Sri Lankan Spinach Curry

Sri Lankan Spinach Curry

A friend asked me for a good spinach curry recipe, and I had to admit that I’ve never managed one I was happy with, so I tried working on it this weekend. I love saag / palak in restaurants, but my earlier attempts came out sort of watery and lacking in flavor; they just made me sad.

So I spent a while looking up recipes, and it seemed like most of the ones I found which might approximate restaurant saag used chopped spinach and went heavy on the cream. Which, okay, cream makes things delicious. But I was hoping to do a vegan version, and also one that was a little bit lighter and healthier, with some good fresh spinach brightness.

The key to that, I think, is the onions. And I know you’ve heard me go on about onions before, and their importance to Sri Lankan cuisine, but seriously, the amount of flavor you get out of a properly cooked onion is hard to beat.

For this, I chopped a mix of red onion and shallot — you could do either separately; I just happened to have both on hand. Yellow or white onions would also be fine, but the red onion and shallots gave a sweetness and delicacy that I thought worked particularly well with the fresh spinach. (And of course, they were awfully pretty contrasting with the curry leaves and green chili as I cooked!)

After that, it was a fairly standard base approach — sauté in oil or ghee with cumin seed and mustard seed (I call for traditional black mustard seed in my recipes, but brown is really fine; I’d avoid yellow, though, as it changes the flavor noticeably) until golden. Keeping heat on medium or even medium-low will reduce the risk of burning if you’ve stepped away to chop something; it’ll take a little longer, but the onions also caramelize beautifully this way, so if you can afford the time, I’d do that.

Add garlic after a bit (if you put it in with the onions initially, it’s susceptible to burning), curry leaves if you have them (there are no good substitutes, so just skip if not), and chopped green chili. (I didn’t have fresh ginger on hand, but if I did, I would have added some with the onions. Since I didn’t, I added a t. of ground ginger later in the dish, with the turmeric and salt.)

This basic approach is what I’d recommend for most of our vegetable curries, and indeed, for curries in general.

I’ve found over the past few years of talking to folks about their cooking habits that a lot of people skip the onions in a dish, or reduce the amount dramatically, not realizing that they’re the base of the flavor. That applies to Italian spaghetti sauce as much as to Sri Lankan curry.

I know chopping onions is a bit of a pain, but it can’t be beat for depth of flavor. There’s a reason why cooking school makes aspiring chefs start with chopping mounds and mounds and mounds of onions. 


So once you have the seasoned onions cooked down nicely (see previous post), the next step is to add some more spices — turmeric and salt are really all you need at this point. And then you could use chopped frozen spinach, but if you have fresh baby spinach, it’s lovely — I dumped two bags in here.

You basically can’t stir them at this point without lots of spinach falling out of your pan (I tried), but if you’re just patient and let it be, within a few minutes the spinach will have reduced enough to stir into the onions for a few more minutes.

You could stop the recipe at this point if you’re aiming for super-healthy low-calorie greens, and it would be tasty! But I definitely wanted a sauce, and anyway, coconut makes things better. So I added 1 cup (half a can) of coconut milk and stirred that in too.

You’re almost done at this point — the last step, always, is to check the seasonings. I’ve been surprised to learn, over the last few years of working on the cookbook, how many people are intimidated by phrases like ‘salt to taste.’

As a very rough estimate, most ‘feed 4-6 people’ dishes I use call for a teaspoon of salt for the pot, so if you’re really not sure, I’d go with something like that.

(Better to undersalt than over, so if you’re not sure, start with 1/2 a teaspoon — you can always add more, but you can’t take salt out of the curry!

If you DO oversalt, that’s tricky to fix — if it’s a dish where you can add potatoes, I’d do that (you can cut them up and cook them in the microwave separately, or boil them, so that you’re adding cooked potatoes to the dish, rather than raw potatoes which will make the whole dish cook for an extra 20-30 minutes, dulling the overall flavors.

Alternately, make a second batch of the dish, without salt. Combine them, so the salt flavors the whole thing more evenly. And if you have too much for your needs, then freeze some. That’s a lot of work, though, and requires you to have enough ingredients on hand to do this. Or you can freeze the over-salted batch to fix on another day, labelling appropriately. Yes, I’ve done this. Have I mentioned that I *hate* wasting food?)

I always take a little bit of sauce at the end, dab it on the back of my left hand, and lick it up to taste. Sometimes it’s perfect; sometimes it wants a little more salt. For this one, I added another 1/2 t. of salt, and then a T of fresh-squeezed lime juice. (Bottled is fine if you don’t have fresh on hand.)

