Sri Lankan

Watalappan වටලප්පන් (Steamed, Spiced Coconut Custard)

Boasting a pleasant aroma owing to the use of exotic spices, a rich flavor due to jaggery (an unrefined palm sugar) and fresh thick coconut milk, a creamy melt-in-the-mouth texture thanks to fresh eggs and occasional nutty bites thanks to cashew nuts, watalappan වටලප්පන් is a popular steamed pudding in Sri Lanka.

This delicacy is believed to have been introduced to local folks in this paradise island by the Malays, whose ancestry can be traced to the Malayan peninsular and the Indonesian archipelago. Watalappan  or “siri kaya” as it is known in the Sri Lankan Malay community, is quite likely to be a derivative of a popular coconut milk and egg custard with origins in Indonesia, known as “sarikayo”. Watalappan may also have been influenced by a popular coconut milk and egg jam with origins in Indonesia (where it is known as “srikaya”) and Malaysia (where it is known as “seri kaya” but more commonly known as “kaya”). In Singapore too, this jam is very popular, and is also known as “kaya”.

Unsurprisingly, the key ingredients for all three foods i.e., watalappan/siri kaya and Indonesia’s sarikayo and the Indonesian/Malaysian/Singaporean srikaya/kaya are the same i.e., thick coconut milk, eggs and unrefined palm sugar (known as “gula melaka” in Malaysia and “gula merah” in Indonesia) with the only noticeable difference being that the latter is a structure-less jam usually enjoyed with toast or bread whereas the two former versions have a structure akin to a pudding and are consumed as desserts.

Indonesia’s sarikayo and the Indonesian/Malaysian/Singaporean srikaya/kaya feature pandan leaves (screwpine leaves) which is also used in Sri Lanka’s watalappan sometimes. More often however, watalappan is infused with the flavor and aroma of spices such as cardamoms, cinnamon and cloves.

This difference in ingredients may have been a Sri Lankan influence; exotic spices such as cardamom, cinnamon and cloves are extensively used throughout Sri Lankan cuisine, whereas in Indonesian/Malaysian cuisine fresh herbs such as pandan leaves, lemongrass and galangal are more prominent.

Apart from sarikayo and srikaya/kaya there are other culinary examples that reflect this regional difference in flavor preference. For instance, a sago dessert known as “sago gula melaka” in Malaysia is quite similar to Sri Lanka’s “sau kenda” සව් කැඳ (which literally means “sago porridge” in Singhalese). Both versions see sago pearls served with a deliciously rich sauce made of thick coconut milk and unrefined palm sugar. However, while the Malaysian version is fragranced and flavored with pandan leaves, the Sri Lankan version instead sees green cardamoms bumping up the flavor and aroma profile of the dessert.

A popular mung bean porridge known as “bubur kacang ijo” in Indonesia or “bubur kacang hijau” in Malaysia (both translate into “green bean porridge”) shares essentially the same ingredients as the Sri Lankan version called “mung ata kenda” මුං ඇට කැඳ in Singhalese (which translates into “mung bean porridge”) – mung beans, thick coconut milk and unrefined palm sugar. Here again, the Indonesian and Malaysian versions are fragranced and flavored with pandan leaves whereas the Sri Lankan version is dressed up with a colorful medley of spices, fruits and nuts such as green cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cashew nuts and raisins.

The ingredients that make up watalappan are natural and healthy. Unrefined palm sugar, also known as jaggery, or “hakuru” හකුරු in Singhalese is generally considered to be a natural and relatively healthier sweetener than refined sugar; unrefined palm sugar is rich in minerals and micronutrients whereas with refined sugar these nutrients have been stripped off during the refining process. Thus, watalappan can be considered to be a relatively healthy dessert.

For best results, use only the highest quality jaggery and the freshest ingredients, i.e., fresh eggs, fresh spices and freshly squeezed thick coconut milk.

