When we were first offered beetroot curry in Sri Lanka (at the lovely Urban Castle hotel, see previous post), I assumed it was some kind of concession to the western palete, an east-west hybrid. But no, Sri Lankan beetroot curry is a thing, combining the earthiness of the beetroot with the slightly sweet coconut milk. It’s delicious.
Sri Lankan food is largely vegetarian, and one of the things that really struck me was that the vegetables that headline the curries are relatively lightly cooked; the cacophony of spices complimenting, rather than masking, the flavour and vibrancy of the natural produce.
Stepping into a Sri Lankan market is a wonderful technicolour assault on the senses. And that huge variety plays out in the cuisine: aubergine curry, pumpkin curry, green bean curry, lady finger curry, cashew curry, potato curry, curry of that root vegetable that looks like a snozzcumber from Roald Dahl’s BFG…
I quizzed the Urban Castle’s lovely chef on what vegetables he’s used in curries and I couldn’t name one he hadn’t tried. (Based on that conversation, I will at some point be experimenting fennel curry.)
We spent a wonderful morning in the kitchen of a lovely Sri Lankan couple, Meena and Kodi, in Galle Fort learning how to cook Sri Lankan food (booked through Tastecapade). We started with a trip to the fish and vegetable markets with Kodi, and then spent the rest of the day cooking under their gentle tutelage.
It addition to how quickly and simply Meena managed to pull together seven different curries, I was amazed at how little oil she use – none to be precise, apart from in one dried fish curry.
Coconut milk is used as the liquid in nearly all the curries, and coconut cream when you want a richer gravy. And the alchemy behind the different combination of spices was, quite simply, magic!
This curry can be pulled together in less than half an hour – making it perfect for a quick weeknight supper. But it makes no compromise on flavour! Following Meena’s example, I’ve not used any oil; all the ingredients (bar the salt) are thrown in the pan and then allowed to gently bubble until the beetroot is cooked.
The recipe uses a black roasted curry powder – a Sri Lankan staple. It’s a mix of coriander seeds (2 tbsp), dried pandan leaves (1 tsp), dried curry leaves (1 tbsp), cinnamon (1 cm piece), cloves (4), cardamon pods (3), cumin seeds (1 tbsp), black peppercorns (1 1/2 tsp), black mustard seeds (1/2 tsp), fenugreek seeds (1/4 tsp) and whole dried chillies (2).
They all have slightly different cooking times so many recipes suggest you toast them separately.
But as long as you factor in the different cooking times, it can all be done in a single pan.
I’ve listed them there in the order you need to toast them. Start with the first three (you can just leave out the pandan leaves if you can’t find them). After a few minutes, add the next four and roast until golden brown, and then the rest minus the chilli. Give them a few more minutes before adding the chilli for a final minute.
Grind them into a powder by hand with a pestle and mortar or in a spice grinder/small blender.
It’s best made fresh, but any leftovers can be stored in a sealed jar.
If you don’t want to invest in a full spice cupboard, a combination of toasted coriander, cumin and mustard seeds will still produce a tasty beetroot curry. The piece of cinnamon that goes straight in the pot is essential though!
To go with the beetroot curry, I made an adapted version of a Coconut sambol, or pol sambol.
Pol sambol is served with nearly every meal in Sri Lanka from breakfast to dinner. Its a mix of grated fresh coconut, lime juice, chilli and onion, and is totally addictive.
Fresh coconut flesh can be hard to find – and opening a coconut at home poses a bit of a threat to fingers! So my recipe uses dried coconut chips.
If you’re brave enough to tackle a whole coconut then look for young green Thai coconuts. You don’t want to the brown hairy ones – the flesh is too tough.
I’m entering this post in Nuts and Blueberries‘ Food Blog Carnival, which is showcasing the best healthy fast food produced by food bloggers. It’s promising to be a wonderful collection of recipes that prove that vegan and vegetarian food doesn’t skimp on flavour and also doesn’t need to be complicated to make.
Recipe: Sri Lankan beetroot curry & toasted coconut sambol
Preparation time: 30 minutes | Servings: 4
If you can get hold of fresh curry leaves use one sprig instead of the dried ones. The same goes for the pandan leaves: if you can get it fresh use a 10 cm piece, roughly torn. The flavour of the fresh leaves is far superior to the dried variety. But just leave out the pandan leaves if you can’t find any, fresh or dried.
- 2 medium beetroot, grated
- 1/2 onion, finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 2 tbsp Sri Lankan black roasted curry powder (see recipe above)
- 2 cm piece of cinnamon
- 1 tbsp dried curry leaves
- 1 tbsp dried pandan leaves
- 1 green chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
- 1 tsp salt
- 400 ml coconut milk
- 1 lime, to serve
- Fresh coriander, to serve
- Red or white rice, to serve
Mix all the curry ingredients, except the salt, in a large saucepan and place on a medium heat. Bring it slowly to a gentle boil (about 3 minutes, add some water if it seems dry) and then reduce the heat. Add the salt. Allow to simmer for 10-12 minutes.
Serve over rice with the fresh coriander, a squeeze of lime and the toasted coconut sambal on the side.
Recipe: Toasted coconut sambol
Preparation time: 5 minutes | Servings: 4
- 1 cup coconut chips
- 2 shallots, finely chopped
- 1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
- 2 limes, juiced
Gently toast the coconut chips over a medium heat. Mix together with the rest of the ingredients.