Sri Lankan Crab Curry

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year: Dungeness crab season in the Bay Area. And during the holidays, we eat Dungeness crab. Crab cakes. Crab with butter. Singaporean chili crab. Roasted crab. And now, Jaffna-style crab curry. This stuff is so good it’ll have you licking your fingers and crying tears of joy from the endorphin rush. It burns, my friend. It burns so good. There’s a reason why this is Anthony Bourdain’s favorite Sri Lankan dish.

In my version, I substituted spinach for murungu leaves. I know, I know. A poor substitute, but I couldn’t find a single South Asian grocery in the East Bay that carries murungu leaves. And I’ve of course used Dungeness crab instead of blue swimmer crabs which are native to Sri Lanka. It ain’t pretty and it’s messy, but who cares? This is what crustacean dreams are made of.

Happy holidays, y’all.

Sri Lankan crab curry


2 large cooked Dungeness crabs, cleaned
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon salt to taste
1 tablespoon raw basmati rice
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
3 tablespoons shredded coconut
5 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons oil
1 onion, chopped
2 sprigs curry leaves
1 tomato, chopped
1 bunch spinach or murungu leaves
1 cup water
1 cup coconut milk
2 tablespoons tamarind paste, soaked in 1/3 cup warm water and pressed through a sieve, solids discarded

1. Split crabs down the middle and crack legs. Toss with turmeric powder, cayenne pepper, and salt. Set aside.

2. Toast rice, peppercorns, and cumin seeds in a small saucepan and set aside. Toast coconut in saucepan until slightly browned. Grind spices and coconut with garlic and set aside.

3. Heat oil in a medium saucepan. Saute onions, curry leaves, tomato, and spinach. Add crabs and 1/2 cup of the water. Cover and steam over high heat for 5 minutes.

4. Add the rice mixture, remaining water, and coconut milk to the saucepan. Stir and simmer for 5 minutes. Add strained tamarind liquid to pot and simmer for another 5 minutes. Remove from heat and serve warm.

Chicken Soup with Sticky Rice

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‘Tis the season for rainy days, for heavy coats, for wanting nothing more than to curl up with a bowl of warm soup and binge-watch Game of Thrones. Winter is coming, y’all.

My favorite thing about this time of year is cold-weather cooking; namely, soups! Especially this one: an easy-to-make but complex-tasting chicken soup redolent with Vietnamese flavors of fish sauce, cilantro, and chiles. Make sure you add enough chicken broth: as the soup cools and settles, the sticky rice will thicken the soup.

Vietnamese sticky rice and chicken soup


3 skinless, boneless chicken thighs
1 5-inch piece dried kombu
1 3-inch piece ginger, peeled, crushed
4 star anise pods
1 2-inch cinnamon stick
3 cloves
6 cups chicken stock or low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup glutinous (sticky) rice
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 teaspoon brown sugar
2 green onions, thinly sliced
1 jalapeno, thinly sliced
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
1/2 cup thinly sliced white onion

1. Bring chicken, kombu, ginger, star anise, cinnamon, cloves, stock, and 2 cups water to a simmer in a large pot over moderate heat. Reduce heat to a low simmer and cook until chicken is tender. Transfer chicken to a plate.

2. Strain broth through a fine-mesh sieve into another pot; discard solids. Return broth to large pot and add rice, fish sauce, and sugar. Bring to a simmer and cook until rice is very tender, about minutes. Shred chicken and return to pot; season soup with more fish sauce if needed.

3. Divide soup among bowls and garnish with green onions, jalapeno, cilantro, and white onion.

Bee Hoon Soup

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Let’s get this out of the way: this recipe isn’t authentic bee hoon soup. It’s more like bee hoon soup for people who live in the Bay Area and can’t properly source ingredients to recreate what they ate in Singapore (aka myself).

Typically, bee hoon soup is redolent with fish heads (or fish balls or fish slices) and rice vermicelli. The broth and other ingredients may vary but there is always a healthy topping of fried shallots sitting a atop a flavorful broth. For my version, I used roe-filled fish balls not because they’re authentic but because they are delicious. Instead of adding pork to the stock, I substituted with chicken. It’s not quite the same bee hoon soup that I ate at Maxwell Road Hawker Centre, but whatever unique touches you add to this soup, the result is still comfort in a bowl.