While there are many spice options available for this pudding, cardamom is arguably the most popular spice for this pudding in Sri Lanka.

Ceylon cinnamon, known as “kurundu” කුරුඳු in Singhalese, is considerably different from the more commonly available “cassia”, which is cheaper than Ceylon cinnamon and is often mistakenly called “cinnamon”.

Ceylon cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka. It is a very delicate quill with a thin bark, flakes easily, has a sweet taste and sweet-smelling fragrance. Cassia on the other hand is native to China. Indonesia and China are notable exporters. Cassia sticks are extremely hard with a very thick bark, does not flake at all, has a strong, spicy taste and scent. For a more authentic watalappan, use Ceylon cinnamon.

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Serves 3-4 people

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup (about 230 milliliters) fresh thick coconut milk
  • 2 fresh medium-sized eggs
  • 4-5 tablespoons grated jaggery
  • Pinch of sea salt
  • Cashew nuts as desired – roughly chopped
  • Raisins as desired (optional)

 

Spices (use any or a combination as desired. Adjust quantities as desired. Fresh spices are stronger and more potent than old spices.):

  • 4-6 green cardamom pods – lightly crushed, husks discarded
  • 1/2 inch piece Ceylon cinnamon
  • 1 clove
  • 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • Beans from half a vanilla pod

 

Method:

Into a bowl, beat eggs one by one until frothy.

Add grated jaggery, thick coconut milk and salt.

Beat thoroughly until jaggery is dissolved and the mixture is smooth and free of lumps.

Strain the mixture.

Add the spices into the strained mixture and mix thoroughly.

Pour mixture into a pudding basin or into ramekins.

Sprinkle with cashew nuts and raisins (if using). Reserve some cashew nuts.

Cover with a foil.

Into a pressure cooker or other vessel used for steaming, pour about 2 cups of water (room temperature).

Place a steaming wire stand.

Onto the wire stand, place the foil-wrapped pudding basin or ramekins containing the mixture.

Cover and turn on heat to medium high.

Steam the watalappan until it sets (roughly 30-40 minutes) and is aromatic.

Sprinkle cashew nuts reserved earlier.

Serve warm or chilled.

 

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Sau Kenda සව් කැඳ (Sago Porridge)

Sri Lankan sago porridge, known as “sau kenda” in Singhalese is a delicious porridge of sago pearls boiled in a rich concoction of thick coconut milk known as “pol kiri” පොල් කිරි (“pol” පොල් = coconut, “kiri” කිරි = milk), sweetened with jaggery known as “hakuru” හකුරු, which is an unrefined form of sugar and fragranced with exotic spices such as aromatic green cardamoms known as “enasaal” එනසාල් and cinnamon, known as “kurundu” කුරුඳු.

Sau kenda සව් කැඳ  literally means “sago porridge” in Singhalese (“sau” සව් means “sago and “kenda” කැඳ means “porridge”).

Sago is believed to have cooling properties and is often consumed in Sri Lanka during sweltering hot months, either warm or chilled.

Sri Lanka’s sago porridge bears some resemblance to the Malaysian dessert “sago gula melaka”, which is a sago pudding served with thick coconut milk, an unrefined palm sugar known as “gula melaka” and fragranced with pandan leaves.

The sago pearls are boiled until translucent – this may require some practice as overboiling the sago pearls could dissolve them whereas underboiling the sago pearls will result in pearls that are not translucent.

Freshly squuezed thick coconut milk, fresh cardamoms and/or cinnamon and good quality jaggery are imperative for a quality outcome.

 

Preparation time: 15-20 minutes

Serves 3-4

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup or about 200 grams sago pearls
  • 2 1/2 – 3 cups or about 625 – 750 ml spring water
  • 1 cup or about 250 ml thick coconut milk
  • 1/4 cup jaggery – dissolved in about 1/4 cup of spring water
  • Pinch of salt

Spices (use one or both):

  • 5-8 green cardamom pods – lightly crushed to open the pods
  • Cinnamon stick

Method:

Bring water to a rolling boil in a heavy bottom saucepan, over medium heat.

