Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeSpecial Issues: from thematic wor...S17Bath packets and multiple Colombo(s)

Bath packets and multiple Colombo(s)

Food and gendered urban experience
Paquets de riz et les multiples Colombo(s) : nourriture et expérience urbaine genrée
Nipesh Palat Narayanan


Rice is a staple in Sri Lanka and is often eaten with three or more condiments. This article explores the modes in which this staple transforms itself when it becomes a packaged commodity of ‘rice and curry’ (called “bath packets”) in Colombo. Tracing the bath packets, I build an intertwined narrative, of: (i) gender performativity and perception in making, selling, and buying of bath packets, and (ii) the implicit socio-economic codes and urban imaginations therein. Conceptually, the bath packet and people involved with it are not analysed as merely operating in the urban, but the urban is read as a co-constituent in creating food as a socio-cultural construct. The article engages with urban knowledge production, its appropriation, legitimization, conflict, and subversion, via the socio-cultural constructs, gendered relations, and environmental processes around food.

Top of page

Full text

I would like to thank Samantha Wickramasinghe for his help during fieldwork as well as Asanka Senadeera and Susith Siriwardhana for their assistance during qualitative surveys. I am grateful to Benjamin Hildred for numerous discussions in developing the conceptual contours of multiple Colombo(s). I would also like to thank Malith de Silva for discussions on food in Colombo and Nishara Fernando for his support. Audrey Soula as the special issue coordinator has been very supportive throughout the process. The paper has benefitted from comments on an earlier draft by Natasha Cornea, Thomas Widger, Bob Simpson, Benjamin Hildred, and Vindhya Buthpitiya.

Research for this paper has been funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, Grant number 181271.


1Bath is a Sinhala term for cooked rice, which is a staple in Sri Lanka. Accompanied by condiments (usually clubbed under the anglicised term ‘curry’) rice is often eaten for all the three meals. For this article, I investigate only the lunch practices via a very specific form of parcelled rice-and-curry, locally called the “bath packets” (see Figure 1 & 2). The bath packets are prepared by eateries, households, contractors and sold either in-house or via vendors. These bath packets arrive in various shops, eateries, and on the streets of Colombo from around 11:00 AM and are sold until 3:00 PM.

Bath Packet, in a paper box

Bath Packet, in a paper box

Figure 1: A typical bath packet in paper box. Note that the banana-leaf lining is not used by all producers.

Credit: Author

  • 1 Rice and curry in various formats (including packets) are also part of the culinary practices of va (...)

2Bath packets have been part of the Sinhala culture1 for long and have been a popular portable format, although the commercial variant is relatively new. The Sinhalese practice of rice-eating aids this format of a packet due to two reasons. First, rice and curry is acceptable to be eaten at room temperature even in restaurants (mostly around 25 and 30 Degree Celsius in Sri Lanka). This allows the rice and curry to be cooked in the morning and packed for lunch, which can be eaten without reheating. Second, the curries are not very fluid in consistency (compared to other culinary cultures), resulting in easy packaging without leakages. What we would call curry in this article is an amorphous term for three or more condiments. The usual number of condiments in a commercial bath packet is five, consisting of one principal ingredient (meat, fish, or egg), one parippu (split red lentil), two sautéed vegetables, and one sambol (side accompaniment).

Figure 2: A typical bath packet in paper wrapping

Figure 2: A typical bath packet in paper wrapping

The rice and curry are first wrapped in a biodegradable plastic and thereafter a paper. Both the biodegradable plastic and the wrapping paper are regulated by the government for standard health and environmental concerns (e.g., one cannot use an old newspaper to wrap commercial bath packets).

Credit: Author

  • 2 The article uses LKR without indicating USD or EUR equivalent. It is intentional and arises from th (...)

3Bath packet is what one gets from home to be had for lunch. The commercial variant imitates this, to form a replacement for regular meal, rather than a special meal that one occasionally eats in a restaurant. This understanding reflects in the cost as well. For example, one of the upscale and popular restaurants in Colombo, sells a vegetarian bath packet for LKR 2202, while at the same time, their parippu itself separately costs LKR 200. It is important to understand that socio-economically bath packet is not merely packaged lunch which one could have had in a restaurant, but is a commercial variant of what one would have brought from home. The cost should not be understood solely as an economic consideration, but the culture of portable rice-and-curry packets is an important factor in the formation of the bath packet as a commodity. There is a large variation in the cost of bath packets, starting from circa LKR 80 to circa LKR 400, a fivefold difference in cost, which is based on both the claimed quality and type of ingredients used. Furthermore the consumption of bath packets are not limited to any specific income group.

