Where do I even begin?
I guess I’ll start by saying that I feel like I am waking up from the most spectacular, flavourful, technicolour dream. Sri Lanka deeply touched me, from its incredible landscape, beautiful people and of course, the food. The food! The food.
When I was first invited by Cinnamon Hotels and Resorts to go on a food tour of Sri Lanka, I was a bit uncertain – to be honest, I didn’t know anyone who had visited Sri Lanka before, and I especially had no idea what the cuisine was like. I assumed that it was probably very much like Indian, but what I discovered is that it has its own totally distinctive flavours and cooking techniques.
Sri Lankan people are very passionate about their food and the culture around it. From my perspective, they seemed especially connected to the earth and the bounty that springs year-round from their incredibly fertile land. Many of the world’s spices are grown on the island, so you can imagine how rich and complex their traditional dishes are. Sri Lankan food is also hot. Like, crazy hot. Chilies play a dominant role in everything from curries to relish and are accompany every meal of the day – even breakfast. An interesting way to start your morning, I might add, is being startled awake by an explosive plate of food. And with coconuts quite literally dripping from the trees everywhere you look, the backbone of many Sri Lankan dishes, both savoury and sweet, is coconut water, milk and flesh. Heavenly. And a welcome antidote to all that chile.
Rice and curry is a Sri Lankan staple, and in fact the word “food” there is synonymous with this combination. Happily for me, there are countless vegetarian and vegan options to choose from. My favourites were jackfruit curry (mindblowing!), cashew curry (yes, a whole pot of cashews cooked in coconut milk), wingbean curry, mung bean curry, eggplant curry, lentil curry, and pumpkin curry. But my favourite curry of all? Beetroot curry. Surprising, eh? The first time I was offered this dish, I kind of thought that it was an accommodating east-west mashup or something, but no! It’s a thing. And a wildly delicious thing at that. I never imagined combining beets and coconut before, but it works incredibly well. The earthiness of the beets contrasts perfectly with the sweetness of the coconut milk, and the beets are neither crunchy or mushy, but a perfectly balanced succulent-tender texture that pairs so well with rice.
The other major love affair I had in Sri Lanka was with all the little side dishes that come with the curries themselves: sambol and mallung (or mallum). Sambol is like a relish, typically based on freshly shredded coconut (but not always), with a featured vegetable, along with chilies and lime. Pol sambol (coconut sambol) is ubiquitous and served at every meal I can remember. It varies in spiciness from table to table, but more often than not I couldn’t eat more than a couple teaspoons with my curry – which was already insanely hot enough, thank you.
Mallungs are “green dishes” made with cabbage, kale, broccoli, beans or other leafy veg. These are always cooked without any oil, and instead use just the heat of the pan and a little bit of water to steam the vegetable – a groovy technique in my opinion. Spices are used in mallung as well, and vary from recipe to recipe. They can be served warm or at room temperature, almost like a lightly cooked salad.
Curry leaves are an essential ingredient in Sri Lankan food. Many people are confused by this name because they associate curry with a spice blend, and assume that curry powder must then come from dried and ground curry leaves. In truth the word curry vaguely refers to a dish prepared with spices, but means very little to Indian or South Asians, where “curries” originate.
Curry powder is largely a Western creation, and should in fact be referred to as masala, meaning a spice mix. Most curries in Sri Lanka rely on whole spices, not ground or pre-mixed ones, so that the cook can balance flavours according to his / her tastes.
Anyway, back to the curry leaves. Small, dark green and glossy, they are deeply aromatic with a distinctive savoury-smoky scent that is difficult to describe. And no, they don’t smell like curry powder – we’ve already established that. They can be difficult to find fresh here in Copenhagen (and I would imagine, many places in the world!), but dried ones are available at most ethnic grocers or specialty shops. With about half the pungency of fresh curry leaves, the dried ones are an okay substitute if that’s all you’ve got, but do try and seek out some fresh ones – you’ll never look back! Plus, if you find them fresh, you can easily freeze them until your next curry.
It was very difficult to decide what kind of Sri Lankan dish I would post first (oh yea, there’s more to come…) but I chose beetroot curry and kale mallung because they are both relatively seasonal here in Denmark, and because I think that both of these recipes take us out of our comfort zone with familiar veggies, and make use of entirely unique cooking techniques. You’ll find both applications totally surprising, I guarantee that, and I hope that they inspire you to make curry out of things you wouldn’t normally, or try an oil-free, steamy stir-fry. Yum town.
There is so much complexity and diversity to Sri Lankan food and I am forever inspired. I cannot wait to go back to this enchanted island to explore, and eat, once again.
Sri Lankan Beetroot Curry with Kale Mallung
1.3 lbs / 600g red beetroots
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic
1 Tbsp. coconut oil
2 tsp. black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
20 dried curry leaves curry leaves (or 1 sprig fresh)
2-3 small green chilies, finely chopped
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp. fine sea salt, plus more for finishing
1 14 oz. / 400ml can full-fat coconut milk
juice of 1 lime
large handful of cilantro
4 portions of cooked red or brown rice (red is more traditional)
1 batch Kale Mallung (recipe to follow)
lime wedges to serve
1. Peel beets and cut them into matchsticks. Chop onions, slice garlic. Set aside.
2. In a large pot over medium-high heat, melt coconut oil. Add the mustard seeds, stir, and let cook for a couple minutes until they begin to pop (be careful that they do not burn!). Add the coriander, curry leaves, chilies, and cinnamon, stir well, and cook for one minute until fragrant. Add the onion and salt, stir to coat and cook until the onions are translucent, about 5-7 minutes. Add garlic, stir and cook one minute. Add beets and coconut milk, bring to a simmer, reduce heat and cover (make sure that the liquid is simmering very lightly, not boiling. Boiling over high heat will cause the coconut milk to split). Cook until the beets are tender, about 15-20 minutes.
3. While the curry is cooking, wash and roughly chop the cilantro.
4. To finish the curry, squeeze in the lime juice, stir, and add more salt to balance the flavours. Add cilantro and serve immediately over rice with the kale mallung and extra lime wedges.
½ cup / 45g unsweetened desiccated coconut
½ cup / 125ml coconut water
4 cups / 130g shredded + packed kale
1 small red onion
1 tsp. ground cumin
¾ tsp. fine sea salt, plus more for garnish
1 green chilli, if desired
Juice of ½ lime, plus extra for garnish
1. Combine desiccated coconut and coconut water in a small bowl and let soak for about 30 minutes.
2. Slice onion in thin sections. Mince chili. Wash kale and spin dry. Remove any tough ribs, stack leaves and cut into thin ribbons. Set aside.
3.In a large, dry pot over medium heat, add the onions, salt and cumin. Stir often, letting the onions soften in the pan. Add a couple tablespoons of the liquid from the soaking coconut if the pot becomes too dry (reserve as much liquid as you can, however). After about 8-10 minutes, add the kale and the coconut mixture. Stir to coat, and quickly cover the pot with a lid so that the kale steams inside. Wait just 30-60 seconds – the kale is ready when it is bright green and tender. Remove from heat and squeeze in the lime juice. Season to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.