Once water is boiling, add sago pearls and green cardamom pods.

Cook sago pearls until they turn translucent. Stir every now and then but don’t stir too often as the sago pearls could dissolve which is undersirable; the key is to cook the sago pearls till they turn translucent but yet they maintain their spherical shape. This takes practice.

Once sago pearls turn translucent, add the coconut milk and dissolved jaggery. Alternatively, take sago off the heat and when serving the sago, serve the coconut milk and dissolved jaggery separately, allowing each individual to adjust the quantity of coconut milk and jaggery according to personal preference.

The sago porridge can be served warm or chilled. If serving chilled, set aside to cool and then place the sago porridge (as well as the coconut milk and jaggery if they are being served separately) in a refrigerator.

 

Kurakkan Roti කුරක්කන් රොටි

Kurakkan roti is a Sri Lankan flatbread, made with nutritious finger millet flour, brown rice flour and freshly shredded coconut. “Kurakkan” කුරක්කන් or “kurahan” කුරහන් is the Singhalese name for “finger millet” while “roti” රොටි is a term used to refer to flatbreads.

Native to Africa and introduced to the Indian subcontinent over 3,000 years ago, finger millet or “kurakkan” is a drought-resistant and hardy crop, with less susceptibility to pests and diseases compared to other crops. It has been grown and consumed in Sri Lanka for over a thousand years, mostly in the dry zone areas and this nutritious grain has been the principal source of food for the Sri Lankan people for centuries.

Kurakkan has been replaced by rice as a staple food however kurakkan is still consumed; this kurakkan flatbread is usually eaten for breakfast and sometimes dinner, but very rarely (if at all) eaten for lunch.

Kurakkan is gluten-free and diabetic-friendly; a year 2000 study found that a finger millet-based diet resulted in lower plasma glucose levels which could be attributed to finger millet’s higher fibre content compared to rice and wheat.

Kurakkan roti is traditionally made with kurakkan flour (known as “kurakkan piti” කුරක්කන් පිටි), brown rice flour (known as “rathu haal piti” රතු හාල් පිටි)and shredded coconut. Modern day recipes however replace brown rice flour with all-purpose flour. Usage of all-purpose flour diminishes the nutritional value of the resulting flatbread as all-purpose flour is generally accepted among Sri Lankans to be considerably unhealthy and is inferior nutrition-wise than brown rice flour.

For a healthier alternative, the all-purpose flour can be replaced with whole wheat flour or chapati flour (also known as “atta flour) instead.

Traditionally. kurakkan roti is accompanied with hot Sri Lankan condiments such as lunu miris, pol sambol or katta sambol. Nowadays, butter is also increasingly gaining favor as an accompaniment.

A cast-iron griddle produces the best results.

Variation 1 (Basic kurakkan roti)

Serves: 2

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup kurakkan flour
  • 1/4 cup brown rice flour
  • Salt as desired
  • 1-3 tablespoons freshly shredded coconut
  • Warm water as required
  • Coconut oil as required

 

Method:

Combine kurakkan flour, rice flour and salt in a roomy bowl.

Add shredded coconut.

Add warm water and coconut oil as required to form a pliable dough that does not stick to your hands.

Using hands, knead the dough for a short while.

Divide into even-sized balls.

Roll out the balls, or simply flatten them on your palm, into discs about 3-4 inches in diameter and about 1/5 inch – 1/3 inch thick.

Heat up a cast iron griddle over medium high flame.

Cook the flatbreads until cooked through and dark, roasted spots appear on the surface of the bread. This usually takes a few minutes. The flip the bread and cook the other side.

Once cooked, take out and cover the flatbreads with a damp towel to keep them moist.