4The article investigates bath packet as a commodity, which emanated from and imitates the traditional rice-and-curry eating habits. Therefore, investigating what different bath packets imitate, becomes a ground to understand complex situated ontologies. These situated ontologies present a window to the contemporary sociocultural formations, from gender relations to class performances (Low and Lynn-Ee Ho 2018). As the commodity of bath packet is causally related to urbanization, it will help us understand the urban. Herein, I refer to the urban whose understanding has long been argued to be biased, due to ethnocentric North-Atlantic urban theory (Barnett 2020; Palat Narayanan 2021). The bias here is that the urban is understood by using experiences from the North Atlantic cities, even when capturing life elsewhere (Comaroff and Comaroff 2012; Connell 2011; Gamage 2018). To decentre this bias, I highlight via bath packets, the plurality of conceptualizations regarding the city and the social relations therein.

  • 3 All names in this article are pseudonyms.

5I will illustrate these various facets with the focus on class and gender intersectionality (Parsons 2016) using four cases of bath packet sellers. I build my arguments with Dinithi (female), Wishaka (female), Bandara (male), and Siripala (male)3 all of whom are middle-aged. They all sell bath packets less than 500 metres apart in a central Colombo district. While Dinithi and Bandara sell it from a shop, Wishaka sells it from a stall on the footpath. Siripala is a contractor who produces bath packets to be sold by vendors. These four cases presented here are selected from a larger qualitative fieldwork consisting of participant observation, 20 semi-structured interviews, and 50 qualitative surveys, with bath packet producers, sellers, and consumers spread across Colombo. The participant observation was done from January 2019 until March 2020 and the interviews and surveys were conducted from July until December 2019. The initial selection was based on the transect walks, where I (male) interacted briefly and introduced the participants to the project by giving them the project brochure, to be followed up later.

6In the following section, I will develop how bath packet is a gendered object, and how its practitioners practise certain gender performativity. Thereafter, I will discuss the conception of the urban within the wider network of bath packet production and consumption practices. The concluding section will then revisit the core arguments and outline future research prospects.

Food as a Gendered Object

7There are wide-ranging practices related to food, from its preparation to consumption, which involve and co-constitute the urban. As stated previously, if practices related to bath packets imitate certain situated ontologies, it becomes pertinent to investigate different bath packets and those engaged in its production and consumption. The aim of this investigation is to enter the urban through different interpretations, as Collaço (2013:2) has argued: “Food is not a synonym of identity per se, or a cultural expression of a people, group or territory…It is an extremely flexible material open to representations at distinct levels which intertwine to give consistency to the act of eating… Food is relational, as its identity, so that the same material can be subject to different interpretations.”

8Drawing from Collaço (2013), I will present the ‘different interpretation’ of the same commodity/commodification process. In this section, I will first juxtapose bath packets prepared by Dinithi and Wishaka, thereafter move to the ones prepared by Bandara and Siripala.

9Dinithi sells her bath packet from a small juice shop, which her family owns. She started selling bath packets in 2017 and currently the cost ranges between LKR 325-375 (sells around 40 packets per day). Wishaka sells her bath packets on a temporary footpath stall. Wishaka started selling bath packets in 2019 and currently the cost ranges between LKR 120-200 (sells around 30 packets per day).

10In 2016, Dinithi decided to take-over the otherwise rented family-shop, to start a ‘healthy’ juice bar. Soon, customers started enquiring about eatables, leading her to start selling some snacks, referred to as “short-eats” in Sri Lanka. Overtime, owing to her success with short-eats, she decided to start making bath packets as well. Dinithi lives in a large house behind the shop, in an upscale neighbourhood, has maids and a cook. It was easy for her to use the existing help to oversee the production of bath packets. When I started my fieldwork, Dinithi’s bath packets had a strong clientele (under the brand name of her juice shop). Most days her bath packets would run out by 1:00 PM unless one reserve it by calling her in the morning, a mode I had to imply at times to get one even at noon.

11Unlike Dinithi’s entrepreneurial engagement with bath packets, Wishaka started selling them as an alternate income source. Wishaka was working in a jewellery shop, but became unemployed, as the owners decided to retire. Her mother used to sell bath packets few decades ago and she suggested it to Wishaka. Wishaka lives outside the Colombo municipal limits (urban, but land not as expensive as Colombo) and makes the bath packets at home with the help of her mother and sister. Her mother’s previous experience came in handy when deciding on how to set up this new business. A neighbour suggested her the current vending location on the footpath near his office. I met Wishaka on the first day she had set up the stall, which her neighbour helped with. That day she sold only 10 out of 20 packets, nonetheless, within a month she was selling around 30 packets a day.

