Sensational Sweet and Spicy Sambols

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Being someone who loves a meal with many elements, Sri Lankan food was pretty much my dream come true. Every meal is served with plenty of sides: sauces, chutneys, relishes, and pickles, to make each bite unique and surprising. Sambol is the word for this seemingly endless collection of condiments, and I lost count trying to sample them all in a week.

I believe I mentioned in my previous post about Sri Lanka, how spicy the food is there. Like, blow-your-head-off spicy. And as if the curries themselves weren’t hot enough, the chili-based sambols on the side will certainly commit your taste buds to perplexing levels of pain.

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Pol sambol is the ubiquitous, fiery condiment served at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It is probably one of the simplest dishes to make, consisting mainly of chili, shredded coconut, chili, lime, and chili – did I mention the chili? Yea. This mix ranges from very spicy to volcanically hot depending on whose table you’re sitting at.

On the second day of the trip, my tongue seeking refuge in something, dare I say it, borderline bland, I discovered one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted – and it wasn’t bland to say the least, just not sweat-inducing. Seeni sambol, a fragrant, Sri Lankan caramelized onion jam, turned out to be incredible on everything from hoppers to curries, and could turn a pretty plain bowl of red rice into something remarkably special. I became totally obsessed with this sambol and it was the very first thing I attempted to make when I came home. I really cannot tell you enough how awesome this stuff is. Do yourself a favour and make a batch soon!

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The most memorable experience I had in Sri Lanka was learning to cook traditional recipes with two women in the local village. It was likely one of the most eye-opening culinary experiences I’ve ever had – not only learning from such passionate and experienced cooks, but seeing their traditional kitchen, tools, and techniques really inspired me.

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Take their stove, for example. A large clay bench with large mounds molded into it held the earthenware pots in place, and the heat underneath was adjusted by adding more sticks to the fire, or taking them away. Genius. Above the stove was a large wooden wrack to hang beans, seeds, and herbs for fast drying, which I thought was a brilliant way to take advantage of the residual heat. Ingredients were prepped on the floor, since it’s cooler down there, and also nice to sit while you’re working. The knife to cut veggies was actually attached to a stool, and instead of holding the blade, you hold the vegetables and basically drop them on top, slicing them in the air to fall onto a grass mat. The sambol was made by grinding all the ingredients together on a huge flat stone designed specifically for this task, and as such took all of ten seconds to prepare. Spoons were made from dried coconut shells. The plates were made of woven grass, topped with fresh lotus leaves from the nearby creek. The leaves protected the plates from the saucy curries, and when you were finished your meal, you’d discard the leaf into the compost, so that there was literally nothing to wash! I mean.

This day made me take a long hard look at how much stuff I use in the kitchen. Water, electricity, appliances – these women were literally using nothing but things from the earth around them and it made me wonder how we’ve come so far from that connection. Cooking has become so overblown, and it was this experience that reminded me to cook simpler and eat simpler. Get closer to the earth. I don’t have some grand solution, but it’s food for thought.

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I’ll share a few notes on the recipes…
You will likely think I’ve lost my mind when you begin the task of slicing two pounds of onions (#worthit), but I promise you it is the correct amount, and you’ll see that it cooks down to nearly nothing. I tried half this amount my first time and it just simply wasn’t enough. If you’re going to go for this, you may as well make a batch that will last you at least a few meals, right? Fresh curry leaves are a definite preference for this recipe, but I’ve never been able to find them here in Copenhagen so I used dried. They’re not great, but better than nothing. If you don’t want to gnaw on whole spices or curry leaves you can remove them after the seeni sambol is cooked, but it can be a bit of a treasure hunt situation, just sayin’. Once I’ve smashed the cardamom pods, I like to remove the outer skin and just add the inner seeds to the spics mix. I tend to leaves the cloves and curry leaves in since I like those bursts of flavour.

The pol sambol recipe I’ve written here is admittedly, a wimp’s version. I’ll admit that I can only tolerate spice until it begins to overwhelm the other flavours in the food, so mine is strong but still edible on its own. I invite you to go with your instincts on this one and dial up the heat to suit your tastes. If you can find freshly grated coconut (or a fresh coconut that you can grate yourself) by all means use that instead of the desiccated variety! Some versions of pol sambol include curry leaves, but because I only had dried I left them out. If you can find fresh ones, add about a sprig for this recipe, and crush them well before incorporating.