Serve hot with hot condiments such as lunu miris, pol sambol and/or katta sambol.

 

Variation 2 (Kurakkan roti with onions, chilies and curry leaves)

Serves: 2

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup kurakkan flour
  • 1/4 cup brown rice flour
  • Salt as desired
  • 1-3 tablespoons freshly shredded coconut
  • 4-6 shallots – peeled and roughly chopped
  • 2-3 green chilies – sliced
  • 2 sprigs fresh curry leaves – torn
  • Warm water as required
  • Coconut oil as required

 

Method:

Combine kurakkan flour, rice flour and salt in a roomy bowl.

Add shredded coconut, shallots, green chilies and curry leaves.

Add warm water and coconut oil as required to form a pliable dough that does not stick to your hands.

Using hands, knead the dough for a short while.

Divide into even-sized balls.

Roll out the balls, or simply flatten them on your palm, into discs about 3-4 inches in diameter and about 1/5 inch – 1/3 inch thick.

Heat up a cast iron griddle over medium high flame.

Cook the flatbreads until cooked through and dark, roasted spots appear on the surface of the bread. This usually takes a few minutes. The flip the bread and cook the other side.

Once cooked, take out and cover the flatbreads with a damp towel to keep them moist.

Serve hot with hot condiments such as lunu miris, pol sambol and/or katta sambol.

Milk Rice (Kiri Bath කිරි බත්)

Kiri bath කිරි බත්, or milk rice, is a very popular dish in Sri Lanka, carrying a deep symbolic weight as a representation of good fortune and prosperity. Kiri bath is often served during special cultural celebrations such as Singhalese New Year (which falls on the 13th and 14th of April) and at the event of feeding a baby its first solid food. Some very traditional families serve kiri bath on the first of every month and every year to usher in prosperity and good luck for the coming month and year. While it is most commonly consumed for breakfast, it could be eaten for lunch and dinner.

“Kiri bath” කිරි බත් literally translates into “milk rice” in Singhalese (“kiri” කිරි means milk and “bath” බත්  means “rice”).

Lunu miris sambola ලූනු මිරිස් සම්බෝල is a very popular hot condiment served with kiri bath. Other popular accompaniments include fish curry, seeni sambol සීනි සම්බෝල  and katta sambol කට්ට සම්බෝල.

Kiri bath is traditionally made with brown rice, known in Sri Lanka as “red rice” (rathu haal රතු හාල් or rathu kekulu haal  රතු කැකුළු හාල්). Brown rice is widely accepted to be healthier and more nutritious and white rice is generally frowned upon by traditional Singhalese.

For best results, use only fresh coconut milk squeezed from freshly grated coconut. While canned/UHT/reconstituted coconut milk can be used, this convenience comes at the expense of taste and nutrition.

Traditionally, all Sri Lankan dishes such as this milk rice dish were cooked in clay pots known as “hattiya” හට්ටිය over a firewood fire. These organic, unglazed earthen cooking pots coupled with a firewood fire, which together were known as a “dhara lipa” දර ලිප (“dhara” දර meaning “firewood” and “lipa” ලිප meaning “hearth”) impart a distinctively appetizing, earthy flavor and smoky aroma to the food.

Nowadays, modern day kitchen utensils and equipment such as rice cookers and stainless steel cooking vessels have found their way into Sri Lankan households. However, these utensils do not offer that unmistakeable flavor and aroma of food simmered in an earthen pot heated over a firewood fire. For maximum flavor and nutrition, the traditional, time-tested claypot and firewood fire are still the best options.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups brown rice
  • Water as needed to cook rice (quantity depends on variety of rice)
  • 1 cup thick coconut milk
  • Sea salt as desired

Method:

Wash the rice till water runs clear.

Combine water as required and cook rice as usual.

Add pinch of salt to coconut milk and stir.

Once rice is well cooked, pour coconut milk.

