Six Sri Lankan-style curry recipes using British summer veg

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Six Sri Lankan-style curry recipes using British summer veg” was written by Rosie Birkett, for The Guardian on Monday 24th July 2017 11.00 UTC

Two months ago today, I got married by the sea. The sun shone, the wind most certainly blew, we ate fish and chips and danced the night away to the soundtrack of a Beach Boys cover band. Two days later, we boarded a plane to Sri Lanka for our honeymoon and embarked on what can only be described as a three-week-long curry binge.

Aside from the fact this relatively small island has a remarkably diverse landscape – we went from deserted black mineral beaches to a lush, monkey-filled rainforest in just a few hours – it has one of the most magnificent cuisines I’ve ever tasted. It was rice with deeply fragrant curry and crisp-edged hoppers for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day; hotel buffets (often worth swerving) were nirvanas of never-ending plates of food, and it didn’t get boring.

We ate next to no meat (and felt great for it), living on curries of cashew nut, fish and occasionally crab, but it was the vegetable curries that were most revelatory – the tender baby jackfruit that tasted as rich and meaty as slow-cooked pork, the creamy coconut dal laced with fried curry leaves; the bumpy, fenugreek-flecked bitter gourd with still-crunchy skin and the sweet, hot beetroot curry. All were piled high on to our plates with poppadoms to scoop them up, nutty red rice to soak up their sauces and fiery coconut pol sambols to add heat.

Aside from all this flavour and texture, what I really love about Sri Lankan food is how succinctly it’s an expression of place: a cuisine that’s grown out of the unique natural pickings to be found on the island. You’d need to have your head in a paper bag to miss evidence of the food in Sri Lanka: it’s everywhere, from the lush, heron-populated paddy fields thick with rice to the scent of ripe mangos that have fallen from their branch. But it’s the tall palms, hanging heavy with coconuts that play perhaps the biggest role: everything is fried in their oil, braised in their milky water, and then finished with their luxurious cream. While the other component parts of curries change with the seasons, according to what’s ripe for harvest, coconut is a constant.

On my return home, all I wanted to do was continue to eat like this, putting some of the recipes and flavours I’d discovered there to good use. Thankfully, we came back at the right time, when British and European vegetables are abundant and, armed with spices bought on our holiday, I set about using up my veg box inspired by the Sri Lankan approach to mealtimes. I won’t claim that these are authentic recipes, but they are informed by the chefs I observed, the curries I ate the most and the notes I made while eating my way around the island. I hope they will bring some of the tastes of Sri Lanka into your kitchen too. Incidentally, all of the recipes are vegan and can be enjoyed by everyone.

You’ll notice that there is a lot of overlap when it comes to ingredients. Many of the preparations are fundamentally similar, but rely on subtle differences in cooking time and quantities of spices. I’d recommend the first step to be making your roasted curry powder blend, and to go from there. Feel free to tone down the chilli, and substitute ingredients according to what you have or what looks good when you do your food shop.

Roasted curry powder

They use both raw and roasted curry blends in Sri Lanka, but I really love the depth that roasting the spices adds to the curries, so this is the blend I’ve made since I got back. This makes enough for a good few curries.

Makes around 130g
20g (1-2 tbsp) basmati rice
40g 6-8 tbsp) coriander seeds
30g (4-5 tbsp) cumin seeds
20g (2 tbsp) black peppercorns
10g (1 tbsp) fenugreek seeds
1 heaped tsp cloves
Seeds from 1 tsp cardamom pods

1 In a dry frying pan, roast the rice until it’s starting to brown. Then add all the other spices and toast for 3-5 minutes, until darkish brown but not burned.

2 Blitz in a spice grinder or pestle and mortar, then pass through a sieve. Store in a jar or airtight container.

rosie birkett makes curry powder in her kitchen
Rosie Birkett at home in her kitchen Guardian Cook4491 Photograph: Helen Cathcart for the Guardian

Tomato and coconut dal

Dal is a rare dish in that it’s satisfying, interesting and nourishing enough to want to eat it every day – and not just in the context of curry, but as a vehicle for eggs, poached or fried, and a side for all manner of proteins. I love how simple and frugal it is. This version uses the summer’s tomatoes to give it some extra acidity and sweetness, and a dash of coconut milk for richness. Fresh curry leaves are ideal, but if not dried will work too.

Serves 4
For the dal
150g red lentils
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp turmeric
5 tbsp coconut milk

To temper
1 tbsp coconut oil
½ tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp black mustard seeds
A sprig of curry leaves
½ red onion, sliced
1 garlic clove, crushed
A pinch of salt
2 tomatoes, sliced

1 Wash the lentils in 2-3 changes of water, drain with a sieve, then put in a pan and cover with water (about a finger’s tip above the level of the lentils). Bring them to the boil with the salt and turmeric. Simmer for about 10-12 minutes, until tender, but still holding their shape.

2 Meanwhile, melt the coconut oil over a medium-to-high heat. Fry the cumin and mustard seeds in the oil until they start to sizzle and pop, then add the curry leaves, onion, garlic and salt, then cook for a few more minutes, until the onion starts to colour. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until the tomatoes have collapsed and given up their juice.

3 Add 4 tbsp coconut milk to the dal and simmer for 3 minutes longer, then pour in the contents of the tomato pan, along with the final tbsp of coconut milk. Stir, taste and adjust the seasoning, then preferably serve immediately. Otherwise, cover the pan with a tea towel and keep warm until you’re ready to eat.

