Just one week into my ten weeks of travels through Sri Lanka, I had the opportunity to go in the kitchen at Mango Garden in Kandy, Sri Lanka to help prepare the New Year’s Eve dinner. The head cook showed me how to make a number of amazing vegetarian (vegan) Sri Lankan curries and dishes, including this one. I also learned how to make Pol Sambol for the first time, always awesome Beetroot Curry, fantastic Leek Curry, Dal Curry (of course), Green Bean “Bonchi” Curry, and Snake Gourd Curry (which can be made with any squash, such as Zucchini.) Continue reading
Pol Sambol is one of those amazing Asian condiments that is easy to make and super satisfying. It adds a spice and heat kick to any dish and is great (and essential) with Sri Lankan curries.
The best Pol Sambol is made with fresh, grated coconut.
In Sri Lanka, fresh coconut halves are shredded with a hand-turned grater. Alternately, the coconut can be cut into chunks and grated with a box grater or hand grater, which takes considerably more time. If you don’t have fresh coconut on hand, any good dried, desiccated, grated coconut works well. Just soak it in hot water and press out the excess moisture after about 10 or 20 minutes before mixing with the spices and other ingredients. The red color is determined by how much paprika, chili powder or red chili flakes are used. Don’t be bashful or you’ll get a bland, pale Sambol! Increase the ground paprika to get more red color in your coconut chutney, if you’re going skipping the heat and don’t want to use chili.
The onion and garlic are not absolutely necessary for Pol Sambol, but the flavor and freshness is more intense. An ayurvedic version of the coconut chutney is made simply by omitting the onion and garlic. Which is how I prepare Pol Sambol about half the time.
I’m not sure when the first time was that I had Pol Sambol…
Maybe on my first trip to South India, or at at Sri Lankan restaurant in Berlin. But I do know that I had it dozens of times in the ten weeks of backpacking and travel in Sri Lanka. Unlike many dishes, it didn’t vary much from place to place, family to family. Traditionally, Pol Sanbol is often made with dried fish, such as Maldive fish flakes – quite common Sri Lanka. Obviously for a vegan version, I skip that. Continue reading
Watalappam is a traditional coconut dessert enjoyed in Sri Lanka.
This luscious custard is spiced-up with cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom, often with a hint of vanilla, and a smattering of nuts or dried fruits. The taste reminds me of a spicy, aromatic Indian cup of chai. But cold, coconutty, and soft! As with all recipes, everyone has their very own version. The Tamils make it different than the Singhalese, and the Muslims have another delightful variation.
I invented a vegan version of the coconut custard, and I added some variations of my own– including fresh (or frozen) berries. I often top it with dark, rich, sweet coconut blossom syrup (AKA palm syrup) which is extremely popular in Sri Lanka – and recently gaining popularity in Europe and the Americas. Sometimes I top the custard with blackstrap molasses or dark agave syrup, or some fresh fruit and nuts and maybe a bit of homemade fruit syrup, like I do with my vanilla muffins (also in The Lotus and the Artichoke – SRI LANKA cookbook.)
There’s actually a good story with the first time I had Watalappam in Sri Lanka. It highlights the need to stay cool, and remember that how we react in unexpected situations always influences how others perceive not just us as people, but whatever groups of people with whom we are associated – as foreign tourists, guests, citizens of particular countries, …and as vegetarians and vegans. In my travels, I try to be modest and respectful, and traveling vegan certainly comes with challenges here and there. Usually it’s much easier than others imagine, but I guess experience, a fair amount of luck and communication are all important factors.
One night I was invited to dinner at home with a Sri Lankan family in the small, charming town of Midigama.
Midigama is on the south west coast of Sri Lanka, and known for several great surfing spots, and I wanted to check it out. Sharani and her husband, a local tuk-tuk driver, lived with their two small children – and a funny green parrot that could talk – on a narrow, unpaved road a few minutes walk from the beach. She cooked for the better part of an afternoon, and by time dinner was ready, we were super hungry and totally curious what kind of deliciousness awaited us. Everything smelled fantastic! And then dinner was served: 5 Sri Lankan curries… including stir-fried Bonchi (green beans), spicy sautéed Brinjal (eggplant/aubergine), Carrot Curry, Dal (lentil) Curry, Soymeats Curry, and of course papadam, rice, and a simple salad of cucumbers and tomatoes.
After we finished eating, Sharani asked, “Do you like Watalappam? Sweets? Want to try?”
I was immediately curious, and asked her to describe it. “Made with coconut. Like a pudding. But very special flavors!” I tried once more, politely, to find out how it was made. “With eggs? Milk?” “No, no. Coconut!” “Butter?” “No, no. Coconut. And sugar! Palm syrup.” At this, she slid her chair back from the table, dashed to the kitchen, and returned with a chilled tray covered with plastic foil, which she was peeling back as she walked. Continue reading
This African Red Curry is a hybrid dish which takes a more typically Asian (particularly Thai and Indonesian) curry recipe and changes up a few key ingredients and spices. I love to make Thai curries of all kinds– yellow curry, green curry, red curry, and my personal favorite: Massaman curry, usually with potatoes, tofu, onion, and peanuts. Anytime I see it in my travels I have to try it, and am constantly amazed at how different countries and different cooks prepare it. Massaman curry is by origin a hybrid dish: a Thai recipe enhanced by the aromatic spices that Muslim traders brought to South East Asia in ages past.
When I lived in Boston’s Chinatown and later in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, I experimented often with store-bought curry pastes from the Asian supermarkets. This recipe goes for a more Do-It-Yourself approach, also altering the base ingredients to make a more world-fusion recipe. I enjoy making my own homemade sauces and curries and I encourage you to try the same. Anyone can buy prepared sauce and paste in a jar, but when you make an awesome curry from scratch and it works, it’s so satisfying!
If I had to locate the Africa in this African curry, I’d trace it back to Mombasa on the Kenyan coast. I had such an amazing, spicy coconut curry at this simple place in the old Muslim quarter of town. I remember how intrigued I was by the Asian influence and artifacts I saw on that first trip to Africa. I was continually surprised by great Indian food and Thai and other Asian restaurants in Nairobi and other cities in East Africa. Even on the other side of Africa, in Senegal and The Gambia, a good decade later, I also enjoyed excellent Asian, particularly Indian food. Just goes to show, people have been migrating, moving, and mixing world cuisines with amazing results for a long, long time.
This recipe for Eggplant Basil Thai Curry is based on one of my favorite dishes from the takeaway Thai counter at the family-style, super authentic, sometimes dicey Boston Chinatown Eatery. I hear it has since closed, but my artist friends and I used to hang out there all the time in the 90s when we were doing the art studio loft thing in Boston downtown, working in Fort Point’s emerging web design studios, and in the days I was running Gallery Insekt, an experimental not-for-profit artspace.
In my travels in Thailand I had many excellent similar dishes with basil and eggplant, mostly in bustling Bangkok back alleys and on the then mostly-undiscovered paradise Ko Chang island. The coconut spin is actually my doing, making this sort of a hybrid dish with more classic Thai coconut curries.
I’ve also experimented with more tomato and no coconut milk. This results in more of a stir-fry and less of a creamy coconut curry. See what works for you! If unfamiliar with salting eggplant prior to cooking, I suggest looking it up online or in any comprehensive cookbook discussing vegetable cookery. Cooks have debated endlessly on whether or not salting eggplant is necessary. I learned the trick ages ago from my mother and stand by it. Using Asian aubergine is a way around it – they naturally have a milder, less bitter flavor. If you don’t like eggplant, it can be replaced with squash or zucchini.