Be a little careful adding lemon or lime if you’re using cream instead of coconut milk — when acid hits hot dairy, it tends to curdle. You’ll make cheese, which is another post altogether. So stir in the cream or coconut milk, let it cook and blend with the other ingredients for a few minutes, make sure your heat is at medium and not boiling over, and THEN add the lime juice.

The result will be glorious.  Enjoy with rice and curry, or as we did this weekend, spread on naan and toasted as delicious flatbread / pizza.

Will post actual recipe in next post, with measurements.

Part 3

Sri Lankan Spinach Curry
(30 minutes, serves 4; gluten-free, vegan)

(This is the actual recipe — see previous two posts for Cook’s Illustrated-style explication of recipe development + paean to onions.)

2 medium onions (preferably red), chopped fine
2 T oil or ghee
1 t. black mustard seed
1 t. cumin seed
1 T ginger, chopped
1 dozen curry leaves
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1 t. salt
1/2 t. turmeric
22 ounces baby spinach (2 bags)
1 c. coconut milk
1 T lime juice

1. Sauté onions in oil or ghee over medium heat. Add mustard seed, cumin seed, ginger, and curry leaves.

2. After a few minutes, add chopped garlic, salt, and turmeric, and continue cooking until golden-translucent, stirring as needed, about 15 minutes total.

3. Add spinach to pan (in two batches if necessary, depending on size of pan), let cook down for a few minutes. When reduced, stir into onions and cook for a few more minutes.

4. Add coconut milk and stir; add lime juice and stir. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed. Serve hot with rice or roti.


I could photograph this spinach curry ALL DAY. 

(And hey, ten years in, my zinc island countertop really has weathered and patinated the way I’d hoped. Makes me so happy. (It’s not heat-proof, though, so use with care.))

(Sri Lankan spinach curry recipe in previous post.)

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Our Valentine’s weekend brunch, courtesy Kavya.

Our Valentine’s weekend brunch, courtesy Kavya.

(How much mess was generated in this process? So much. Did we make her clean it up? Not this time — we’re mostly working on her being confident in the kitchen right now; we’ll get to ‘clean as you go’ when she’s a little steadier on the actual cooking part. Our Valentine’s present to her was silently cleaning it all up later in the day…  )

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Happy Valentine’s Day, y’all

Happy Valentine’s Day, y’all. One of the best bits of the internet is sharing these holidays with you all.

Funniest bit of this morning — Anand was so focused on the show he was watching on his iPad that he walked right past this multiple times (getting his breakfast quesadilla, feeding the pets), before Mommy finally said, “Anand, Happy Valentine’s Day!” And then he looked up and saw this and ran over.

Both kids were most excited by the chocolate-covered strawberries (Kavi is packing some of those and the raspberries up to take to school right now to share with her friends), but the dried fruit will keep better.

If we weren’t hosting an event on Sunday (SLF Chicago chapter meeting, all SF/F readers, writers, and geeks welcome), I’d probably end up freezing some of it for a party (or a rainy day) down the road.

Little hearts courtesy PaperSource — I’ll save them for a craft project for me or the kids…

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Lunch date with Kevin at Mama Thai

(Can I encourage Americans to make a little extra effort to patronize Chinese restaurants esp. but also generally Asian restaurants right now? News reports that they’re getting hit with a notable downturn in customer business across the U.S. due to unfounded coronavirus fears.)

Lunch date with Kevin at Mama Thai, which is a convenient two block walk away (if that). The lunch special (small appetizer, small soup, entree) is actually too much food for us if we both order it; we ended up taking the potstickers home for Anand, who adores them.

And because I added their steamed shumai off the main menu (which I adore and cannot resist — sometimes I just get myself two orders of shumai for dinner), we ended up taking the green curry chicken and rice home too, and ate it for dinner.

I did doctor it a bit — it was a little watery for my taste (I’m guessing they have a big vat of it going for the lunch special, which is totally reasonable, but means it’s not their best cooking generally). So I cooked it down for another 5-10 minutes on the stovetop and stirred the rice in, which took it to just the concentrated spicy green goodness I was craving. I would’ve taken a photo, but I ate it too fast. 

It’s not the smilingest photo of Kevin, but I include it because he is carefully taking all the mushrooms out of his tom yum soup and putting them in my bowl. It is sad that he doesn’t appreciate mushrooms, but on the other hand, MOAR mushrooms for me…

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Valentine’s present for Kev and the kids

Valentine’s present for Kev and the kids: 30 minutes with fresh strawberries, dried apples, pears, mangos, crystallized ginger, and four kinds of chocolate. 


Same as previous, plus 30 minutes more, drizzled chocolate, powdered dehydrated raspberries, and fresh raspberries stuffed with white chocolate chips. Everything but the ruby chocolate (which I get on Amazon in a big bag) picked up this afternoon at Target. 

