Sri Lankan Roasted Beets

(1 hr 15 min., serves 4)

1 lb. beets, peeled and cubed into bite-size pieces
2-3 T vegetable oil
1 t. salt
1 t. pepper
1 t. coriander seed
1/2 t. cumin seed
1/2 t. black mustard seed
2 T coconut milk
3-5 minced green chilies
1-2 T lime juice

1. Preheat oven to 350. Toss beets in oil, salt, and pepper, and spread flat on a foil-lined baking sheet. Bake 45 minutes.

2. Add coriander seed, cumin seed, and black mustard seed, and bake an additional 15 minutes, until beets are soft and slightly crispy.

3. Combine coconut milk, green chilies, and lime juice in a large bowl, stirring to blend. Add beets and toss until combined. Season to taste with salt and pepper; serve hot with rice or bread. (Pictured here with beef and potato curry and chili leeks.)

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Coconut Sambol / Thengai-Poo or Pol Sambol

(10 minutes, serves 8)

This is meant to be an accompaniment—make a batch (it keeps for weeks in the fridge) and then put a teaspoon or two on your plate with your rice/bread and curries. In Sri Lanka, they would just use straight up chili powder, instead of a mix of chili powder and paprika, which would make it fiercely spicy. If I were only going to make one accompaniment for the rest of my life, pol sambol would be my choice, although seeni sambol would be a very close second.

1 cup desiccated unsweetened coconut

3 TBL hot milk (I heat mine in the microwave)

1 rounded tsp salt

1 rounded tsp chili powder

2 rounded tsp paprika

2-3 TBL lime juice, to taste

1 medium onion, minced fine

1.  Reconstitute coconut in a large bowl with the hot milk. I recommend using your fingers to squeeze the milk through the coconut. (If you can get fresh or frozen grated coconut, that is, of course, even better, and you can skip this step.)

2.  Add salt, chili powder, paprika, lime juice, and onion. Mix thoroughly with your hand, rubbing ingredients together until well blended.

Note: If you don’t feel that your onion is minced sufficiently fine (ideally, to match the texture of the coconut), you can use a food processor to chop it more finely, or grind it with a mortar and pestle. You can grind just the onions, or the whole mixture.

 

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Sweet Onion Sambol / Seeni Sambol

(1 hour, serves 8)

The Sri Lankan version of caramelized onions is sweet, spicy, and tangy. It’s important to cook the onions slowly—all the liquid in the onion must evaporate if you want the sambol to keep well. Made properly, this dish can keep for several weeks in the fridge, so you can enjoy a little with each curry meal for quite a long time. An essential accompaniment for hoppers, and delicious with many other meals.

1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 TBL Maldive fish, powdered (optional)
4 medium onions, finely sliced
2 rounded tsp chili powder
1 inch cinnamon stick
3 cloves
3 cardamom pods
1 stalk curry leaves
1 tsp salt, or to taste
2 TBL tamarind pulp
2 TBL sugar

1. Heat oil in a large frying pan and start sautéing onions on medium-low (with Maldive fish, if using). Add cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, curry leaves, and chill powder; continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until soft and transparent, about 30 minutes.

 

2. After about 30 minutes, cover pan, and simmer 10 minutes.

3. Uncover pan and continue simmering, stirring occasionally, until liquid evaporates and oil starts to separate from other ingredients. Season to taste with salt.

4. Remove from heat, stir in sugar and tamarind pulp and allow to cool before putting in a clean dry jar. Use in small quantities.

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Hoppers / Appam

If I had to pick the perfect Sri Lankan meal, this would be it. There’s nothing like breaking off a crisp piece of hopper, dipping it into broken egg, and scooping up some curry and a bit of seeni sambol. Delectable.

These rice flour pancakes have a unique shape; fermented batter is swirled in a special small hemispherical pan, so you end up with a soft, spongy center, and lacey, crispy sides — that contrast is the true glory of the hopper. Typically you’d make one egg hopper per person, plus another plain hopper or two, and maybe a sweet hopper to finish up.