12Coming from different socio-economic and geographical locations, these two women produce (physically and socially) two different kinds of bath packets. Dinithi told me that she wants her ‘brand’ to be recognized as a healthy alternative. She personally oversees all the ingredients being bought, prepared, and packaged. She said:

“As a Buddhist we cannot give anything bad to people, especially food. You can donate your old clothes to someone, it just covers the body no. But food is not like that, it needs to be very clean, hygienic, and healthy. Also when you see the food you should feel like eating [referring to the poor quality/presentation of bath packets elsewhere]. We put a banana leaf in our packets [as a lining to the paper-boxes], I personally make sure that it is washed and wiped.”

  • 4 Some of the vendors who sell variants like fried-rice or buriyani (perceived to be special, thus mo (...)

13Dinithi’s bath packets come in paper boxes as opposed to wrapped in paper (see Figure 1 & 2 for reference). Elsewhere in Colombo, when the cost of bath packet increases, the packaging shifts to paper boxes instead of paper wrapping. There is no evident utilitarian benefit of paper boxes, but it generally represents a more expensive variant of the bath packet4. To stress her claim about quality, Dinithi told me that she at times feed her children with the bath packets.

14For Wishaka, the primary motive of selling bath packet was economic. She casually said that it was a suitable business for her because she anyway cooks at home. For Wishaka, the bath packet was an expansion of her already existing responsibility to cook for her family. Wishaka, her sister, and mother, cut all the vegetables and meat, in the evening. She said it is work, but is also an occasion for the family to sit and socialize. Next day morning, she (at times aided by her mother or sister) cooks the food and packs them. For Wishaka, the bath packet that she sells is exactly what she would have otherwise cooked for the family, as she described: “We [referring to women of the house] have to cook every day for the family. When I was young, my mother sold bath packets as we did not have enough money. She knows how to make them. It is same as usual cooking at home, but needs more structure and planning. My mother assisted me with the planning, which helped me scale-up my cooking.”

15Both Dinithi and Wishaka evoke a certain discourse of care emanating from their performance as ‘mother’, of caring for the family by nourishing them. For Dinithi, it is about overseeing every detail of the meal, while for Wishaka, it is about doing it herself. Dinithi pays extreme attention to the standard of ingredients and hygiene, emphasizing the quality of her bath packets by pointing that she feeds them to her children as well. Contrarily, Wishaka points to the quality of her bath packets by indicating how it is what she would have cooked anyways for her family. In an abstract form, Dinithi’s bath packets emphasize quality by being suitable to be fed to the family of the producer, and Wishaka’s bath packets emphasize their quality by being what the family of the producer anyway eats. Furthermore, the bath packet is what one’s mother (or wife) would have cooked, to be carried and eaten outside of home (at the workplace). Thus, the commercial replacement invariably evokes the culturally-constructed feminine care-identity of ‘home-cooked’. The care identity is embedded in the object (food) and is performed by the person, irrespective of their sex. The embedded gendered nature of the bath packet, will become clearer below, with the discussion of the bath packets by Bandara and Siripala.

16Bandara sells his bath packets from an eatery, which he rents. He started selling bath packets in 2017 and currently the average cost ranges between LKR 120-210 (sells around 100 packets per day). Siripala identifies himself as a contractor who makes bath packets at home and sells them via vendors. He has been producing bath packets since 1983. He produces around 700-1000 packets a day and sells it via 15 vendors (selling price ranging from LKR 80-180). Both Bandara and Siripala, refer to their activity as business, which they chose as a means to livelihood.

17While discussing the taste of food and different bath packets, Bandara told me that: “The best food [in Sri Lanka] comes from Matara [a place circa 160 KM south of Colombo]. Women of Matara are famous for their cooking skills and the food reflects this skill. That is why my eatery and many others everywhere [in Colombo] are named after Matara.”

18Bandara, self-identifying himself as a normative male and discussing the need to make money (as a head of the family), shifted to the skill of the women to justify the better quality of food (taste) in/from Matara. Interestingly, there are no women workers in Bandara’s eatery. He ascribes a second-degree association to feminine care-discourse, via him being from Matara. Over time, whenever I talked to him about specificity of his bath packet, he brought in the inherent cooking skills of Matara women and the nostalgic village imagery of Matara food. What he was doing by this association, highlighted by conversations with him as well as naming his eatery to associate Matara, is to play on the established connotation ascribed to Matara women and food from there. However, it was not that the food/ingredients fundamentally in Matara were good, it were the women of Matara who are believed to have special cooking skills. The mobilization of second-degree association is further highlighted by Siripala’s bath packets.

