Sri Lanka – one of the places I dearly wish to travel to but have yet to have the pleasure. I would love to see the wonderful country: the beaches and the rainforests; to see the mad Lankans supporting their beloved cricket team (I have Sri Lankan friends so I can vouch for the cricket passion); the high hills with their tea plantations; the history and culture; and of course to eat – no, let that be gorge – the wonderful food.
So what makes a Sri Lankan Chicken curry Sri Lankan? From what I have read and eaten it seems Sri Lankan food is a fusion of the spices from India and the freshness and piquancy of South East Asia. Fire, citrus and earthiness calmed down with the exotic milk of the coconut. The recipe here is something that I have adapted over a number of years, from various sources. Inspiration has been from close Sri Lankan friends to the wonderful Charmaine Solomon and the inspirational Madhur Jaffrey, as well as my travels to South India, the cuisine of which has similarities to that of Sri Lanka.
The first part of the recipe is jointing the chicken. If you can find it then procure an organic grain fed chicken that’s had a cracking (that means ‘great’ in Yorkshire parlance) life. The flavour and texture is far superior to most other chickens.
Sri Lankan Chicken CurryPrint
- ■ 1.6kg chicken | Jointed in to 8 pieces with skin on; drumsticks, thighs, wings and breasts - I cut each breast piece in half, making 10 pieces in total.
- ■ 2 medium brown onions | Peeled and roughly chopped.
- ■ 2 bird's-eye chillies | Roughly chopped. I like a little fire in this curry so add the seeds. For a milder version discard seeds or use a milder chilli.
- ■ 30g fresh ginger | Try and find succulent ginger. A lot of ginger sold is old and fibrous.
- ■ 2 cloves garlic | Roughly chopped.
- ■ 4 tbsp. peanut oil | 1 tbsp. used in the onion paste, the rest is used for frying.
- ■ 1½ tsp. fenugreek seeds | Magnificently fragrant, especially when added to hot oil.
- ■ 1 sprig of about 10-15 leaves fresh curry leaves | I buy them in bulk and freeze them – nothing like the crackle, spit and aroma when they hit hot oil.
- ■ 2 tbsp. coriander seeds | Toasted and ground.
- ■ 1 tbsp. cumin seeds | Toasted and ground.
- ■ 1 tsp. fennel seeds | Toasted and ground.
- ■ 1 tsp. ground turmeric | Used to colour, but also has a wonderfully earthy flavour.
- ■ 1 tsp. smoked paprika | Not necessarily a ‘Sri Lankan’ ingredient but I like the subtle smoky notes.
- ■ 1 tbsp. sea salt | As a seasoning.
- ■ 1 tbsp. rice wine vinegar | Adds a piquancy to the curry.
- ■ 1 stick cinnamon | Make sure it is a cinnamon stick as opposed to cassia bark, which is less pungent.
- ■ 6 black cardamom pods | Crack with the back of a knife to release its flavour and aroma.
- ■ 400g chopped tomatoes | Either peel and chop 3-4 large ripened tomatoes, or as I do use a tin of chopped tomatoes – which works equally as well.
- ■ 1 stalk lemongrass | Bruise lightly, remove the ends and outer skin. Peel away and tie each layer in a knot.
- ■ 200ml coconut milk | If you are feeling adventurous then extract your milk from a fresh coconut – otherwise a tin is by far the easier way to go.
- ■ ½ lemon - juice of | Added just before serving gives a great but subtle piquancy to the curry.
I am assuming that the chicken is already jointed in to wonderfully cut organic pieces.
Firstly I prepare the onion paste by adding the onion, garlic, chilli, ginger and 1 tablespoon of peanut oil to a food processor, and then blitz until a course puree is achieved. If you want to use a mortar and pestle instead then cut the ingredients so they are finer.
Next heat a small frying pan on a medium heat. When breathing (the haze that rises from the pan – similar to seeing the mirage of water on a road’s horizon in summer) add the coriander seed, then 10 seconds later the cumin and then 10 second later the fennel seed. When you can see the seeds starting to brown then remove from the heat (don’t let them burn). At this stage I add the seeds to a spice grinder along with the turmeric, smoky paprika and the sea salt. Grind until the spice mix is a fine powder. This can be done in a mortar and pestle – if doing it this way then pass the powder through a sieve and any parts that do not pass through the sieve grind again.
Put a large heavy based pan on a medium to high heat. When breathing add the remaining peanut oil (3 tablespoons) and then add the fenugreek seeds and curry leaves – it will spit. When the curry leaves start to darken, but not burn, add the onion paste, and stir vigorously to prevent sticking. Turn the heat to low-medium and then continue to stir until the onion has softened, but not browned. Turn the heat up to medium and add the spice mix and rice wine vinegar. Stir until mixed – the mix will be dry at this point. Add the chicken and stir for a minute ensuring the chicken is coated in the spice mix and is starting to brown.
Now add the tomatoes, cardamom pods and cinnamon stick. Stir, and then lay the tied lemongrass layers on top. Cover the pan and turn the heat down to its lowest. Cook for about 45-50 minutes.
Carefully remove and discard the lemongrass ties, and then gently stir the curry ensuring that the chicken meat remains intact. Add the coconut milk and cook on low, uncovered for about 10 minutes. Just prior to serving squeeze in the lemon juice. I usually serve the curry with coconut rice or plain roti.
■ Traditionally the sauce is thick, and clings to the meat. If you want this then reduce till desired. I do like plenty of sauce so don’t reduce it as much. ■ Pre-ground spices can be used of course, and will give you great results. Toasting and grinding your own takes it to another level though. ■ There was to be a ‘finished product’ photo at the end, however, an impromptu street dinner involving the aforementioned curry put an end to that…though it was great to share it with friends.