As far as serving these two sensational sambols go, they are pretty much great with All. The. Things. Rice dishes, curries, stews, soups, wraps, sandwiches, salads…I mean it! Once you taste them I’m confident you’ll find infinite uses for them. The first photo is of steamed brown rice and the Kale Mallung recipe that I wrote from the last Sri Lankan post – still a major fav around here. I love this meal for breakfast with a poached egg, lots of seeni sambol and, ahem, lightly sprinkled with the pol sambol.

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A huge thanks to Cinnamon Hotels and Resorts  and Sri Lankan Airlines for making this incredible trip possible!

Show me your sambols on Instagram#MNRsambol

53 comments

  1. Laurren

    I do remember this Seeni sambol from Colombo during an holiday in 2014, it was tasty.
    Now, I can make it by myself… But I’m not sure to have all the ingredients! However thank you 🙂

  2. Anne Justine

    I lived in Sri Lanka for three months and it’s fun to see your post! There are soo many good curries I can’t decide which ones to make first for friends and family to get a taste of Sri Lanka. Definitely making eggplant sambol. Any chance you have recipe suggestions for mango or pumpkin curries? Those were my favorites, but I never learned how to make them.

  3. Ulla

    Hi Sarah,
    when you mentioned the treasure hunting, I thought I’d just drop off an idea I’ve come up with a while ago. I think I was making jam, or something I didn’t want to strain once ready. These single-use teabags that you can buy for loose leave tea are great. Just put your spices in, tie a know to seal, and throw the whole affair into the pot. Works a charm for fishing out whole cloves and other small items.
    Just in case you or any of your readers may find this useful.
    While I’m here, I’d also like to thank you for your dedication, work and the great recipes that brighten our days and kitchens. So brilliant!

    Ulla

  4. ELIDA

    This looks so delicious and I love the pictures of the ingredients and the preparation.
    and love the Sri Lankan recipes so far! thank you so much for this delicious recipe blog

  5. Cassie

    Sri Lanka looks like such a gorgeous place to visit! I would love to try the pol sambol because I absolutely love the idea of having a spicy coconut chili condiment on hand! This is a great recipe along with gorgeous photography! Stunning!

  6. Maya Robinson

    Love love love the Sri Lankan recipes so far! Do you have any more coming? I hope so. We made the sambol last night and it blew our socks off, so delicious! x

  7. Rita

    thank you so much for this delicious recipe blog.. Loved it and my hubby loves the dishes I make after reading this blog.

  8. Lena

    I find it strange that you didn’t reply at all to the human rights and political concerns raised in the comments of your last post. Does your contractual obligation for the sponsorship of your trip prevent you from replying? Since you and your blog are very engaged with environmental, cultural, and well being issues, it would seem some of the concerns raised might mesh with your own. It would show respect and sensitivity to your readers and some important issues to at least address the points raised.

    • Sarah Britton

      Hi Lena,

      Sorry for the late reply – I just haven’t had time to check comments in a while!

      This trip was sponsored by Cinnamon Hotels, and had nothing to do with the Sri Lankan government as far as I know. It was strictly a food trip that I was invited to join and blog about. I have replied to the comments on the previous Sri Lankan post, and I understand the concerns. My goal is to share stories and recipes from food cultures around the world, and I choose to focus on those things alone even if there are many issues that could be discussed. I am not doing this to ignore or be insensitive to any people or culture, but simply to keep the focus of this blog to food.

      All the best, in love,
      Sarah B

  9. Lucy Frank

    Question Sarah: Pol Sambol ingredients …..
    ½ – 1 tsp. chili powder (or as much as you think you can handle!)
    Do you mean…. Crushed red chilli powder? Cayenne ? Chilli powder used to make a big pot of Chilli?
    This inspirational lot of recipes from Sri Lanka will definitely be added to our home menu! I am loving your hardcover cook book every day, a real treasure in our kitchen!
    Thanks so much for all your gifts…. Recipes…Photography….Inspirational words … and humour! Cheers to Global Cooking one kitchen at a time! Lucy Frank

  10. Amy | The Whole Food Rainbow

    WOW I’m definitely making the onion chutney first that sounds just incredible. What an amazing experience, thanks so much for sharing it. That work surface (my heart aches!)! I just long to be closer to nature and so many things take us further away. Food is something we can connect with in a real way. I’m loving your Sri Lankan inspiration!! xx

  11. Tina

    Hi Sarah,
    I’m in Sri Lanka at the moment enjoying all the sambols I can! And now I’ll be able to make them when I get back home. Also looking forward to your take on hoppers

  12. erin

    More Sri Lankan recipes, please! I loved that beetroot curry and cant wait to try these! Great to already have them be veg. any favourites from other sources that you can link to? <3 Thanks for making my house more delicious

  13. Kim

    Thank you, Sarah, for sharing these beautiful recipes as well as your thoughts on simplicity in the kitchen. It’s pretty incredible how earth provides what we need, even kitchen utensils!