If you don’t have a hopper pan, you can make hoppers in a regular frying pan; you just won’t get quite as much of the crispy sides. It’s a little time-consuming to make hoppers, since each one must be individually steamed for a few minutes, but with practice, you can have four hopper pans going on a stove at once. I’d recommend starting with just one pan at a time, though! Serve with curry and seeni sambol.

2 cups South Asian rice flour (or a mix of rice and wheat flour)
1 tsp sugar
pinch of baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups coconut milk
eggs for egg hoppers
extra coconut milk and jaggery for sweet hoppers

1. Mix first five ingredients thoroughly in a large bowl, cover, and set in a warm, turned-off oven to ferment overnight. (In a cold climate, fermentation may not occur without a little help—I turn my oven on to 250 degrees, and when it’s reached temperature, turn it off and put the covered bowl in the oven to stay warm.)

2. Mix again, adding water if necessary to make a quite thin, pourable batter.

3. Heat pan (grease if not non-stick) on medium, and when it’s hot, pour about 1/3 cup batter into the center. Pick up the pan immediately and swirl the batter around, coating the cooking surface. The sides of the hopper should end up with holes in them: thin, lacy, and crisp – if the batter is coating the pan more thickly, mix in some hot water to thin it down. Cover and let cook for 2-4 minutes — you’ll know it’s ready when the sides have started to brown and the center is thoroughly cooked. A silicone spatula will help with getting the hopper out of the pan.

4. For egg hoppers, after swirling, crack an egg in the center before covering. The egg will cook as the hopper does, finishing in about 3-4 minutes.

 

5. For sweet hoppers, after swirling, add a tablespoon of coconut milk and a teaspoon of jaggery to the center of the pan, then cook as usual.

 

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Tangy Peppered Beef Stew

(2 hours, serves 8)

This is very similar to a traditional British beef stew, but the Sri Lankan version adds vinegar and peppercorns for a distinctly different flavor. I love to chew on the peppercorns for a bit of sharp bite, and will sometimes add even more peppercorns to the pot.

3 lbs beef chuck, cubed, large pieces of fat removed
2 cups beef stock
2 TBL ghee or vegetable oil
2-inch piece cinnamon stick
8 cloves
40 peppercorns
1-2 tsp salt
2 cups vinegar
3 medium onions, peeled and cut in eighths
2-3 large potatoes, peeled and cut in large pieces
4 carrots, cut in large pieces

1. In a large stew pan, heat the oil on high, add the meat and brown on all sides (avoid crowding the pan, as that will cause it to steam instead of browning—do the meat in two batches if necessary).

2. When nicely browned, pour in beef stock and a sufficient quantity of the water to cover the meat. Add the cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns, salt, and vinegar. Bring to a boil, then cover, turn down heat to low, and let simmer for 30 minutes.

3. Add the vegetables, turn the heat to high long enough for the stew to come to boil, then turn it back down to low and continue to cook, uncovered, until the meat is tender and the vegetables are cooked through, about an hour. You’re aiming for the sauce being reduced to a thick gravy, so add water or cook the liquid off as needed. Serve hot, with hearty white bread or rice.

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Sausage, Cannellini, Pasta and Peas

(45 minutes, serves 6)

You may remember that I’m on something of a kick to convince the kids to eat beans, as part of an attempt to get us to eat healthier and also less carnivorously.  (I don’t know that we’re likely to ever go all-vegetarian, given how much we like meat and how weak our wills are, but we can at least reduce how much meat we eat, which is better than nothing, for ourselves, for the animals, for the planet.)  You may also remember that pasta with broccoli rabe and cannellini beans was a dismal failure — the broccoli rabe was so bitter that the kids declared the entire dish inedible.  (Kevin and I liked it.)

For take two, I figured I would coax them into it.  I’d use flavors I knew they liked (chicken broth and Parmesan), I’d add in Italian sausage, and I’d cut the amount of beans in half, so they’d be a little less overwhelming.  Success was…mixed.  I thought it was delicious, though the peas were perhaps a little too similar in texture to the beans.  (Should’ve stuck with my original plan to serve this with broccolini, but I forgot to pick some up at the store, oops.)  Anand ate his entire plate and had seconds, hooray!

