go quite as they expect it to.”
During the Avurudu season she wraps up around 9 pm and admits that it’s a tedious job and didn’t want her two daughters to take up the trade. “I don’t want my daughters to suffer like I do. It’s not an easy thing to do,” says Indrani.
In fact, it felt like a hundred degrees outside and even hotter near the gas cooker where Indrani was frying her Kokis, a crisp snack, as she spoke. Both her daughters are taking beauty culture courses.
Elsewhere at the age of eight HG Deepika learned the trade from her mother DD Somawathie, who learned it from other villagers in Duva, their home village, where they reside. “People here have been making sweetmeats ever since I could remember,” says the senior member of the family DD Somawathie now aged 75. “Only a few bought Kavum those days,” Somawathie recalled.
“In 1981 a Kevum went for 30 cents, then 60, one rupee and now for as much as Rs 20,” reveals HG Saman. “We used to deliver sweetmeats to high profile actresses in Maligawatta flats back in the day.”
The family is commissioned by caterers who supply sweetmeats to leading five star hotels in Colombo according to Deepika as she twirled the Ekel Skewer (stick) to coax the perfect Konde into the Kevum for a perfect mound.
Pics by Mayantha Perera