Monday, December 26, 2022

Around the World in 80 Dishes: Sri Lanka

As a young kid, I was always fascinated with maps, both new and old. I spent a lot of time going from continent to continent,  country to country. I spent a lot of time learning the geography of each country ... their shapes, capitals, major cities, and much more. Whenever I looked at these maps, one teardrop-shaped  island always caught my eye. It has the shape of a little teardrop, falling off the southeastern coast of the Asian subcontinent. I traced the outline of the island, from Jaffna at the tip, down the coast through either Colombo or Trimcomalee, to the bottom at Matara. All of those old maps referred to that little island as "Ceylon."  Go back further, and the island was referred to as "Serendip," short for serendipity. 

Since 1972, the country has been known as Sri Lanka (which translates as "resplendent island") or, officially, the Socialist Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka. The country is home to diverse groups, from the majority Sinhalese to a large minority of Tamils, along with Moors, Burghers, Malay, Chinese and indigenous people known as the Vedda. Nearly every major religion -- Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam -- is practiced in Sri Lanka. This multi-ethnic country provides the setting for my latest Around the World in 80 Dishes personal culinary challenge. 

This particular challenge has probably been the longest of my Around the World challenges in terms of the recipe planning. That planning began a few years ago. I met one of my best friends for dinner at a pop-up restaurant.  The menu featured a range of Sri Lankan dishes.  We selected a range of dishes from all of the categories on the menu. Every single dish was an amazing experience. 

Since that pop-up dinner, I had a lot of thoughts about what I would prepare if I would be presented with the challenge of making a main course from Sri Lanka as part of my Around the World in 80 Dishes culinary challenge. I started to organize my thoughts, but, then I realized that I needed to learn more about the cuisine itself. This challenge provided me with the best opportunity for that education. It was a challenge that I was more than ready to accept.

One common theme emerged very early in my research is the following: Sri Lankans curry just about anything and everything. As someone who loves everything about the cuisine from the subcontinent, this theme greatly appeals to me. It led me to spend some extra time learning about just what makes this cuisine so special. 

I searched the internet for articles about the ingredients, cooking processes and ingredients, finding some articles that provided a decent background into Sri Lankan cuisine. However, it was a the book Lanka Food that really fueled my research. The book provided an introduction into the cooking processes (such as use of chatty pots over a hearth) and ingredients (with explanations for ingredients that I have never heard of or used before, such as pandan leaves, goraka and Maldive fish chips).  Most importantly, it provided another source of recipes from which I could use as a guide for not only the main course, but also the accompaniments, such as the sambols. 

One final note about Sri Lankan cuisine, which ties into something that has really caught my attention in recent months. It is how the cuisine incorporates the five flavors - sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. I was first introduced to this concept through Vietnamese cuisine, where it is known as "Ngu Hanh" or "Ngu Vi." I got to learn more about this concept with my introduction to Sichuan cuisine, which actually adds additional flavors, such as "fragrant." As with Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine, Sri Lankan cuisine incorporates this balancing of different flavors, and, it often does so not just in one dish, but by the incorporation of multiple dishes, such as the pairing of a curry with a sambol.

For this challenge, I decided to do more than just the main course. I had too much information in front of me to simply complete the challenge and move on to the next one. I wanted to try to create that balance of flavors through not just one dish, but with a whole meal. So, here it goes....


For the cuisine that curries everything, the most iconic of Sri Lanka's curries revolves around chicken. Sri Lankans refer to it as Kukul Mas. The history of this dish traces it to Colombo, which was the country's historical capital. (The capital, at least for legislative purposes, has moved to Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte.) It is a dish that comes from the island's Sinhalese community. They represent a majority of the Sri Lankan population and their cuisine has been described as one of the most complex of South Asia. While I am still looking for an adequate explanation of that complexity, the one thing that I have learned from this challenge that there is a complexity in terms of how different flavors and textures are added to dishes. 