Kavya, sadly, avoided both beans and peas (she did have two bites of each, to show willing, but that was all I could talk her into), ate lots of sausage, and said that even her beloved pasta tasted strange to her.  Ah well.  I’ll probably try making this or something like it a few more times and hope that she gets more accustomed to the flavors.

2 T olive oil
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb. Italian sausage, skin cut off
1/2 c. white wine
2 c. chicken broth
1 c. canned cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 c. grated Parmesan
1/2 t. crushed red pepper
2 c. cooked pasta (I used veggie penne)
1/2 c. frozen peas
additional Parmesan for grating on top

1. Sauté onion in olive oil on medium-high, stirring, until softened.  Add garlic and continue sautéing until onions are golden-translucent.

2.  Turn heat to high, add Italian sausage and break up, stirring, into small chunks, letting sausage brown a little.

3.  After a few minutes, add white wine to deglaze the pan, scraping up any browned bits.  Add chicken broth and beans, stirring to combine.  Add Parmesan and crushed red pepper.  Simmer on medium until sausage is cooked through, 5-10 more minutes.  By that point, the liquid should have reduced to a nice thick sauce.

4.  Stir in pasta and frozen peas and cook a few minutes more, until well combined.  Serve hot, passing additional Parmesan for grating.

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Shrimp and Potato Curry

(30 minutes, serves 6)

I had a busy work day yesterday, so it was six o’clock before I had a chance to look at the calendar and remind myself what the evening plans were — only to be reminded that I’d planned to go to a refugee-supporting potluck, which started at six  o’clock!

We were supposed to bring something to share from countries that might be affected by a refugee ban, so I obviously wanted to bring Sri Lankan food.  But I needed something I could make fast!

I also ideally wanted to bring a savory dish, and something with protein, because potlucks tend to lean heavy towards the sweets and the starches.  I poked around in the freezer and pantry, confirmed I had frozen shrimp and russet potatoes; that meant I had a plan in place.  By 6:30, I was transferring the curry into a disposable container and heading out the door; just a few minutes later, people were tucking into the food enthusiastically.  Yum.

2 T vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped fine
2 T ginger-garlic paste
1 t. mustard seed
1 t. cumin seed
1 stalk curry leaves
1 T chili powder
1 t. Sri Lankan curry powder
1/4 c. ketchup
1 t. salt
1 lb. frozen peeled raw shrimp
1 lb. russet potatoes, peeled and cubed small
1 T lime juice

1.  Put potato cubes in a microwave-safe bowl with water to cover and microwave 5 minutes to par-boil.  Let sit until needed.

2.  While potatoes are microwaving, sauté onions in oil or ghee with ginger-garlic paste, mustard seed, cumin seed, and curry leaves, stirring on high, until onions are golden-translucent, about 5 minutes.

3.  Stir in chili powder, curry powder, ketchup, and salt.  Stir a minute or two to blend.

4.  Add potatoes with their cooking water.  Add shrimp (still frozen is fine).  Continue cooking on high, stirring occasionally, until shrimp are cooked and pink, and potatoes are soft.

 

5.  Add lime juice, give a final stir or two, and serve hot with rice or bread.

 

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Kith and Kin

hair, clothes, and kitchen
redolent with roasted spices
cooking deep into the night
with children and husband asleep
this much unchanged, untranslated

I stand over the pan, stirring
low and slow, singing to amuse
myself — haste would destroy
the spell of memory, consanguinity

coriander cumin fennel fenugreek
in order of decreasing amount
cinnamon cloves cardamom
curry leaves and chili powder

if I have to look up the ingredients
every time, am I insufficiently
authentic? eventually, I will grind
knowledge into my bones

Ammama, could you have guessed
your granddaughter would live
half a world away, would structure
love so differently, would pass your
recipes to a thousand strangers?

in the old days, recipes were hoarded
like gold bangles; a dowry locked
in your mind could not be stolen
now I give them away, scatter them
like kisses on the networked seas

I suspect it would frighten you,
what a daughter might give away
might lose forever. yet perhaps
the world is changing. a woman
may give herself away, undiminished

trust me. what the seas carried
away, they will return; your children’s
children are with you
though at times unrecognizable

bend down your head and breathe
deep, roasting scents tangled in my hair
see — you know me still. some things
come back to you, a thousandfold

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Chicken Curry / Kozhi Kari

(1 hour, serves 6)

Continuing in the project of accustoming my children to Sri Lankan food, I made chicken curry last night, which is one of the classic dishes that you will find at many local restaurants.  I reduced the chili powder from my standard two tablespoons to just one, and that was the only change my daughter needed to be perfectly happy with the dish.  Hooray!  My son, sadly, thought it ‘tasted weird.’  We ended up supplementing his dinner with chicken nuggets out of the freezer.  (Standard recipe below.)