Bee hoon soup


12 ounces dried rice vermicelli, soaked to soften
1/2 pound bean sprouts, washed and drained
1 small bunch choy sum or spinach, blanched, drained, and cut into 2-inch lengths
7 cups chicken stock
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
24 fish balls
1 or 2 fried fish cakes, sliced
2 green onions, thinly sliced
crisp-fried shallots, to garnish
thinly sliced red chili and soy sauce, to garnish

1. Put the rice vermicelli in a saucepan of boiling water and simmer until al dente. Drain and divide the cooked vermicelli among 6 soup bowls. Add the bean sprouts and cooked vegetables to each portion and set aside.

2. Bring the chicken stock to a boil, add the fish balls, lower heat, and simmer for 10 minutes, then add the fish cake and simmer for another 2 minutes, until cooked through. Add salt to taste.

3. Put some of the soup, fish balls, and fish cakes in each bowl, then sprinkle with green onions and crisp-fried shallots. Serve hot with sauce bowls of sliced red chili in light soy sauce, if desired.

Spinach Borani

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No Iranian meal is complete without a yogurt-based side dish of some sort. The cucumber and mint-flecked mast-o khiar is most common (and a close cousin to Indian raita and Greek tzatziki). Spinach borani flies under the radar, despite it being just as delicious.

More substantial than its cucumber counterpart, spinach borani is a simple but perfect side dish alongside an Iranian khoresh but it’s just at home next to curry (and if you’re like me, straight out of the bowl as a standalone snack). Borani keeps for a few days in the fridge, so it’s perfect with leftovers.

Spinach borani


1 pound spinach (about 1 bunch), washed
2 to 3 cups Persian or Greek-style yogurt
1 clove garlic, minced
salt and pepper

1. Blanch the spinach: bring a pot of water to a boil; add spinach, and blanch for about 1 minute. Remove from heat and drain spinach in a colander, rinsing under cold water. Squeeze spinach to remove excess liquid and coarsely chop.

2. In a serving bowl, thoroughly mix yogurt, spinach, garlic, adding salt and pepper to taste.

3. Chill the bowl in the refrigerator for at least half an hour before serving, allowing the flavors to set. Serve cold or at room temperature.

Okra and Zucchini Sambar

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No two sambars are the same.

For the uninitiated, sambar is a comforting vegetable dish that’s popular in Sri Lankan Tamil and South Indian cuisine. The lentil and tamarind base are standard but the rest is up to you. Tomatoes in season? Go for it. Cauliflower? You can add that too. My favorite version includes okra and zucchini. Served typically with dosa, idli, or rice, the variations are endless.

Okra and zucchini sambar


1 cup yellow lentils (toor dal)
6 cups water
2 slices ginger
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
3-4 cups mixed chopped vegetables (I used okra, zucchini, and potatoes here)
1 serrano chili, halved lengthwise
1/4 teaspoon asafoetida
1 tablespoon tamarind pulp, soaked in 1/4 cup warm water and strained for liquid (discard solids)
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1/4 teaspoon peppercorns
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon urad dal
1 sprig curry leaves
3 shallots (or 1/2 onion), thinly sliced

1. Place the lentils, water, ginger, salt and turmeric in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil, cover partially with a lid, and simmer until the lentils are very soft, about 30 minutes.

2. While the lentils are cooking, prepare the sambar powder: lightly toast the coriander and cumin seeds in a small pan until they begin to smell fragrant, about 2 minutes. Let cool and grind in a spice grinder with the cayenne pepper, fenugreek seeds, and peppercorns. Set aside.

3. When the lentils are cooked, add the prepared vegetables, serrano chili, asafoetida, tamarind liquid, and sambar powder. Stir well, bring to a boil, and simmer gently with the pan uncovered until the vegetables have cooked through.

4. Just before serving, heat the oil in a small pan and add the mustard seeds, urad dal, curry leaves, and shallots. Stir until the shallots are tender, then pour the contents of the pan onto the vegetables. Stir and serve hot.