This chicken curry dish provides an example of another feature of Sri Lankan cuisine: the many variations of dishes. In some respects, there are as many variations of Kukul Mas as there are families and restaurants that prepare the dish. Many of the variations are based on the different spices used to create the curry powder. Other variations surround other ingredients. For example, some recipes for Kukul Mas use tomatoes or tomato puree (a nod to the colonial influences that brought the ingredient to the island). Tomatoes provide the curry with a reddish hue. Others, such as the recipe that I used, dispense with the tomato. These recipes result in a dish of golden chicken, thanks to the turmeric in the curry powders. Despite all of the variations, one common note among recipes is the preference for using a whole chicken, broken down into its constituent parts. This approach ensures that the bones are used and ensures that they provide additional flavor to the dish. In the end, regardless of the recipe used, the end result is a delicious dish that can be found on the tables of many homes in Sri Lanka.


Recipe from Dish

Serves 4


  • 1 whole chicken (about 3 pounds), cut into pieces (or bone-in, skin on chicken thighs and drumsticks)
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 cardamom pods, bruised
  • 3 dried chiles
  • 8-10 curry leaves
  • 2 onions, finely chopped
  • 2 cm piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 2 teaspoons ground paprika
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground fennel
  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • 1 stem lemongrass, bruised
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 teaspoon salt

1. Prepare the chicken.  Joint the chicken, then cut the breast and thigh in half, leaving the wings and drumsticks whole.

2. Sauté the spices.  Heat the oil in a large heavy-based saucepan over medium heat. Add the cardamom pods, chiles, and curry leaves and fry for 2 minutes, stirring. Add the onion and cook until golden. Add the ginger and garlic and cook for 2 minutes.  Add the ground spices and stir well to combine. 

3.  Sauté the chicken.  Add the chicken to the pan and stir until it is well coated with the spice mix.  Add half of the coconut milk, the lemongrass and cinnamon, cover and cook over low heat for 40 minutes to 50 minutes.  Stir in the remaining coconut milk, season with salt and cook uncovered for a further 5 minutes to 10 minutes. 


Although the Kukul Mas satisfies the challenge, I wanted to prepare an entire Sri Lankan meal.  The author O Tama Carey describes dhal as the "most essential side dish" in her Lanka Food cookbook (at page 183). A dhal is basically a curry that features a dried, split pulse - such as lentils, beans or peas - as the principal ingredient. Given Carey's description, I had to make a dhal to accompany my chicken curry. Dhals can be found across the subcontinent.

In Sri Lanka, dhals are commonly prepared with red lentils. The common ingredient belies a range of variations in dishes, with some dhals being spicier than others, and some dhals being thicker than others. There are also differences in how the dhal is finished, with some adding green leaves (such as curry leaves, which help reinforce flavors), while others get a garnish, such as fried onion, to add texture to the dish.

In my research for this challenge, I spent a lot of time at a local Sri Lankan grocery store called Spice Lanka. (BTW, I strongly recommend this small, family owned business, because they have a good selection of ingredients and the owners and staff are always very friendly.) I also purchased quite a few ingredients from the store, including a bag of red lentils. Those lentils enabled me to make this Sri Lankan dhal. 


Recipe from O Tama Carey, Lanka Food, at 186

Serves 4-6


  • 75 grams (2 3/4 ounces) coconut oil
  • 5 grams (1/5 ounce) curry leaves
  • 550 grams (1 lb, 3 oz.) brown onions, cut into medium dice
  • 18 grams (2/3 ounce) finely chopped garlic
  • 15 grams (1/2 ounce) finely chopped ginger
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 7 grams (1/4 ounces) black mustard seeds
  • 5 grams (1/5 ounce) turmeric powder
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 4 2-inch pandan leaf
  • Bottom 2 inches lemongrass stem, lightly bruised
  • 525 grams (1 lb, 3 oz.) red lentils, thoroughly washed
  • 450 ml (15 fluid oz) coconut cream

1. Saute Ingredients. Melt the coconut oil in a medium saucepan over a medium heat, add the curry leaves and cook, stirring, for a minute or so until the leaves are fried. Add the onion, garlic and ginger and cook, stirring occasionally, for 6-7 minutes until the onion has softened. Lightly season with salt and pepper. Add the mustard seeds, turmeric, and cinnamon and cook, stirring, 1-2 minutes until the turmeric begins to catch the bottom of the pan.