I suspect I will just have to keep making the curry, and keep having him taste it, until Anand is actually accustomed to it.  I should have undoubtedly started this process years and years ago, but better late than never, I suppose.  One of our goals for this year is to actually get the whole family eating the same dinner more often, which should, in the long run, make our lives a lot easier.

One thing worth noting in these photos is the color change from the second to third photo.  A key to a good chicken curry is having a tasty kulambu (or kuzhambu, depending on how you do the transliteration), which is basically the curry sauce or gravy.  Some people make it more liquid, some more thick (if you use potatoes in this dish, they will thicken the sauce).  In this recipe you build a fairly spicy sauce, and then add whole milk partway through the cooking process, which melds the flavors and mellows the spice level, lending your curry a creamy richness.

You can use other kinds of milk if you’d prefer, and in fact, coconut milk is often used in Sri Lanka, but coconut milk is a little rich for everyday cooking — my family tends to save it for special occasion meals.  I’ve used goat milk (works fine) and soy milk (a little thin, but acceptable).  Almond milk is quite thin, and has a distinct nutty flavor — it’s not bad, but it does take the curry in a different direction; if you can find cashew milk, that might be a better option.

Note:  If you’re using coconut milk, which is fairly sweet, you may want to switch out the ketchup for chopped fresh tomatoes + a little vinegar.  My mother started using ketchup (which has sugar in it already) to compensate for the lack of sweetness in cow’s milk, when she first came to America as an immigrant in 1973, and coconuts and coconut milk were not so easy to come by.

3-5 medium onions, diced
3 TBL vegetable oil
1 tsp black mustard seed
1 tsp cumin seed
3 whole cloves
3 whole cardamom pods
1 cinnamon stick, broken into 3 pieces
1-2 TBL red chili powder
1 TBL Sri Lankan curry powder
12 pieces chicken, about 2 1/2 lbs, skinned and trimmed of fat. (Use legs and thighs — debone them if you must, but they’ll be tastier if cooked on the bone. Don’t use breast meat — it’s not nearly as tasty.) (Alternately, use 6 pieces of chicken, and three russet potatoes, peeled and cubed)
1/3 cup ketchup
1 heaping tsp salt
1/2 cup milk
1 TBL lime juice

1. In a large pot, sauté onions in oil on medium-high with mustard seed and cumin seed, cloves, cardamom pods, and cinnamon pieces, until onions are golden/translucent (not brown). Add chili powder and cook one minute. Immediately add curry powder, chicken, ketchup, and salt.

2.  Lower heat to medium. Cover and cook, stirring periodically, until chicken is cooked through and sauce is thick, about 20 minutes. Add water if necessary to avoid scorching. Add potatoes if using, and add milk, to thicken and mellow spice level; stir until well blended.

3.  Cook an additional 20 minutes, until potatoes are cooked through. Add lime juice; simmer a few additional minutes, stirring. Serve hot.

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Fusion Food: Tamales with Beef Curry

I was a little frustrated yesterday when I steamed a dozen frozen tamales (handmade by a local mom) for a potluck we were hosting, and discovered after steaming them that we were out of tomatillo sauce.  I’d sworn we had at least half a bottle left in the fridge, but no, there was no tomatillo sauce to be had for love or money.  I was craving that tangy flavor, and I knew that my tamales would be a little sad and dry without it.  But then I had a flash of what I swear is brilliance — I had a little beef curry left, and it was also beautifully tangy.  Could I possibly combine it with the tamales?

Dear reader, the answer is yes.  Chicken tamales pair fabulously with a tangy slow-cooked, meat falling off the bone beef curry, topped with a generous dollop of sour cream.  Guess I know what I’m having for my next few meals…

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