Sunday, June 12, 2011

A taste of Sri Lanka: Pol Sambal

I just came back from an eight-day holiday in Sri Lanka, the country from which my grandparents came. I didn't make it to Jaffna, the capital city of the Northern Peninsular where they were born and raised though.  To go to Jaffna, you need special permission from the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry. As my maiden trip to the country was a short one — a vacation rather than a homecoming — I decided to keep my visit to Jaffna for another time... soon. This time around I just wanted to see the beautiful country that friends and relatives who have been there told me about.  I wanted to visit the beautiful beaches and walk the scenic hillsides. I wanted to taste the food that I assumed would be somewhat similar to the fare I grew up with.  I wanted to shop. I wanted to be a carefree tourist. I didn't expect to be sentimental about being in the country of my grandparents but I was. It was easy to fall in love with the country: the lovely vistas and even lovelier people were all I needed to feel completely at home. It was strange but it was a nice kind of strange. 

Now, on to the food. I've eaten Sri Lankan food all my life. Food cooked by my grandmothers, aunts and of course my mum. I love the Sri Lankan food I grew up which is very similar to Indian cuisine. The food I tasted on my holiday was a little different though. I told this to an aunt upon my return and she said the food in Jaffna would have tasted more like home. Ah. Next time then. This time, I discovered new flavours and dishes. 

Many say Sri Lankan food is more fiery than Indian cuisine. While the spices that are used are the same (more or less), there are small but significant differences. For example,  Sri Lankan curries use roasted curry and chilli powders as opposed to the raw powders used in most Indian curries. Big difference? Yes, actually. I bought back a packet of roasted curry powder and cooked a curry for lunch today and discovered the difference: the roasted spice powders add a smokiness to the curries which goes well with the other main ingredient in Sri Lankan food I wish to highlight: coconut.

Coconut is a mainstay in Sri Lankan cuisine. Many Sri Lankan curries are thick with coconut gravy and vegetables are often cooked with either grated coconut or coconut cream. While the curries which I tasted and saw in Sri Lanka resembled the ones I grew up on, they were obviously much richer and creamier than what I was used to. My mother used coconut cream/milk sparingly for health reasons therefore our curries were somewhat thinner but no less tasty.

Apart from curries and vegetables, coconut is also used in making Pol Sambol (coconut sambol) — a popular condiment eaten with rice, string hoppers, bread ... basically anything in Sri Lanka. I got my first taste of Pol Sambal on my first morning in Sri Lanka. On the breakfast buffet, along with the string hoppers and sothi, Sri Lankan flat bread and fish curry and coconut rice cakes and lentil curry was this  fiery red dish that looked like chutney, only drier. I asked the waiter what it was and he explained that it was a coconut sambol made with fresh grated coconut, onions, chilli powder and lime. 

I don't usually eat breakfast but I couldn't resist serving myself some of the sambol. Just the sambol. It was fantastic. Spicy and a little tangy. I was hooked. 

The Pol Sambal on the breakfast buffet at the Kasappa Lions Rock resort
in Dambulla, Sri Lanka.

I was happy to note that the Pol Sambal is a popular condiment and was available at almost every buffet meal in Sri Lanka. Yay. I was determined to learn to make this dish and managed to get the recipe for it from Dillan, our friendly waiter at the Kasappa Lions Rock resort in Dambulla, Sri Lanka. 

The ingredients, according to Dillan, are grated coconut, green chillies, tomatoes, red onions, chilli powder, lime juice, salt and pepper. He didn't give me the exact measurements but that was fine as the taste of the smabol is ingrained in me now and I think I should be able to recreate it. 

I later learnt that some add crushed Maldivian fish (a popular ingredient in many Sri Lankan chilli pastes) in the Sambol but the vegetarian version without the fish is just as tasty, I felt. 

So in love with the humble Pol Sambol am I that the first thing I made when I came back from my holiday today was ... yup, you guessed right: Pol Sambol. I surfed the Net for some recipes just to make sure Dillan didn't accidentally leave out an ingredient or to — he didn't — and then got down to making the dish. 

Success! My Pol Sambol turned out pretty well.
Here's what you need:

Pol Sambol (coconut sambol)
1 coconut, grated
1-2 green chillis, diced extremely fine
1 medium tomato, chopped extremely fine
1 pip garlic, chopped extremely fine
1-11/2 tbsp roasted chilli powder
1 small lime, juiced
salt and pepper

Here's what you do:

Mix all the ingredients together with a spoon! That's it. 

Here's how you eat it:

The first thing I did with my Sambol was sandwich it in a slice of bread: yummmm.

I also served it to R, along with his rice and curry for dinner. I wasn't sure if he'd like it but I tried anyhow. He loved it. 

This was great news because this meant Pol Sambol will now be a fixture in my home.

Good with bread, rice, string hoppers, dosai ... or even on its own.
Note: Variations to the recipe include the addition of curry leaves, chilli oil (just a couple of drops) and  little curry powder. You can also omit the tomatoes and, if you like, dry fry the sambal for a couple of minutes before eating it. 

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