2. Cook the lentils. Add the pandan leaf, lemongrass and lentils and give everything a good stir to combine. Pour in the coconut cream and 1 liter (36 fluid ounces or 4 1/4 cups) of water and mix well, then reduce heat to low and simmer gently for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally. the dhal is ready when all the lentils have just given away and turned yellow while still retaining a little texture. Re-season with salt and pepper and serve hot. 


"Sambal is a state of mind." While an Indonesian chef, William Wongso, may have uttered those words, the statement is seemingly universal in southern and eastern Asian cuisine. Sambals - or Sambols, as they are referred to in Sri Lanka (the only country that uses an "o" instead of an "a") are a condiment based upon chiles.  As Carey notes in Lanka Food (at pg. 209), sambols play an important role in adding flavors, spices and textures to dishes. 

There are many different sambols in Sri Lankan cuisine. I decided to make two of them for this challenge.  The first one - pol sambol - literally translates into coconut sambol. It is perhaps the most common sambol in Sri Lanka. It also serves as a good representation of the balancing of the five tastes. There is the sweet from the coconut, the umami from the Maldive fish chips, the heat from the chiles and the sour or bitter from the lime juice. 


Recipe from O Tama Carey, Lanka Food, at 214

Serves 8-10


  • 300 grams or 10 1/2 ounces of grated coconut
  • 100 grams or 3 1/2 ounces finely sliced shallots
  • 3 small green chiles, finely chopped
  • 20 grams or 3/4 ounce Maldive fish chips
  • 5 grams (1/5 ounce) chilli powder
  • 3 grams (1/10 ounce) freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 grams (1/10 ounce) sweet paprika
  • 1-2 limes juiced
  • Salt, to taste

1. Combine the ingredients. Place all of the ingredients, except the lime juice and salt, in a bowl and firmly mix them together with one hand, using a squeezing and kneading motion. This not only combines the ingredients, but it helps to release the oils from the coconut. Keep going until the texture of the sambol is almost a little sticky.

2. Finish the dish. Season to taste with lime juice and a generous amount of salt, mixing and squeezing again. Serve at room temperature.


For the second sambol, I decided to continue my exploration of new ingredients. This sambol introduced to me the use of dried shrimp. Much like the Maldive Fish Chips, the dried shrimp provided an almost umami flavor to this particular sambol.  


Recipe from Asia Society


  • 1 cup dried shrimp
  • 1 cup desiccated coconut
  • 3 teaspoons chopped red chiles or sambal oelek
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons garlic, chopped
  • 3/4 cup lime juice
  • 1 teaspoon salt, or more to taste

1. Prepare the shrimp and the coconut. Floss prawns in a blender or food processor. Put desiccated coconut in a dry frying pan and toast, stirring constantly, until there is a rich brown color. Immediately turn out onto a plate to cool.

2. Blend the ingredients. Blend the chiles, onion, garlic, lime juice and salt to a smooth puree.  Add the coconut and blend again, adding a little water if necessary to produce a smooth paste.  Add the shrimp floss and blend again, scraping down the sides of the container with a spatula. Serve as a relish with rice and curries. 

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This challenge may have taken a really long time to come together, but the end result was perhaps one of the most delicious meals that I have had in a long time. I really liked the Kukul Mas Curry and I will eventually make it again, perhaps adding some of the variations that I came across while researching the dish. As for the sambols, I think I should have them around like bottles of hot sauce. Fortunately, I have enough Maldive fish chips and dried shrimp to make both of the sambols ... again and again!

Until next time ...


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