Courgette curry

Serves 4
2 courgettes, chopped into 2-3cm pieces
1 tsp red chilli powder
3 tbsp coconut oil
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1 tsp fennel seeds
A sprig of curry leaves
½ white onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tsp roasted curry powder (see recipe above)
2 tomatoes, sliced
150ml coconut milk
Salt

1 Put your courgette in a bowl and toss with a large pinch of the salt and the chilli powder.

2 Heat the coconut oil in a frying pan. Add the mustard and fennel seeds. When the mustard seeds start to splutter, add the curry leaves and stir.

3 Add the onion and garlic and cook for a few minutes, until the onion is starting to brown. Add the curry powder and cook for another couple of minutes, then add the tomatoes and stir, cooking for 2 more minutes. Add the courgette and salt, stirring to combine with the pan contents and cooking for a further 4 minutes.

4 Deglaze the pan with the coconut milk, cover and cook for 5 minutes longer. Taste for seasoning, adjust to taste and serve.

Salad/herb garden pol sambol

Makes a small bowl
½ red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
½ red onion, finely chopped
¼ tsp sea salt
1 tsp black pepper
A pinch of dried red chilli flakes
4 tbsp desiccated coconut
Juice of 1 lime
A small bunch of salad leaves or herbs, finely shredded (I use sorrel and lovage from my balcony box but you could use spinach, chervil, parsley or watercress)

1 In a pestle and mortar, grind the chilli, red onion, salt, pepper and dried chilli flakes together until the onion releases some juice.

2 Add the coconut and grind again. Add the lime juice and mix. Empty the contents into a bowl and add the shredded greens. Combine, taste and season further with salt and lime if needed.

Aubergine and pineapple curry

Serves 4
1 large aubergine, cut into chunks on the diagonal
2 tbsp coconut oil
1 tsp black mustard seeds
2 cardamom pods
A sprig of curry leaves
1 white onion, sliced
1 tsp roasted curry powder (see recipe above)
100g pineapple, cut into chunks
1 tomato, sliced
1 tbsp mango jam or chutney
1 tbsp coconut milk
Salt

1 Toss the chopped aubergine in a colander with a large pinch of salt, then allow to drain over the sink for 30 minutes.

2 Heat a non-stick frying pan or wok over a medium-to-high-heat. Add the coconut oil, mustard seeds and cardamom pods. Once the mustard seeds start to spit and sizzle, add the curry leaves, followed by the onion and a large pinch of salt.

3 Cook, stirring, for a few minutes, until the onion is starting to colour, then add the curry powder and stir. Add the aubergine and fry, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until the pan is dry.

4 Add the pineapple and cook for a few minutes more until it’s starting to colour, then add the tomato and mango chutney. Cook for 2 minutes longer, then add the coconut milk and 1 tsp salt. Cook for 10 minutes more, until the aubergine chunks are soft, the milk has evaporated, and the pineapple has caramelised slightly.

Bean kari

A chef in Trincomalee told me that, when cooking, Sri Lankans mix everything by hand, rather than using a spoon, because it’s believed to put more soul into the food.

Serves 4
320g runner beans, stringed and cut into strips
1 tsp red chilli powder
¼ tsp turmeric powder
A small piece of cinnamon, torn up
1 tbsp coconut oil
1 tsp black mustard seeds
A sprig of curry leaves
½ red onion, sliced
1 garlic clove, crushed
100ml coconut milk
Juice of ½ a lime
Salt and black pepper

1 In a bowl, using your hands, mix the beans with the chilli powder, turmeric, cinnamon and 1 tsp salt.

2 Heat a non-stick frying pan or wok over a medium-high heat. Add the coconut oil and black mustard seeds and cook until the seeds splutter. Add the curry leaves, let them sizzle, then add the onion, a pinch of salt and the garlic, then cook, stirring, for a few more minutes, until the onion is starting to colour.

3 Add the beans and fry for a couple of minutes, stirring to incorporate the flavours, then add the coconut milk and cook for 3-5 minutes, or until the beans are done.

4 Finish with a squeeze of lime juice and some freshly ground black pepper, then serve.

Beetroot curry

You can substitute the beetroot here for kohlrabi or even parsnip during the season.

Serves 4
400g beetroot, peeled and cut into thick matchsticks
1 tsp fenugreek seeds
¼ tsp turmeric powder
½ tsp red chilli powder
2 tbsp coconut oil
A sprig of curry leaves
½ red onion, sliced
1 garlic clove, crushed
⅔ of a green chilli
1 tomato, sliced
100ml coconut milk
Salt

1 In a bowl, use your hands to mix the beetroot with the fenugreek, turmeric, chilli powder and 1 tsp salt.

2 Heat a non-stick frying pan or wok over a medium-high heat. Add the coconut oil and curry leaves, then cook until they sizzle.

3 Now add the onion, garlic, chilli and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring, for a few minutes, until the onion is starting to turn golden brown, then add the beetroot and fry for about 2 minutes, stirring to mix with the pan contents.

4 Add the sliced tomato and fry for a little longer. When it is starting to release its juice, add the coconut milk and 1 tsp salt. Cover and cook for 10-15 minutes, or until the beetroot is cooked through.

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