Stir well and cook until liquid evaporates and the result is a thick mass akin to pliable clay.

Take out rice and spread on a serving dish.

Use a knife to cut into diamond shapes.

Serve with condiments and curries.

Spicy, Hot Sri Lankan Dhal/Red Lentil Curry (“Miris Parippu” මිරිස් පරිප්පු)

“Miris parippu” is a Sri Lankan red lentil dish, hot due to a generous addition of red chili powder and spicy due to raw curry powder. “Miris” මිරිස් means “chili” in Singhalese while “parippu” පරිප්පු means “red lentils”, so taken together, the dish “miris parippu” මිරිස් පරිප්පු literally means “chili dhal” (“dhal’ being the more popular name in Sri Lanka for red lentils) or “chili red lentils”.

The red lentils are often soaked for at least 2-3 hours, or overnight if possible as when soaked they are easier to cook and easier to digest. Red lentil curries are quite popular in Sri Lanka where meat consumption is relatively low by world standards, particularly among vegetarians as it is believed to be a good plant-based source of protein.

As with most Sri Lankan dishes, there are no fixed recipes and ingredient ratios may vary depending on the individual’s preference. For instance, some cooks add tomatoes, while some leave it out. Some add a cinnamon stick while some may omit this. Some may like adding a few drops of juice from a freshly squeezed key lime while some prefer the dish without this (other varieties of lime such as kaffir lime are usually not used. Other citrus fruits are never used).

Regular Sri Lankan coconut oil, simply known as “pol thel” පොල් තෙල් in Singhalese (“pol” පොල් meaning “coconut” and “thel” තෙල් meaning “oil) results a in very flavorful and aromatic dish and it is strongly recommended to use this type of oil. Virgin coconut oil is has a very delicate flavor and aroma and as it thus usually not used to make this dish. Other types of flavorless oils such as canola or palm oil could work while delicate oils such as olive oil or robust oils such as peanut oil, sesame oil or soybean oil are not suitable. For the most authentic outcome, regular Sri Lankan coconut oil is the only choice.

Red onions, known as “rathu luunu” රතු ලූනු (“rathu” රතු meaning “red” and “luunu” ලූනු meaning “onion) in Singhalese are usually used for most Sri Lankan dishes. They are believed to be healthier and more delicious than their larger cousins, the onions commonly known as “Bombay onions” among Sri Lankans.

Good quality raw Sri Lankan curry powder (known as “amu thuna paha kudu” අමු තුනපහ කුඩු, “amu” අමු = “raw”, “thuna paha” තුනපහ = “three five” in reference to the three to five spices that go into making a curry powder, “kudu” කුඩු = “powder”) is imperative for a quality outcome. Sri Lankan curry powder is comprised of a distinct concoction of spices and as a consequence, curry powders from other cuisines such as those from Malaysia or India would not produce an authentic outcome. Curry powders lose their flavor and aroma with age, so fresher powders produce better results and older curry powders may require larger quantities to have the same result.

Preparing the dish according to traditional Sri Lankan coooking methods where food is cooked in an organic, unglazed clay pot, over a firewood fire, stirred and ladled with an organic, unglazed Sri Lankan coconut shell spoon is generally believed to produce a far more flavorful, nutritious and aromatic dish.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup red lentils – washed and soaked for at least 2-3 hours, preferably overnight
  • 3-4 tablespoons coconut oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon black mustard seeds
  • 8-10 red onions – peeled and sliced
  • 4-5 cloves garlic – peeled, sliced lengthwise
  • 2 dried red chilies – cut to 1-inch pieces, soaked in a concentrated salt water solution
  • 2-4 fresh green chilies – slit down the middle
  • 3-4 sprigs fresh curry leaves
  • 1 fresh pandan leaf
  • 1- 1 1/2 tablespoons red chili powder
  • 1/2 tablespoon red chili flakes
  • 1 – 1 1/2 tablespoons raw Sri Lankan curry powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • Salt as desired

Method:

Lightly heat a clay pot over medium heat.