19Siripala told me, during one of our early interactions that: “My bath packets are not only cheap, but they are diverse and very tasty. My wife is a very good cook. Usually those who buy from my vendors come back, because the food is tasty. To be in this business, the first thing is tasty food and diversity on the stall.”

20During these discussions, I imagined Siripala’s wife as the one who manages the preparation and Siripala the one who sells them via vendors. On a later date, I was invited to Siripala’s house, where I had a closer look at his bath packet making process. To my surprise, Siripala was in the commanding role, and he was the one who portioned spices and salt, decided on the appropriateness of taste, and even the portioning of curries in the bath packets. His wife as well as two hired help were taking his commands. There were certain tasks, like the cleaning of leafy vegetables, which were reserved for Siripala’s wife. Siripala told me that he cannot trust anyone (himself included) with cleaning the leafy vegetables but his wife. There was a clear sexual division of labour and command hierarchy in the kitchen. Siripala, who manages the entire cooking process, evokes his wife’s cooking skills (who in fact is not cooking) as a quality marker of his bath packet. Furthermore, the labour of his wife could be replaced, as it is Siripala, who manages the entire cooking process.

21The point of interest here is how gendered notions are embedded in the commodity of bath packet and these gendered notions are performed by those selling/making these packets. Recent feminist theory literature has been taking a materialist turn (Allhutter et al. 2020), investigating gender and sexuality in a “sociologically informed materialist [Marxist] approach” (Jackson 2001:283). It has been long argued that gender relations are socio-culturally constructed and vary over time and space (England 1991). Contrarily, in this paper, my intent is not to investigate the varying of gender relations, but the embeddedness of gender performativity in materiality of culturally constructed artefacts, in this case the bath packets. Therefore, I use dialectical materialism as a method to investigate the complex nature of urban identities and relations, rather than to illustrate inequality and power relations.

22In this section, I focused on different meanings of the commodity of bath packet. In the following section, I will focus on how these meanings transform into the urban experiences and construction of spatial connotations. The discourse of care, will thus take the spatial turn.

Classed and gendered urban experience

  • 5 People make cities, both physically and socioculturally. In this light, I refer to people of the ci (...)

23Southern urban theory has demonstrated that the urban experiences of majority of the urban dwellers are marginalized, due to ethnocentric nature of urban theory (Banerjee, Nigam, and Pandey 2015; Palat Narayanan 2021). In short, the urban is assumed to be located across the North Atlantic, and elsewhere is a deviant of that “real” urban. Various transformations of the word “urban”, including prefixes such as informal and southern to denote non-North-Atlantic urbanization progressions, are emblematic of this process of structural marginalization. Connell (2011) has illustrated how systematically the landscape of knowledge and power has been concentrated in the north (metropolis) and rest of the world is made to be its periphery. This hegemony of knowledge from certain cities at a global level is also evident at a regional scale, where knowledge about/from cities which would be considered periphery at a global scale exerting similar hegemony at a regional scale (Palat Narayanan 2020). Therefore, what is referred to as north (or metropolis) is a political category and not a geographical one. An illustrative example of this is Ray's (2016) articulation of ethnic food in USA. He illustrates how visible non-white restaurateurs are marginalized to the realm of ‘tradition’ and could not present themselves as modern (articulating whose cuisine gets termed as modern and whose as traditional). Although Ray (2016) does not use the term southern theory, his work highlight the concentration of knowledge and power within a certain section of US culinary industry. Furthermore, one among many effects of this northern centredness is that experiences of urban dwellers in the periphery are rendered via the framework created in the metropolis (Simone 2014). Thus, a pertinent strategy to resist this hegemony is to highlight and theoretically work with urban experiences of the periphery, conceptually structured to read cities in their own right (Houssay-Holzschuch and Thébault 2017; Lemanski 2014). Therefore, in this section, I highlight how Colombo has been conceptualized by its creators5, in that, how the same Colombo is different for Dinithi, Wishaka, Bandara, Siripala, and many others. This exploration of situated ontologies is placed in this article as an opposition to ethnocentric urban theory (Shapin 1998). On one side it does express that there are multiple Colombo(s), so any rendering of the Colombo is always partial. On the other hand, it highlights how only few conceptions of Colombo become dominant, notwithstanding its subjective nature.