  14. Kim

    Thank you, Sarah, for sharing these beautiful recipes as well as your thoughts on simplicity in the kitchen. It’s amazing how the earth provides what we need, even kitchen supplies and utensils!

  15. Charlotte

    Yay! I’ve been looking for some good condiment recipes to make and these both look so perfect! Thanks Sarah! I’m so excited to try them! 🙂

  16. Susan

    Pol Sambol is the first Sri Lankan food we made in our cooking class, and it was served on bread. I can vouch for how wonderful it is. From reading this post, I have an even greater appreciation for our teacher, who did not make anything very hot, although there were chilis in everything. I’ll have to make the Seeni Sambol, and I’ll look forward to anything else you post from Sril Lanka. Yum!!

  17. Amy - Parsley In My Teeth

    As a lover of spicy hot foods, I love this post! When we visited friends in Malaysia and Singapore, I couldn’t get enough curry – had it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Next time we visit them, I must hop over to Sri Lanka to sample all of this wonderfulness. Thanks for sharing your pics this post!

  18. Sarah | Well and Full

    I loved reading about your experience cooking in a humble yet effective kitchen. We really do have so many appliances / modern conveniences that take away from the earth-to-table connection we used to have. It’s so amazing that you got to have such an experience like that! Thank you for sharing it with us. 🙂

  19. FrannieB

    Sarah, in keeping with the theme you raise here of getting back to the earth and seeking a more connected way of using her great bounty in our cooking…why not grow the curry leaves in your garden?? You can easily buy curry plants, or trees as they’re sometimes called, online (eBay has some, for example) In warmer climes (we all wish) they are easy to grow outside, so you’ve always got the leaves on hand when you need them!! In the chillier (yep, the chilli pun is intended!) northern hemisphere, the kitchen window herb garden can assume a whole new international flavour and isn’t just for the ubiquitous parsley and basil. These are very flavoursome recipes, especially the seeni. BIG thanks for sharing your journey and posting them.

  20. Eva O' Brien

    My mother actually planted two curry plants in the garden last year – she chose them for their silvery shiny leaves, because she was making what she called a “moon garden” – but I have been wondering how to find a way to use the amazingly fragrant leaves. This recipe sounds utterly wonderful. And yes, I must add Sri Lanka to my endless list of places that I want to visit. Thank you for lovely words and photographs.

    • Ellie

      Dear Eva,
      The curry plant and curry tree are different. Though the moon garden sounds magical your description tells me it is the curry plant your Mother has which is very fragrant and grows to a small bush. It is probably safe to eat but, the curry leaves in recipes are from a tree, and look similar to neem leaves but smell and taste very nice. The leaves are shown above, in the photo below the (amazing) kitchen, in the front bowl. It is one of my favourite plants in my garden and I am so lucky to grow it and use fresh.
      Thanks MNR for this awesome post reminding me of island foods and how delicious and vital these condiments are

  21. Birte

    Hi Sarah
    Some times you can find fresh curry leaves on the stalk at Kabul or Afghan Store in Rewentlowsgade just behind Hovedbanegården. I normally buy a big amount, wash them well, as they are not organic and then let them stay to dry om a teatowel, before I put them in zipbags and freeze. They keep well and taste fresh – even after freezing.

  22. Selina

    Oh, this was SO beautifully written! And it is amazing to see how these women are rockin’ the real, natural life that I would love to learn more about.

  23. Allyson

    I definitely will be making the seeni sambol. The pol sambol- maybe. I like spice, but not as a predominant flavor.

    The kitchen setups of the women in Sri Lanka is fascinating. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking cooking and eating seriously, but we seem to have complicated it so much that many people (at least here in the US) believe that they just can’t cook. Like it’s a gene and they were born without that gene. I don’t know what the answer is either, but I think talking about it is a good first step.

  24. Gabriella

    This looks and sounds amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever had Sri Lankan food, but now I think I really need to change that. What an incredible experience!

  25. Anya

    Wow Sarah, these sound incredible and the photos are beautiful! I loved your previous Sri Lanka post as well.
    I can’t believe I had’t heard of sambol before – it sounds like my dream condiment. Will be making this very soon 🙂

  26. nettelie

    OMG! Must. Visit. Sri Lanka. You got me so inspired with these photos and the stories AND THE FOOD. I’m making these dishes tomorrow! Quick question about the Pol Sambol, though: when you say ‘Add the softened coconut,’ do you mean with or without the soaking liquid? xo

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