Sri Lankan condiment

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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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.