24During the fieldwork, as the consumers buy packets and are in a hurry to leave, most of my consumer-respondents (apart from the qualitative surveys) were all acquaintances and friends. One of my respondents Himal, a man in his late twenties, who lives and works in Colombo told me: “My mother cooks the best rice and curry. You should come one day to eat at my place to understand what ‘real’ rice and curry is. Buying bath packet for lunch is convenience. I am not saying it is not tasty, but it is not what it could be. The good thing about buying is that you can try different things from different sellers. I have my favourites, but I like exploring. I sometimes look for reviews online, but mostly go by my gut feeling.”

25Although Himal is a regular consumer of bath packets, he still believes that it is different from the one being made at home by his mother. Discussing food in India, Nandy (2004) has illustrated the conceptual cluster of home-food and outside-food. The outside-food, is conceptually an exteriorized category, even when cooked at home. The outside-ness (binary opposite of home-food) is embedded in the food itself. Bath packets, take a different form, where the same bath packet bought from outside, is never as good as what one’s mother (or wife) would have made, nonetheless, brings parts of home to the urban. As stated at the beginning of the paper, the commercial variant of the bath packet, imitates the traits of the home-cooked bath packet, for this very reason. This distinction of home and outside is also important to understand the conceptualization of the city, which is outside of the home: a Colombo where one goes to work. Demographically, Colombo has a population of around 555,000 with a floating population of 500,000 coming from outside on a daily basis (Municipal Council n.d.), making this conceptualization more pertinent.

26The othering of commercial bath packet manifests in multiple formats. For example, at the beginning of this research, a university professor (who brings his lunch from home and claims that he never buys or eats out) humorously told me: “Have you heard of Hepatitis A, ‘Hepatitis A’! One of the faculty members ate these bath packets and got it. It is not good.”

27There was a cautioning tone in his joke, as he knew I will end up eating quite many bath packets over the course of the fieldwork. However, this framing is possible because the bath packet which is made at home is conceptually different from the one being bought. This notion, in my observation, has not been class-dependent. One three-wheeler driver (different class than the university professor), who was taking us around during the fieldwork, mounted his own opinion about the bath packets: “Bath packets are poison, they are very unhygienic. You do not know who cooks them. [On probing further as to where he eats lunch] I also eat the poison, there is no other option no.”

28Having no other option is the adjustment one has to make to be in the city. The discussion on quality and taste is a discussion on conflicting rationalities. The bath packet producers/sellers evoke various notions to render it as close as possible to the one cooked at home. Nonetheless, the users (even those who are regular buyers) at times, make the distinction between home-cooked and bought, although this distinction arises from emotional facets resulting from the spatial delineation of home versus the city. Exploring the spatial delineation further along with the discourse of care (discussed in the previous section), below, I will dwell deeper into the spatiality of bath packet production cycle.

  • 6 All brand names in this article have been masked using generic XXX and YYY.

29Dinithi buys most of her raw materials from a popular supermarket near her shop. The supermarket was used as a sign of quality when she described to me how healthy her bath packets were. She further stressed that she does not buy anything from Pettah/Pitakotuwa (a large wholesale market in Colombo), stating: “I buy all the expensive ingredients [implying better quality]. I do not like to buy the supplies from Pitakotuwa [Pettah], as you get cheap stuff but they will put half-rotten items. Do you think the people who buy from Pitakotuwa throws away the rotten veggies in their purchase? You paid for it and you use everything! That is why I buy groceries from XXX6 and chicken from YYY on Duplication road.”

30The supermarket Dinithi is pointing to, like any other supermarket, caters to a specific quality demands of their clientele. Pettah, on the other hand, is a wholesale market with a larger diversity of buyers. In Pettah, it is a usual practice to segregate the perishables based on quality, from fresh produce to the ones which need to be consumed almost the very same day. Dinithi goes to the supermarket herself, which she claims to be convenient, as she uses a car to reach and a cart inside the supermarket. There is a two-stage quality check which comes out of Dinithi’s discourses and practices. First, the supermarket and the upscale frozen meat shop provide good quality produce. Second, the selection from the available products in the supermarket is being done by Dinithi herself.

31Contrary to Dinithi, Wishaka buys her vegetables from the wholesale market in Pettah. She told me: “There is a large variety in Manning market [in Pettah] and once you buy from the same place you get a good deal. The produce is fresh due to a large turnover in the market. However, I buy fish from the local shop to easily carry it home without it going bad and meat from a nearby Muslim shop.”

