Hot, sour and salty, Sri Lanka’s lunu miris sambola ලුනු මිරිස් සම්බෝල, often abbreviated to “lunu miris” is a well-known and loved chili condiment among Singhalese and is often served together with hoppers (aapa) ආප්ප, coconut roti (pol roti) පොල් රොටි, mung bean milk rice (mung ata kiri bath) මුං ඇට කිරි බත් and milk rice (kiri bath) කිරි බත්. “Lunu” means “onion” in Singhalese and “miris” means “chili”, hence “lunu miris” translates into “onion-chili”. Apart from giving a hot kick of flavor, lunu miris also serves as an aid in the digestion of “rich and heavy” foods like milk rice and mung bean milk rice; this could be due to the acidity of the lime juice as well as the hot chilies which stimulates the Singhalese’ chili-loving tastebuds.
Similar to Pol Sambola පොල් සම්බෝල (coconut sambol), lunu miris is traditionally made with a “miris gala” මිරිස් ගල which literally translates into “chili stone”. Whole dried red chilies are combined with salt, a few drops of water and ground into a hot chili paste which is combined with fresh shallots and a dash of lime juice. Today pre-ground red chili powder and red chili flakes are used instead of this freshly ground chili paste. As a result, laboriously time consuming as it is, the traditional method of making lunu miris produces a far superior condiment, both in terms of taste and nutrition compared to the lunu miris appearing on the tables of modern households today. As the saying goes “good things take time”.
Shallots, rather than red onions (known as “Bombay onions” among Sri Lankans) are traditionally used to make lunu miris; shallots are believed to be healthier and red onions impart a slightly sweet taste which is out of the flavor profile of hot, sour and salty that this condiment traditionally offers.
Except for the addition of black pepper, the ingredients for lunu miris are generally constant throughout Sri Lanka i.e., shallots, dried red chilies, salt and lime. Black peppercorns are added for extra heat and for an extra burst of flavor but traditional lunu miris does not call for black pepper. The ratios of the base ingredients vary depending on personal taste; some may up the ratio of dried red chilies for a spicier lunu miris for instance.
Modern lunu miris sambolas sometimes feature Maldive fish known as “umbalakada” උම්බලකඩ in Singhalese. However Maldive fish is not traditionally added to lunu miris. In fact, the addition of Maldive fish would technically render it a “kata sambola” කට්ට සම්බෝල and is no longer a lunu miris per se. Katta sambola is made with the same ingredients as lunu miris together with a generous quantity of Maldive fish.
Below is a recipe that tries to illustrate as close as possible the traditional method of preparing an authentic lunu miris. Since the Sri Lankan miris gala is a rare kitchen item nowadays, a pestle and mortar is used in this recipe.
- 5-6 whole dried red chilies
- 3-4 fresh shallots – peeled
- ½ lime – juiced
- Salt as required
Place the whole dried red chilies, salt and a few drops of water to a pestle and mortar and pound till it becomes a thick paste. Add water if the chilies are too dry but be wary of adding too much as the condiment could end up too wet. Grind the chilies by rubbing the pestle.
Next add the shallots. Give a big bang to break down the shallots to smaller pieces then continue to pound till it is a coarsely mashed mixture. The shallots should not be pulpy and should retain some crunch and texture.
Add the lime juice and continue mixing in the pestle and mortar to allow the flavors to meld. It should be well mixed to produce a well-combined lunu miris but not so mixed that its ends up as too mushy.
Dish out to a serving bowl and serve.