I am not sure how we got here but here I am with only a year to go until we leave Sri Lanka. For almost two years, Nick and I have been lucky to call Sri Lanka home. We’ve watched the skyline grow upwards and the city grow outwards – Colombo is growing at a staggering rate. In 2015, it was the fastest growing city in the world. From our balcony, we can see Asia’s largest suction dredger reclaiming land to form the Port City. And just look at the number of cranes on the horizon!
It seems like so long ago that we arrived in Colombo. It was a new experience for me, a stranger in a city that I had a family connection to. My father’s family is of Sri Lankan heritage, but without him or his parents around to tell us what they know, I’m not sure that I’ll ever find the specifics of my Ceylonese ancestry.
I looked for familiarity in food, but growing up in Malaysia so much of Sri Lankan food was unfamiliar to me. I was surprised by the lack of street food but then realised that this was country had just come out of a civil war six years earlier. I didn’t like the food at first until I understood that the best Sri Lankan food was to be found in homes. When bombs are routinely going off in the streets, of course you’d opt for the safety of eating at home with your family.
Anyway, I want to start sharing Sri Lankan food with you using the simplest of recipes. It has just five ingredients pounded in a mortar and pestle, and seasoned with a bit of salt, pepper and sugar. This coconut or pol sambol is a staple in daily meals here and can be eaten with rice, bread, or hoppers. It’s especially good alongside curries – the zingy coconut lime combination adds a lot of freshness to what can be a heavy meal.
Traditionally, Sri Lankan sambols are made on a miris gala. It is a mortar and pestle of sorts, a large stone slab to put ingredients on and a matched rolling pin that is used to crush and blend the ingredients. A real pol sambol must be pounded in a miris gala or using a mortar and pestle. It shouldn’t just be mixed together like a salad, as most recipes would have you do. It’s a simple dish and it’s real magic is in the detail. When you pound the ingredients, the coconut releases milk that helps bring all the flavours together. If you ever get a pol sambol that has evenly diced cubes of onion, and chilli throughout – you’ll secretly know that the chef has taken a little shortcut.
Like all great staples, everyone has their favourite version of pol sambol. Some have tomato or Maldive fish to add another layer of flavour. This is it in it’s most traditional form though I’ve omitted the dried fish as it’s not a flavour Nick or I particularly like.
Don’t worry if you can’t get freshly scraped coconut – it’s not quite the same, but you can substitute desiccated coconut rehydrated with a bit of hot water with good results. Here in Sri Lanka, I’m fortunate to have small shops who will scrape whole coconuts for 60 cents.
‘What? What now?’ I asked.
‘This is for Australian people, ma’am?’ she asked.
‘I guess so… it’s for any people. Why?’
‘Sri Lanka people will laugh at you,’ she chuckled. ‘Your pol sambol is white colour.’
‘Alright,’ I sighed. ‘How much more chilli do I need to add?’
- 200g freshly scraped coconut (or 200g desiccated coconut, pour 6 tbsp hot water over the top)
- 5 shallots, peeled
- 1 green chilli, roughly cut
- 3 tsp crushed red chillies
- 5-6 peppercorns
- juice of 1 lime
- salt and sugar, to taste (about ½ tsp each)
- chilli powder (optional)
- Place shallots, green chilli, crushed red chillies and peppercorns into a mortar and pestle and pound to a thick paste.
- Add coconut and continue to pound until all the coconut has taken on a orangey red colour. You can add more chilli powder if the colour is not suitable.
- Squeeze over the lime juice and add a bit of salt and sugar to taste.
- If you don't like the colour, add a touch more chilli powder and mix until it's the desired colour.