World-first food history unearthed in Bendigo

Dr Dilhani Dissanayake was at Old Church on the Hill’s Feast of Stories event, listening to local Indian people speak of their culinary culture, when one of her Australian friends asked her, what is cinnamon? Is it a seed or fruit or flower?

 “I was shocked to hear my friend knew nothing about it, although it is tasted in many foods like donuts, cereals and curries,” Dr Dissanayake says.

Dr Dissanayake’s explanation to her friend inspired her to pursue a PhD at La Trobe, Bendigo, on the history of the cinnamon peelers.

It’s one of the latest research theses completed in Bendigo and the world’s only history on this important caste of people in Sri Lanka.

“I did a lot of digging and reading between the lines,” Dr Dissanayake says on unearthing their story, from 1796 to now.

“Cinnamon is Sri Lanka’s cultural identity and Sri Lankan cinnamon is the world’s best. It’s come to represent Sri Lankan culture and its peoples’ identity and cinnamon peelers were among the agents who expanded Sri Lankan culture beyond the island’s shores.

“Everyone uses cinnamon but not everyone knows exactly what cinnamon is or who the people are behind this extraordinary spice. The peeling process is really intensive and relies on local knowledge, expert skills, dexterity and patience. The skill level of the peelers makes the difference between the production of coarse or fine, and sweet or bitter cinnamon.

“No one talks about the hardships and the sacrifices the peelers make to get that product to market.”

The thesis explains the properties of cinnamon, how and where it grows, and the nature of the peeling process in pre-colonial and colonial times with a particular emphasis on the neglected figure of the cinnamon peeler.

Dr Dissanayake and her husband came to Bendigo so she could study a Master of Community Planning and Development at La Trobe seven years ago.

“I really didn’t know anything about Bendigo,” she says. “I selected to come here because of the course. We didn’t have any friends here, no relatives, and here we were in this strange climate. Now, I know lots of people, and I’m really glad we’re here. To be somewhere where the same people greet us every day, that makes it feel homely.”

Alongside her study Dr Dissanayake has taken part in many Loddon Campaspe Multicultural Services’ events, worked as a library champion, presenting to Bendigo’s Sri Lankan community, and volunteered with the Red Cross. And, five years ago, she and her husband welcomed their son.

When her baby was six months old, Dr Dissanayake began her PhD, and the two became a familiar sight together on campus.

“He’s grown up around my research and now he’s a smart boy,” she laughs. “He’s very intelligent. He says he wants to be a teacher who teachers the scientists.”

Dr Dissanayake says being in Bendigo proved no barrier to researching a Sri Lankan history.

She credits the document delivery service and database at the La Trobe library for giving her access to any texts she needed, including books she couldn’t have accessed in Sri Lanka, British parliamentary papers, travelogues and periodicals.

However, the story really fell into place for her when she travelled back home to meet the current-day cinnamon peelers, to spend time in a cinnamon garden and experience the production process. To interview the peelers and plantation owners so she could write about their lives.

Dr Dissanayake also acknowledges the support of her family for her achievement. “I really want to give my regards to my husband because without him we wouldn’t be here,” she says.

“He sacrificed a lot for me to be here and he helped me a lot. I would like to give my kind regards to my parents, husband’s aunty, my supervisory team, La Trobe university, La Trobe international, Australian and my Sri Lankan friends.”

Dr Dissanayake says she now wishes to share her knowledge with others around the world, which is already happening from her home in Bendigo.

This month she presented online as part of two international social science and humanities conferences.

“Sometimes a pandemic can be a good thing,” she says on the opportunity to take part without having to travel. “There’s certainly been silver linings to the black cloud. And I now look forward to publishing my thesis as a book.”

Dr Dissanayake was recently at a La Trobe postgraduate retreat, waiting to give her presentation, when a colleagues asked if a cinnamon peeler was like a vegetable peeler or grater.

“After my presentation, I explained that a cinnamon peeler is actually a person and not a tool,” she says. “Recognising the human dimension of cinnamon production has been absolutely central to this project.”

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