Add coconut oil and let it heat up.

Add black mustard seeds and let splutter.

Add shallots, garlic, red chilies, green chilies, curry leaves and pandan leaf. Cook until onions and garlic are fragrant and slightly brown.

Lower heat to low.

Add red chili powder, red chili flakes, raw curry powder and turmeric powder. Roast, slowly over low flame until the spice powders are aromatic, stirring frequently, be careful not to burn. The mixture should turn into a deep, brownish-maroon hue.

Once spice powders are roasted, add lentils and water as required, to completely cover the lentils plus just a bit more.

Cook until the lentils are soft and mushy, stir every now and then.

Once cooked, add salt as desired.

Serve hot with rice, roti or bread.

Note:
For a version with coconut milk, follow the recipe as above but add about 1/4 cup of fresh, thick coconut milk after the red lentils have been cooked till soft and mushy. Let stew until the mixture thickens slightly then add salt as desired.

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.

Young JackFruit Curry (Polos Ambula පොලොස් ඇඹුල)

Young Jackfruit Curry - Culinary Connoisseur

“Polos” – a favorite curry to accompany a meal of rice for Sri Lankans

Young or tender jackFruit curry known as “polos ambula” පොලොස් ඇඹුල in Singhalese is a Sri Lankan favorite. “Polos” means “young jackfruit” while “ambula” means “sour” – a reference to the sour undertones of this dish resulting from the generous use of “goraka” ගොරකා.

Goraka, known in English as “garcinia cambogia” is a sour fruit, dried until blackened and shriveled, commonly used in Sri Lankan and Indian cuisine. Adjust the quantity of goraka to your taste. Some like it mildly sour while some like it stronger. The quality and age of the goraka is also an important consideration because old, poor quality goraka may not have the same strength as the fresher ones and hence may require a larger quantity than specified in the recipe.

Like many Sri Lankan dishes, there are no fixed recipes for polos ambula and different families would have different recipes passed down from generation to generation. The core ingredients however, i.e., young jackfruit, goraka, salt, chili powder, curry powder, turmeric powder, ginger, onion, garlic, curry leaves, green chilies and coconut milk remain the same. Discretionary additions vary from family to family and include grated coconut, dried Maldive fish, pandan leaves, mustard seeds and black peppercorns.

Singhalese believe small red onions (known as “rathu luunu” රතු ළූණු in Singhalese) pack more flavor and nutrition than the big onions known as “Bombay onions” in Sri Lanka. Big “Bombay” onions have slightly sweet flavor characteristics compared to the small red onions. Thus, while big red onions could be used in place of small red onions, for a more authentic polos ambula, use the small red onions.

Some Sri Lankan recipes, refer to “turmeric powder” as “saffron”. This reference is mostly made by the older generation. In ancient Europe, “turmeric” was known as “Indian saffron” (as it was commonly used as an alternative to the more expensive saffron spice) and the term made its way into the vocabulary of olden Sri Lankan cooks (“olden” meaning the generation that lived in Sri Lanka when the country was colonized by the British). While the expensive saffron threads can be used in place of turmeric and vice versa for the purposes of imparting a golden yellow tinge to food, the two have unmistakably different flavor profiles and saffron itself is never used to make this dish in Sri Lanka.

The dish usually tastes better if left for a day to allow the flavors to develop.