32Pettah is a district in northern Colombo, which also has a large wholesale market named Manning Market. For Dinithi, who does not go to Pettah, it is represented solely by the presence of a wholesale market. She uses the Sinhala name Pitakotuwa (while speaking to me in English) for the otherwise English (and Tamil) name Pettah, yet essentializing the entire district with the wholesale market. Contrarily, Wishaka, who goes regularly to Pettah, specifically uses Manning market to note her purchase location. Semantically, what Dinithi and Wishaka told me is the same (using the term Pettah or Manning Market); however, it is the universalization of an entire district (without any malicious intent nonetheless), which I am highlighting here to refer to ‘the same Colombo is different’ argument.

33Further, the quality of the meat which Dinithi expects from the supermarket (frozen meat) is qualitatively what Wishaka expects from the ‘Muslim’ butcher (fresh meat). Wishaka is a Buddhist and her referring of the ‘Muslim shop’ is merely a quality marker rather than a religious indication; very similar to how Dinithi evoked her Buddhist beliefs in having ‘good’ quality bath packets. The secular brand of supermarket and the specialized religious connotation of ‘Muslim’ butcher shop is a reference to class based differential understanding of food products and quality (for more on religiosity of food and marginalization in Sri Lanka, see Haniffa (2017)).

34Going beyond the locational perception of quality, the city in itself is rendered differently by different producers of different bath packets. For example, Bandara, conceptualizes Colombo by viewing it from Matara, he told me:

“There are not many people in Matara no, here [in Colombo] even people who do not know you, buy from you. Everyone knows Matara food is good [tasty]… I buy meat from the Bambalapitiya market and the vegetables and other supplies from Manning market. It is cheap and I know people. I started going there because of the size of the market and ease of access, but slowly you build relationship with people whom you transact with so regularly. You will, of course, get a good deal once you know people, irrespective of the market… I call them and they deliver the products [in bulk for a day].”

35The description about navigating the city shifts with the male experience. Both Dinithi and Wishaka engage in specific buying practice because of their perceived quality of products. However, Bandara’s description (both illustrated above and later conversations with him) highlights a different agency. He understands that there are differences in the markets and the quality connotation comes from one’s class. Nonetheless, his description of markets shows how he built a relationship with the shopkeepers. In this sense, more than just choosing the right place, Bandara is constructing the right place via his ‘transactions’. Investigating ethnic divide in Mostar, Laketa (2018:179) has discussed how performativity of everyday practices constitute and create spatial identities, which differ across various social groups. In a similar fashion, everyday practices of Dinithi and Wishaka, has outlined two different Pettah’s and their specific rationalities in producing quality bath packets. For both of them, the good-quality raw material is ‘out there’ which needed to be bought. Manning market for Wishaka is the right choice due to availability of good products at reasonable rates (achieved by buying from the same place over a long time). However, for Bandara, the good products and reasonable rates in Manning market are constructed by him (as he described that good products are available in other markets too), by his entrepreneurial endeavours. Here we can see the gendered perception of the economy and how the businesses are run differently (c.f., Beneria 1999). I will come back to this notion below using experiences of the buyers.

36The value systems, perceptions, and identities of Dinithi, Wishaka, Bandara, and Siripala reflect on their bath packets and thus, with those who buy them. When Dinithi started her business, she used online social media to market her products. Hidden behind the brand name of her shop, she offers ‘home cooked’ bath packets to be ordered online or to be reserved via telephone. Bandara on the other hand, has a shop on the main-road, and attracts clientele via its signage and via app-based delivery systems. Wishaka has no brand name, it is her location that marks the specificity of her bath packets. She sits at the same location and over time is building her clientele. It is a similar situation with vendors taking bath packets from Siripala, who all have temporary stalls on specific locations along the footpath.

37The clientele is quite fluid in all the cases and is not regular on a daily basis. As one bath packet producer told me “bath packet is the same, people change”, signifying that people usually do not buy every day from the same place. Buyers do keep shifting; nonetheless, they shift amongst the same category of sellers. One of the bath packet sellers, who has been making and selling for more than two decades now, told me: “If you buy from me at the footpath, it is cheaper. I sell the same packet for more on XXX [a popular app-based food delivery system]. If I sell in XXX at the same price [as that on the footpath], then no one will buy.”

