A very popular accompaniment for string hoppers, rice and bread, “Pol Sambola” පොල් සම්බෝල is a ubiquitous and “truly Sri Lankan” condiment featuring a harmonious blend of freshly shredded coconut and local spices. “Pol” පොල් means coconut in Singhalese while “sambola” සම්බෝල refers to a condiment/relish.
Ingredient combinations and their ratios vary widely within Sri Lanka. For instance, families down south tend to favor a tongue-searing pol sambola so they bump up the ratio of dried red chili and black pepper while folks in Sri Lanka’s hill capital (Kandy) tend to favor a relatively milder version. Some families add tomatoes and garlic while some others leave out pepper. The commonality among all pol sambolas is that they contain fresh shredded coconut, salt, lime juice and dried red chilies; any absence of these key ingredients means it is no longer a pol sambola.
Like most Sri Lankan relishes such as lunu miris and amu miris sambola, traditionally, pol sambola was made using a granite grinding stone known in Singhalese as a “miris gala” මිරිස් ගල which literally translates into “chili stone”. The grinding stone is used to first grind the whole dried red chilies with salt (and a few drops of water) into a rich, fiery paste which is then combined with the rest of the ingredients. Today pre-ground red chili powder is often used in place of this freshly ground chili paste to make pol sambola. However, unless freshly ground, red chili powder (store-bought ones in particular) is not as fresh as this freshly-made chili paste. Consequently, pol sambolas made nowadays are noticeably inferior taste-wise and nutrition-wise compared to the olden days. Red chili powder was almost unheard of in the olden days and only began to appear in modern day households as the grinding stone began to disappear.
The recipe below serves only as a guide. Shallots are traditionally favored over red onions not only because shallots are perceived to be healthier but also because red onions tend to impart a subtle sweetness which deviates from the authentic taste of this relish which predominantly offers a fusion of spicy, salty and sour flavors melded together. This recipe is an effort to replicate as close as possible the traditional method of preparing pol sambola, where whole dried red chilies are used (instead of red chili powder) and the relish is prepared in a pestle and mortar (since grinding stones are quite difficult to find nowadays).
- 1 ½ cups packed freshly shredded coconut
- 12 dried red chilies
- 2 tsp black peppercorns
- 4 fresh green chilies
- 3 tsp Maldive fish or as desired (optional)
- 2-3 sprigs curry leaves or as desired – retain leaves and discard stem
- 4-5 shallots – peeled
- 1 medium-sized lime – juiced
- Salt as required
Place the dried red chilies and a few pinches of salt in a pestle and mortar and mash till it becomes a fine paste; use the pestle to rub the chilies against the wall of the mortar. Add a few drops of water if the chilies are too dry to facilitate the mashing process but be very careful of adding too much lest the condiment ends up too salty and too wet.
Add the peppercorns, green chilies and Maldive fish.
Pound well and ensure the mixture is nicely combined.
Add the curry leaves and mash the mixture till the curry leaves are broken into smaller pieces; use the pestle to rub and grind the curry leaves.
Add the shredded coconut and mix.
Mash well till the coconut is well mixed with the paste. As you mix, the coconut will gradually turn a vibrant orange hue and an appetizing aroma of the freshly ground chilies, peppercorns, curry leaves and fresh shredded coconut begins to rise.
Add the shallots.
Pound the shallots till fine but not so fine that the shallots end up as a paste. It should retain some crunch and texture.
Add the lime juice.
Continue mixing and gently rubbing the sambola in the pestle and mortar, to allow the flavors of the ingredients to meld together. The more you mix, the better the final result.
Taste the sambola and make any final adjustments as desired.
Serve immediately with steamed rice.