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Sunday dinner: sushi

Sunday dinner was Kavi’s turn, and she picked sushi, which is sort of a funny choice, given that the only sushi she has historically been willing to even try are California rolls. But okay. Kevin doesn’t eat fish, Anand wasn’t sure he wanted to even try sushi, so this was going to be interesting.

But it actually turned out okay, in large part because I got my groceries at H Mart, which is I think mostly Korean with a good supply of Japanese. They had everything I needed in easy packaging, including some already marinated beef, which Kevin could grill for us, and which I was pretty sure would be a reliable way to feed Anand. (They also had both American cucumber and Korean cucumber — the latter is lovely, with a delicate, sweet flavor.)

The kids were startled by the intense scent of the seasoned rice vinegar hitting the rice — we almost lost them then.

But they had a blast deciding what they wanted to put on their sushi, and rolling it up. Whew. Anand went for the sweet omelette, grilled meat, and bell pepper. Kavi was indignant that they’d made eggs sweet — she was not expecting that. She didn’t even try for a California roll, in the end, going for beef, bell pepper, and avocado. Kevin did cucumber and avocado, and I indulged myself with salmon, avocado, cucumber, and tobiko.

The kids did not try the wasabi, soy sauce, or pickled ginger. We’re going to have to ease them into other cuisines, clearly.

The kids loved getting to be artistic with their food. Anand hit upon the idea of using tobiko (which he had no intention of eating) to decorate his plate, and Kavi was envious that he’d managed to coordinate the tobiko, the bell pepper, and his orange shirt.

(I ended up eating his tobiko. No food waste in this house!)

Overall, the kids probably liked the flavors of this the least of the 6 family dinners we’ve done so far this year (Daddy’s baked chicken wrapped in cheese and prosciutto is the standout hit so far), but they did eat enough to count as a meal, which was good. And they want to do it again, which is great — a lot of this is simple unfamiliarity. If we keep having food from other cuisines, their palates should get more accustomed.


Fingers crossed, anyway. I *love* sashimi, so the more I can get them headed in that direction, the happier I’ll be. I was in my 20s the first time I had sushi, and the guy I was dating had to coax me in with California rolls because I was intimidated by the raw fish concept. How things have changed!

(We don’t usually have phones at the table for family dinner, but in this photo, Kavi is photographing her food for her Instagram feed. Like mother, like daughter…)


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Quick question primarily for vegetarians/vegans

Quick question (primarily for vegetarians / vegans).

Some of you may remember that I did two little mini cookbooks before Feast, The Marshmallows of Serendib and Vegan Serendib. I thought to keep the price point low on those e-books, so they’re more samplers — marshmallows is just 13 recipes, and vegan is 41 recipes. The vegan one is priced at $5.99 currently. (Marshmallows is $2.99).

I was thinking about it more, and I keep feeling like heck, at least half of Feast is already vegan (as is much Sri Lankan cuisine by nature, esp. since we use coconut milk instead of cow milk). Maybe I should just do another edition of that book, and put ALL the vegan recipes from Feast in there?

I’d already been thinking about doing this for a while, and then last night I just read an article about the vegan race wars in Nosrat’s Best American Food Writing 2019: “The Vegan Race Wars: How the Mainstream Ignores Vegans of Color” (Khusbhu Shah). (Recommended, fairly short: Which emphasized to me that it’d be good to have more visible representation in America of vegan cuisine from other parts of the world.

But if I do put ALL the vegan recipes from Feast in this vegan e-book, it does undercut the main book sales. (As a reminder, I have 2000 hardcover print copies sitting in a warehouse right now. Eep.) To avoid that, I should probably raise the price to something closer to the ebook price for Feast? (Mascot Books — I don’t see a pre-order page for Feast ebook on Amazon — am I missing it? Jed, do you know?)


I guess this is a question mostly for vegans (I’m not sure whom I know who is vegan, aside from Swati?) and maybe vegetarians:

Would you be interested in buying a 100+ recipe vegan version of Feast of Serendib, at something like $9.99 for the ebook? With a possible print edition to follow eventually, if there’s interest and I have time? (Really, more if Stephanie Bailey and Heather Rainwater Campbell have time, as I suspect much of the production work would fall to them.)

Or should I just stop thinking about this and just leave the little vegan sampler up there as is? (We’re going to have our Feast cover designer Jeremy John Parker change the cover regardless, to make it look more like the Feast cover and less like something I hacked together on Canva, so I have to upload a new edition anyway, which is another part of why I’m thinking about all this.)