38In the above example, the price needed to be appropriate, that is to say amplified, to be able to have success in the online space. Consumers who buys from Dinithi, look online for reviews and then order. The notion of ‘home-cooked’ and ‘healthy’, derives from the iconography and text of the menu. While those who buy from Wishaka, walk around their workplace, see the seller and make their mind to buy (or try). These users are in the same physical space (a central Colombo district) but operate, conceptualize, and conceive of it differently, depending on their class and gender identities.

Conclusion: Amalgamating food and urban studies

39Both food and urban are socio-cultural constructs and the article is an attempt at exploring how they co-constitute each other. Collaçao (2013) has outlined how food has different meanings for different people. A similar argument has also been made regarding the urban in southern theory (Connell 2011). Both these approaches point to the politics of knowledge associated with its production and dissemination. Further, as Goodman (2016 : 258) has argued, when studying food, “it is impossible to separate out the notions of culture, space, economy, politics, and materiality with which it is so thoroughly imbued”. The article was a modest attempt in using these contentions to amalgamate interdisciplinary fields of food and urban studies. Materialist feminism (Allhutter et al. 2020; Jackson 2001) which engages with the dialectical analysis of object/commodity gave the theoretical tools for this amalgamation.

40In this article, I used bath packets to highlight three specific aspects of classed and gendered urban experiences. First, the article enquired bath packet as a commodity and how this commodity is perceived differently along gender and class categories. I started with the embedded feminine care-identity of commercial bath packets and how producers from different classes perform this identity, away from “monolithic images” of non-western experiences (Mohanty 2003 : 519). I argued how the commodity itself is gendered and the feminine care-identity is performed by those who produce/sell it, irrespective of their sex. Second, I illustrated how the users differ bath packet from home and the commercial variant, essentially constructing a conceptualization of the urban, as outside of home. This conceptualization was illustrated further with the third aspect, where I enquired the allied activities of producing bath packets. Using southern theory, I have argued how the same bath packet and the same city of Colombo (or parts thereof) are different for different people. In that, different people are not using space differently, but are creating and conceptualizing same space differently, thus the notion of multiple Colombo(s). Gender and class differences explain the different production, commercialization practices, and use of space. I juxtaposed various practices by bath packet producers to illustrate how the city (or parts thereof) is differently conceptualized. The aim of presenting these different interpretations was an attempt to understand the urban as a plural construct (for more on everyday practices and subjective conceptions of the city, see Puttilli (2020)).

41An exploration on food, or urban-food, not only enriches food studies, but urban studies as well. It presents differing conceptualization of urban (becomes evident through food practices and orthopraxy), which in urban analyses is often neglected. The intention of the article has been to study situated understanding of places as well as objects being created and circulated in these places, by exploring how they co-constitute each other. Food and urban are deeply interrelated and we need further research exploring this interdependent relationship.

Top of page


ALLHUTTE Doris, Brigitte Bargetz, Hanna Meißner, and Kathrin Thiele. 2020. “Materiality-Critique-Transformation: Challenging the Political in Feminist New Materialisms.” Feminist Theory 21(4):403–11.

BANERJEE Prathama, Aditya Nigam, and Rakesh Pandey. 2015. “The Work of Theory.” Economic and Political Weekly 51(37):42–50.

BARNETT Clive. 2020. “The Strange Case of Urban Theory.” Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society 1–17.

BENERIA Lourdes. 1999. “Globalization, Gender And The Davos Man.” Feminist Economics 5(3):61–83.

COLLACO Janine Helfst Leicht. 2013. “From the Mammas to Cosmopolitan Restaurants: One Century of Italian Restaurants in the City of São Paulo (Brazil).” Anthropology of Food (S8).

COMAROFF Jean, and John L. Comaroff. 2012. Theory from the South: Or, How Euro-America Is Evolving toward Africa. Boulder, Colo.: Paradigm Publ.

CONNELL Raewyn. 2011. Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science. Reprinted. Cambridge: Polity Press.

ENGLAND Kim V. L. 1991. “Gender Relations and the Spatial Structure of the City.” Geoforum 22(2):135–47.

GAMAGE Siri. 2018. “Indigenous and Postcolonial Sociology in South Asia: Challenges and Possibilities.” Sri Lanka Journal of Social Sciences 41(2):83.

GOODMAN Michael K. 2016. “Food Geographies I: Relational Foodscapes and the Busy-Ness of Being More-than-Food.” Progress in Human Geography 40(2):257–66.