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

  • 1 tender jackfruit (weighing approximately 800 grams) – skinned (discard skin), and cut to bite-sized chunks
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil
  • 1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
  • 9-12 small red onions – peeled and sliced
  • 3 garlic cloves – skin peeled – finely crushed in a pestle and mortar
  • 1 teaspoon ginger – finely crushed in a pestle and mortar
  • 2-3 sprigs fresh curry leaves
  • 1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
  • 1 fresh pandan leaf
  • 2 cups thick coconut milk
  • 1 cup thin coconut milk
  • 1 tablespoon tamarind paste – discard seeds, dissolve paste with a bit of water
  • 1/2 – 1 tablespoon Maldive fish flakes (optional)
  • 1-2 pieces goraka – soaked in warm water and then made into a thick paste
  • 1-2 fresh green chilies – sliced
  • 1 1/2 – 2 tablespoons roasted Sri Lankan curry powder
  • 1 tablespoon red chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon red chili flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • Sea salt as desired

Method:

Over medium flame, heat coconut oil.

Add mustard seeds and let splutter.

Add onions, garlic, ginger, curry leaves, fenugreek, pandan leaf and fry till aromatic and slightly browned.

Add the the rest of the ingredients, but only about half of the tamarind juice. Set aside the other half.

Ensure the level of coconut milk covers the jackfruit chunks.

Reduce to flame to low and cook until jackfruit chunks are cooked and soft yet firm. It should not be mushy. Taste and make adjustments as needed. Add the tamarind juice reserved earlier to adjust the sour tones of the dish.

Once cooked, the separation of oil would be visible on the surface of the curry.

Version 2:
Ingredients:

  • 1 tender jackfruit (weighing approximately 750 grams) – skinned (discard skin), and cut to bite-sized chunks
  • 1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
  • 12-15 small red onions – peeled and sliced
  • 1/2 – 1 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1 1/2 – 2 tbsp chili powder
  • 1- 1 1/2 tablespoon Sri Lankan roasted curry powder
  • 1-2 tsp black peppercorns.
  • 1 tsp ginger
  • 1 tsp garlic
  • 2-3 fresh green chilies – sliced
  • 5-6 sprigs curry leaves
  • 2 pandan leaves
  • 2-3 pieces goraka or as desired – soften in hot water and then make a thick paste
  • 1 tbsp coconut oil
  • 2-3 cups thick coconut milk
  • 1-2 cups thin coconut milk
  • Sea salt as desired

Method:

Boil the chunks of tender jackfruit in a clay pot (preferably over firewood if available) until cooked but not too soft.

Combine the ginger, garlic and peppercorns in a “miris gala” or a pestle and mortar and crush finely.

Heat coconut oil in a pan over medium heat.

Add in mustard seeds and let them splutter.

Add sliced small red onions and saute till translucent.

Add the curry leaves, pandan leaves, and the ginger-garlic-pepper paste. Saute till aromatic.

Lower the flame and add tumeric powder, chili powder and roasted curry powder. Roast the spices till they darken and become very aromatic, stirring continuously. Be careful not to burn the spice powders which can burn very easily. Once charred, the spices cannot be used.

Transfer this mixture to the clay pot containing the boiled jackfruit chunks.

Add goraka paste and mix well. Ensure water just covers the jackfruit chunks, if there’s not enough water, add more. Add salt as desired.

Cover and let cook for a while over medium flame then reduce flame and let simmer to allow the flavors to meld.

Add the thin coconut milk and let cook for 1 minute.

Then add thick coconut milk and let simmer again until the water boils down and just a little gravy remains. For a drier version, boil until no gravy is left.

Once cooked, the separation of oil would be visible on the surface of the curry.

Jaggery Tea (Gur Ki Chai गुड़ की चाय )

Jaggery tea, , a popular beverage in India known as “gur ki chai” गुड़ की चाय or “gur chai” गुड़ चाय in Hindi, is simply a drink of black tea sweetened with jaggery (an unrefined form of sugar). Jaggery tea is particularly popular among folks in northern India during winter time as jaggery is believed to provide more nutrition and warmth compared to sugar and thereby helps to ward off winter-related illnesses. Because of the unrefined nature of jaggery, it is considered to be significantly healthier than refined sugar.