Small version already up:


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Mango Chocolates

Mango chocolates — I took dehydrated mango and crushed it in the food processor (thanks for the tip, Pooja Makhijani!), then stirred that into melted dark chocolate. Tasted it, good, but could use more punch — I added some amchur, Indian dried green mango powder. That brought nice tang to it, excellent choice. Still could use more mango (MOAR MANGO), so chopped up some dried mango and stirred that in too. Now we’re cooking! Mango-y goodness.

From that point it was was just pouring the chocolate into the pretty molds, and we could’ve stopped there and been happy. But why stop there? We decided to gild the lily and add a bit of edible gilt to the tops. I also did some in the half-round molds and drizzled white chocolate over those. Just ’cause. Making confections really is like playing sometimes.

The final texture was interesting — a bit of crunch from the larger pieces of dehydrated mango, along with the chew from the dried mango. I really liked how these came out, and they’re also Kavi-approved. I’m afraid I didn’t write down measurements this time, so I can’t give you a proper recipe — sorry! I will if I make them again.

Anand does say he likes fresh mango better; he’s the fruit addict in our household, even though he also loves sweets. You should see him go through a fruit bowl — it’s a thing of beauty. I probably agree with him, actually, but fresh, ripe mango is not always available in wintery Chicago, alas.

These mango chocolates are a pleasant though totally different thing.

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Mango creams: failure, and a really delectable silver lining

Chronicles of mango cream chocolate failure, take two.

So, if you remember, my first attempt at mango cream chocolate didn’t succeed because the frozen mango chunks ended up really lacking in flavor. Which surprised me, but maybe it shouldn’t have, because one thing the mango ice cream recipes all said was that it was essential to use really ripe, flavorful mangoes to get good mango ice cream — unlike, say, passionfruit, where the flavor and tang seem to cut through effectively even with a relatively weak puree.

So for try #2, I went with mango pulp (Kesar was what I had on hand, though I think Roshani prefers a different brand?), which I’ve found reliable for flavor in mango fluff, mango smoothies, mango lassi, etc. So the next problem was consistency — I wanted something that would set up into a firm cream.

On googling, I found some recipes that combined mango with cream cheese, so I tried that first, but putting in enough pulp to get the flavor I wanted resulted in a very liquid-y mixture that would definitely not set firm. I didn’t want to waste it, so I thought I’d try combining that with a sugar paste like the one I’d done for the rose creams — beaten egg whites and powdered sugar. One photo here shows the color — pure mango pulp on the left, my mixture on the right.

Unfortunately, while the resulting mixture was tasty, it still didn’t set firmly enough. As you can see, when you try to slice it, it spurts messily all over the place. Sort of like how a cherry cordial behaves, but even more so. And it tastes good, but the proportions are off — it’s too much chocolate to the amount of mango in the filled chocolate (and I can’t fill it more without it failing to seal).

Plus, the chocolates are too big to easily eat in one bite; you really do need to be able to bite them in half, and then take a second bite. This size mold worked great for the chocolates I filled with the passionfruit / ginger / cashew paste, but it’s just failing for this on all fronts.

All is not lost. The resulting mango cream, when frozen, is delicious enough that I want to just eat it with a spoon. I have a plate full of these chocolates, and my plan is to make another batch of homemade vanilla ice cream, freeze the chocolates and chop them up, and then stir that mixture into the soft-serve vanilla ice cream, along with the rest of the mango filling (which I’ll thaw first, for ease of stirring in).

And then I’ll freeze that all together, and I should have a really delectable vanilla / ruby chocolate / mango ice cream to serve at some special occasion.

Mango creams, though — I’m going to have to experiment a little more. I do really like the fruitiness of the ruby chocolate with the mango, so I want to keep those elements. I see two options:

a) I could buy mango extract and use it with powdered sugar and egg white to make a mango sugar-paste, the way I did with the rose creams, but the reviews of mango extracts on Amazon seem very not promising — if anyone here (Carollina, Pooja, Roshani) has a brand they actually like, I’d love to know. For that approach, I probably wouldn’t use the molds — I’d just dip in melted chocolate, the way I did for the rose creams. That should help with proportions being right.

b) I could experiment further to make a cream that actually sets using mango pulp, to use in molded chocolates. I’m not sure what the right approach would be there, honestly. Gelatin, perhaps? It would help it set, but the consistency might end up more of a mango jelly than a mango cream — maybe that’s fine, though. The goal is just to have something firm that would stand up to biting into.

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Chocolates in space

Even though this mango cream chocolate confection didn’t work out (details in next post), I do love this photo. The ruby chocolate took an interesting mottled look in the mold, and the way that contrasts with my now ten-year-old zinc countertop — it’s just cool and vaguely science fiction-y.  When my passions collide…


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