Sri Lankan Raw Five Spice Powder / Sri Lankan Raw Curry Powder (තුන පහ “Thuna Paha”)

Sri Lankan raw curry powder or "thuna paha", in a traditional Sri Lankan coconut shell spoon, surrounded by green cardamom pods, cloves, fennel seeds, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds, Ceylon cinnamon, a sprig of fresh curry leaves on a white plate.

Sri Lankan raw curry powder or “thuna paha” is an aromatic and flavorful concoction of finely ground local spices

Sri Lankan Raw Five Spice Powder / Sri Lankan Raw Curry Powder (තුන පහ “Thuna Paha”)
Sri Lankan raw curry powder, also known as “five spice powder” (known as තුන පහ “thuna paha” in Singhalese) is a staple ingredient in all Singhalese households, used to lend aroma, color and flavor to various Sri Lankan dishes. “Thuna” තුන means three and “paha” පහ means “five, and so taken together it literally means “three-five” referring to the three to five spices used to make the curry powder though nowadays many more spices are used.

The spices are traditionally ground in a මිරිස් ගල “miris gala” which literally means “chili stone” – a laborious labor of love in which the spices are painstakingly ground by hand into a curry paste, using a heavy, cylindrical granite rolling stone and lots of elbow grease. The cylindrical stone is dragged over the spices which have been placed over a separate rectangular slab of granite stone. This chili stone has given way to the modern day grinder which indeed saves considerable time to prepare the curry powder but this convenience comes at the expense of quality; manual grinding retains the flavor, aroma and nutritional benefits of the spices whereas when pulsed in a mechanical blender, some of the aroma, flavor and nutrients are lost.

Usually, Sri Lankans use raw curry powder to make vegetable dishes while the stronger roasted curry powder (known as “badapu thuna paha” බැදපු තුන පහ – “badapu” means “roasted”) is used for making fish and meat dishes.

Like most Sri Lankan dishes, there are no fixed recipes for curry powder; different families in different provinces have different recipes containing different spices in varying ratios.
The freshness of the spices is critical for a good quality curry powder. Spices tend to lose their strength as they age, particularly certain spices such as cloves and cardamoms and hence if stale they would not make for a good curry powder. Similarly, the curry powder too is best used fresh, the longer it sits on the shelf, the lower the quality.

The cardamom used is green cardamom (known as එනසාල් “enasaal” in Singhalese), an aromatic spice native to India but is now cultivated in Sri Lanka as well. The cinnamon used is Ceylon cinnamon – a delicate and fragrant spice grown in Sri Lanka. Ceylon cinnamon (known as “kurundu” කුරුඳු in Singhalese) is not as widely available worldwide compared to the cheaper cassia variety which is largely cultivated in and exported by Indonesia. Cassia is not recommended when making Sri Lankan curry powder as it would fail to produce the right taste and aroma.

Version 1 (the following traditional recipe is from my Sri Lankan (Kandyan) grandmother born in the 1930s):
Ingredients:

  • 100 grams cumin
  • 25 grams fennel seeds
  • 150 grams coriander seeds
  • 1 1/2 inch piece Ceylon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon green cardamom cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon cloves
  • 1 sprig fresh curry leaves

Method:

Lightly roast curry leaves on a pan over medium heat.

Add the rest of the ingredients and roast till fragrant and lightly browned, taking care not to burn or over-roast the spices. The idea of roasting the spices is to bring out its aroma and flavor as well as to prolong the shelf life of the curry powder by removing the moisture contained in the spices. The curry leaves should be crispy by now.

Stop heat and let cool.

Once thoroughly cooled, grind spices finely.

Store in an airtight container. Best used within 2 weeks.

Version 2:
Ingredients:

  • 50 grams cumin seeds
  • 25 grams fennel seeds
  • 25 grams coriander seeds
  • 2 tbsp fenugreek seeds
  • 1 teaspoon green cardamom pods
  • 1 teaspoon cloves
  • 2 inch piece Ceylon cinnamon
  • 1-2 sprigs fresh curry leaves

Method:
Place the curry leaves in a pan and lightly roast over medium heat till dried.

Add the rest of the spices into the pan and lightly roast over medium heat, taking care not to burn or over-roast the spices. The idea of roasting the spices is to bring out its aroma and flavor as well as to prolong the shelf life of the curry powder by removing the moisture contained in the spices. The curry leaves should be crispy by now.

Set aside to cool.

Once thoroughly cooled, grind the spices finely.

Store in an airtight container. Best used within 2 weeks.

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