HANIFFA Farzana. 2017. “Merit Economies in Neoliberal Times: Halal Troubles in Contemporary Lanka.” Pp. 116–37 in Religion and the Morality of the Market, edited by D. Rudnyckyj and F. Osella. Cambridge University Press.

HOUSSAY-HOLZSCHUCH Myriam and Emma Thébault. 2017. “Dis-Locating Public Space: Occupy Rondebosch Common, Cape Town.” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 49(3):555–71.

JACKSON Stevi. 2001. “Why a Materialist Feminism Is (Still) Possible—and Necessary.” Women’s Studies International Forum 24(3–4):283–93.

LAKETA Sunčana. 2018. “Between ‘This’ Side and ‘That’ Side: On Performativity, Youth Identities and ‘Sticky’ Spaces.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 36(1):178–96.

LEMANSKI Charlotte. 2014. “Hybrid Gentrification in South Africa: Theorising across Southern and Northern Cities.” Urban Studies 51(14):2943–60.

LOW Kelvin E. Y., and Elaine Lynn-Ee Ho. 2018. “Eating in the City.” Food, Culture & Society 21(1):2–8.

MOHANTY Chandra Talpade. 2003. “‘Under Western Eyes’ Revisited: Feminist Solidarity through Anticapitalist Struggles.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28(2):499–535.

Municipal Council, Colombo. n.d. “Colombo Municipal Council.” Retrieved November 11, 2020 (

NANDY Ashis. 2004. “The Changing Popular Culture of Indian Food: Preliminary Notes.” South Asia Research 24(1):9–19.

PALAT NARAYANAN Nipesh. 2020. “The Delhi Bias: Knowledge Hegemony of India’s Slum Governance.” Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 41(1):105–19.

PALAT NARAYANAN Nipesh. 2021. “Southern Theory without a North: City Conceptualization as the Theoretical Metropolis.” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 111(4):989–1001.

PARSONS Julie M. 2016. “When Convenience Is Inconvenient: ‘Healthy’ Family Foodways and the Persistent Intersectionalities of Gender and Class.” Journal of Gender Studies 25(4):382–97.

PUTTILLI Matteo. 2020. “Everyday Geographies in the Changing City: Subjective Photo-Routes in Mandalay, Myanmar.” GeoJournal.

RAY Krishnendu. 2016. The Ethnic Restaurateur. London ; New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic.

SHAPIN Steven. 1998. “Placing the View from Nowhere: Historical and Sociological Problems in the Location of Science.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 23(1):5–12.

SIMONE AbdouMaliq. 2014. “The Missing People - Reflections on an Urban Majority in Cities of the South.” Pp. 322–36 in The Routledge handbook on cities of the Global South, edited by S. Parnell and S. Oldfield. London ; New York: Routledge.

Top of page


1 Rice and curry in various formats (including packets) are also part of the culinary practices of various other ethnic groups in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in Asia. However, for this article, I concentrate on the Sinhala variant.

2 The article uses LKR without indicating USD or EUR equivalent. It is intentional and arises from the concerns raised by postcolonial and southern theory scholars, that the periphery (South) always needs to render its existence by formatting itself to the categories of the metropolis (North).

3 All names in this article are pseudonyms.

4 Some of the vendors who sell variants like fried-rice or buriyani (perceived to be special, thus more expensive than a bath packet) almost always use a paper-box (or at times plastic-boxes) as packaging material.

5 People make cities, both physically and socioculturally. In this light, I refer to people of the city as creators, rather than categories of residents or users.

6 All brand names in this article have been masked using generic XXX and YYY.

Top of page

List of illustrations

Title Bath Packet, in a paper box
Caption Figure 1: A typical bath packet in paper box. Note that the banana-leaf lining is not used by all producers.
File image/png, 739k
Title Figure 2: A typical bath packet in paper wrapping
Caption The rice and curry are first wrapped in a biodegradable plastic and thereafter a paper. Both the biodegradable plastic and the wrapping paper are regulated by the government for standard health and environmental concerns (e.g., one cannot use an old newspaper to wrap commercial bath packets).
File image/png, 1.3M
Top of page


Electronic reference

Nipesh Palat Narayanan, « Bath packets and multiple Colombo(s) », Anthropology of food [Online], S17 | 2022, Online since , connection on 12 August 2022. URL : ; DOI :

Top of page

About the author

Nipesh Palat Narayanan

Ricercatore, LaGeS - Laboratorio di geografia sociale, Università degli Studi di Firenze ; Chercheur associé, Pacte – laboratoire de sciences sociales, Université Grenoble Alpes ;

Top of page


Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Top of page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search