There’s an earnest simplicity to Sri Lankan food, something that I think makes it more approachable to the home cook. Curries are largely a one pot affair and while the list of ingredients may be long, the step-by-step of it is easier than in many other Asian cuisines. Where Malaysian rendangs and curries often require hours of simmering, Sri Lankan curries can often be cooked in an hour or less. And because a real Sri Lankan meal consists of many dishes shared with rice, most home cooks can often dish up 3 curries, a salad and rice in under two hours.
While most Sri Lankan cooks will readily share their culinary secrets with you, the language barrier can often make communication difficult. My rudimentary Tamil is pretty much useless here – the last time I tried to buy banana leaves I confidently strutted up to a tuk tuk driver and asked him where I could buy a mapillei (groom) instead of valaiillei (banana leaf). It made sense then that if I was to learn local recipes that I’d need help, so I enlisted my housekeeper Letchumi to be my second set of eyes and ears for this next recipe.
I first met Asanka two years ago – he was the cook at a holiday house that we rented. Over the years, his cooking has only gotten better and when we last stayed there, we polished off this curry almost as soon as it hit the table. I asked him if I could share the recipe and he kindly obliged – so with Letchumi’s help, here it is.
Watching Asanka cook, I got the sense that Sri Lankan curries are fluid things. They are works in progress, constantly changing and evolving based on what the cook has to hand. I suppose that this is like most other cooking, especially here in Asia where recipes are passed on by show and tell rather than words on a page.
Both Asanka and Letchumi agree that curries taste better cooked in traditional clay pots, they tell me that it has better flavour. Letchumi also tells me that curries are left out overnight in clay pots and don’t spoil – very useful in a tropical country. From what I can tell, cooking in clay takes longer – the pots take longer to heat up, and the outside of the pot remains warm (not hot to the touch). Just a word of caution, the timing in the recipe is approximate as Asanka cooked this curry in a traditional clay pot: I’ve reduced the cooking time in the recipe below to try and factor in that stainless steel heats up quicker making things cook significantly faster. Just check your curry often, look and taste as you go.
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 1-inch cinnamon stick
- ½ red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped into 2mm pieces
- 1 inch ginger, peeled and roughly cut into 2mm pieces
- 1 green chilli, thinly sliced
- 1 stem curry leaf - approximately 15 leaves
- 1 pandan leaf, cut into 1cm strips
- ¾ tsp ground tumeric
- 1 tsp chilli powder
- 3 tsp unroasted curry powder* (preferably Ma's brand)
- 1 medium tomato, diced
- 500g prawns, deshelled with tail on
- ½ tsp salt
- pinch of pepper
- ½ cup coconut milk
- small bunch coriander, roughly chopped - about ¼ cup loosely packed
- In a medium pan, heat oil over medium heat, and add cumin seeds. You should hear the a slightly crackling sound - in South Asian cooking, this step is called tempering and allows you to flavour the oil. Do not temper your spices for too long as they will burn. As soon as you hear the crackling sound, move on to the next step.
- Add cinnamon, onion, garlic, ginger, green chilli, curry leaves and pandan leaf to the pan and continue to cook over medium heat for 1-2 minutes.
- Take the pan off the heat - this is the foolproof way to make sure that the powdered spices don't burn, but if you are a confident cook, you can just turn the heat down to low. Add tumeric, chilli and curry powder; stir to cook the spices in the residual heat of the pan.
- Add the diced tomato, then return the pan to medium heat. Cook for about 30 seconds before adding the prawns.
- Add salt and pepper, then cover and allow the prawns to cook over low heat - approximately 5 -
- minutes until the prawns are not quite cooked through - they should look like they are just starting to go opaque.
- Add the coconut milk and cook for a further 2 minutes, adding water to adjust the consistency of the curry sauce as needed (I added ¼ cup of water).
- Sprinkle coriander leaves on top, turn off heat and stir the leaves through the curry.