The process of making jaggery was pioneered in ancient India and this ingredient has been used in Indian cuisine for centuries. In India, jaggery, which is known as “gur” गुड़ in Hindi, is made with sugarcane juice or sap extracted from palm trees such as the palmyra palm tree and date palm tree. In addition to contributing a distinct flavor, palm tree jaggeries are considered to be more nutritious than sugarcane jaggery.

Moving south to Sri Lanka the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean”, plain black tea, a beverage very widely drunk throughout this tropical island is usually sweetened with sugar. However, the traditional practice generations ago, was to sweeten the tea with jaggery, known as “hakuru” හකුරු in Singhalese. There was a slight difference in the sweetening method compared to Indians; jaggery tea in India is made by dissolving the jaggery in black tea whereas in Sri Lanka, a little cube of jaggery would be bitten into followed by a sip of unsweetened plain black tea. This way, the Sri Lankans believed less jaggery is consumed per cup of tea.

In Sri Lanka, the most popular types of jaggery are made with sap extracted from three types of palm trees: coconut palm, kitul palm and palmyrah palm. The sap (known as “mee-raa” මී-රා in Singhalese) is boiled down and then left to harden to form jaggery. Arguably, the kitul palm jaggery is the more popular variety of the three among Sri Lankans. Jaggery from coconut palm is known as “pol hakuru” පොල් හකුරු in Singhalese (“pol” පොල් means “coconut”), jaggery from kitul palm is known as “kitul hakuru” කිතුල් හකුරු, palmyrah jaggery is known as “thal hakuru” තල් හකුරු and sugarcane jaggery is known as “ukk hakuru” උක් හකුරු.

 

Version 1 (Indian style)

Serves: 1

Serving size: 1 cup (about 250 ml)

Ingredients:

  • 1 tsp black tea
  • 1 cup spring water
  • 1-2 cubes (about 1-2 tbsp) jaggery (or as desired)
  • 1-2 cardamom pods

Method:

In a pestle and mortar, crush the cardamom pods.

In a saucepan, combine water and jaggery.

Over medium-low heat, bring to a rolling boil.

Continue boiling till jaggery is completely dissolved.

Add black tea and crushed cardamom pods.

Bring to a boil then stop heat.

Strain to a tea cup and serve hot.

Version 2 (Indian style)

Serving size: 1 cup (about 250 ml)

Serves: 1

Ingredients:

  • 1 tsp black tea
  • 1 cup spring water
  • 1 cube (about 1 tbsp) jaggery
  • 1 cm piece ginger – crushed in pestle and mortar
  • 1-2 cardamom pods
  • ¼ cup fresh full fat milk

Method:

Crush the cardamom pods in a pestle and mortar.

In a saucepan over medium-low heat, bring spring water to a rolling boil.

Add crushed ginger, crushed cardamom pods and jaggery.

Continue boiling until jaggery dissolves.

Once jaggery dissolves, add black tea.

Bring mixture to a boil.

Add milk.

Bring to a boil.

Stop heat.

Strain tea into a tea cup.

Serve hot.

Version 3 (Sri Lankan style)

Serves: 1

Serving size: 1 cup (about 250 ml)

Ingredients:

  • 1 tsp Ceylon black tea
  • 1 cup spring water
  • 1 cube jaggery

Method:

In a pot over medium-low heat, bring spring water to a rolling boil.

Stop heat.

Add black tea.

Allow tea to brew for 2-3 minutes. Be careful not to brew any longer as the tea could end up with a bitter taste.

Strain tea into a tea cup and serve with a cube of jaggery.

Lunu Miris Sambola (Chili Onion Sambola) ලුනු මිරිස් සම්බෝල

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.

Ingredients:

  • 5-6 whole dried red chilies
  • 3-4 fresh shallots – peeled
  • ½ lime – juiced
  • Salt as required

Method:

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.

Pol Sambola (Coconut Sambol) පොල් සම්බෝල

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).

Ingredients:

  • 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

Method:

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.