This week marks five months since we wrapped up our three year stint in Sri Lanka, the land of coconut palm fringed beaches, elephants and sapphires. While I miss being by the beach beach, the never ending supply of fresh coconuts, and of course, our friends, I am so happy to be back home in Australia. It seems like an age ago that Nick and I were fresh-faced university grads, looking to take on the world; while I still have a very keen sense of adventure there’s something about coming home that is so deeply satisfying.
Of course it was only a matter of time before we missed the food. I’m so happy to be able to share some authentic, local recipes like prawn curry, crab curry and the Sri Lankan staple, pol sambol. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – the best Sri Lankan food is found not at restaurants, but in people’s houses. This next recipe took a while to track down though. It is one of those curries that is either incredibly good – so good that you’re still thinking about it the next day – or just so average that you’ll swear off ordering it ever again. Most people had an opinion about where to get the best black pork curry. Gallery Cafe, some said. Tamil Union, said another. By far the best I have tried is at Barefoot Garden Cafe – and trust me, in our three years I tried a few.
In Colombo, you get things done by knowing someone who knows someone. Lucky for me, I knew a dashing gentlemen by the name of Tony, or Fabulous Tony, as he was known in Colombo circles. Fabulous Tony was well… fabulous, flamboyant, stylish and always smiling. Born in the UK, he had lived in Sri Lanka for seven years and knew his way around the hospitality scene, so when he said something was the best, I was inclined to believe it. When I mentioned that I was looking for someone to teach it to me, sure enough he knew someone who knew someone. Fabulous Tony picked up his phone, made some calls and told me to be in Colombo 3 at 10am Thursday. There I met Susantha, who I have to admit, makes the best black pork curry in the city.
Susantha didn’t speak much English, but with lots of gestures, my trusty weighing scale and notepad in hand, this is my best attempt at replicating his recipe. The curry is cooked in one pot and not overly complicated, even for a beginner. Or if you’re a coconut (brown on the outside, white on the inside) like me. The secret is in Susantha’s black curry powder which gives this curry it’s dark, smoky flavour. And of course, tons of onion and garlic.
Black pork curry has such a distinct flavour because the spices are charred, almost burnt before being ground. To get that trademark flavour, make sure that you toast the spices until they are dark, like the colour of light roast coffee. I’ve taken some photos for reference because prior to meeting Susantha, when I tried to make this recipe from a cookbook, I was derailed from this very first step by not roasting the spices for long enough. Bear in mind though, the spices look a touch darker in real life than they do in the photos here (and in hindsight, now that I look at these photos, true black pork curry is even darker still – almost black, like it’s name.) Cook the spices until they are even darker than they look here. It will continue to darken as you cook it, especially at the last step when the liquid is cooked down. The recipe below makes enough for two batches of black pork curry, it’s a lot quicker to cook it the second time around once the spice mix is ready.
It is best to cook this curry with a pork cut that has a good bit of fat through it – I like to use a mixture of belly and shoulder so that there’s something for everyone, a bit of texture as you eat this with rice. Nick hates bits of fat in his meat though (I know, right?), so I often just use cubed roasting pork. There’s a smaller margin for error without the fat (I also think the resulting curry tastes less good) so if you go down this route, cook the curry over a more gentle heat and stop cooking when the meat is tender – you will still need to do the last step where you reduce the liquid to get that rich, dark curry.
Drop me any questions below – always happy to help!
- 50g coriander seeds
- 25g cumin
- 5g fennel
- ½ cinnamon stick, broken up
- 2 cardamom pods
- 3 cloves
- 100ml vegetable oil
- 4-5 big onions (approx. 400g), thinly sliced
- 1½ whole bulbs of garlic, thinly sliced
- 4 stalks lemongrass, trimmed and bruised
- 3 red chillies, finely sliced
- 10 stalks curry leaves
- 1 pandan leaf, cut into 1cm strips
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1-3 tbsp chilli powder (depending on your spice tolerance)
- ½ tsp ground turmeric
- 4 tbsp Sri Lankan unroasted curry powder*
- 5 tbsp black pork curry powder
- 1.5 kg pork with some fat through it (use a mix of belly and shoulder, or roasting pork) – roughly cut into 1.5cm cubes
- ½ cup (125ml) water
- ½ cup (125ml) tamarind water (mix 40g tamarind + 150ml water, allow to sit then squeeze and use only the liquid)
- Toast the spices for the black pork curry powder in 180C oven until a medium dark brown, approximately 40 minutes to an hour. This is the most important step in this dish and what gives this curry it’s trademark name and flavor – aim to get it as dark as you can. Remove from oven and grind – the curry powder should be the colour of roasted coffee – if it is not, then roast in the oven on a low heat until it is. Reserve 5 tbsp for this recipe and store the rest in an airtight container.
- To make the curry, heat oil in a large heavy bottomed pot, then add onion, garlic, lemongrass and chillies and cook until fragrant, about five minutes.
- Add curry leaves, pandan leaf and cinnamon stick and cook for a further two minutes.
- Turn off heat to prevent the spices from burning then add chilli powder, turmeric, unroasted curry powder and 2½ tbsp of the black pork curry powder and mix through.
- Add pork cubes and another 2½ tbsp black pork curry powder and return to cook over medium heat, stirring to combine all ingredients.
- Add the water and tamarind water, stir then cover and cook for 15 minutes. Uncover and cook on low for 45 minutes to an hour, topping up with more water as necessary.
- After an hour, the oil from the pork should have risen to the surface (this will be less obvious if you've used meat with a low fat content). Turn up the heat slightly and cook down until the curry is thick and dark, making sure to stir frequently to prevent burning.