Sri Lankan Chicken Biryani with Mint Sambol

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Once a year, I try my hand at making biryani. It’s typically a disaster: mushy or undercooked rice — nothing like the fluffy, fragrant grains infused with spice that I’m aiming for.

But this year is different! I finally stumbled upon a method, fool-proof for a biryani novice even like me. Success! Delicious, ghee-laden success. Accompanied with a cooling mint sambol, this chicken biryani is the real thing.

Sri Lankan chicken biryani with mint sambol

Ingredients:

For the chicken:
1 1/2 to 2 pounds chicken (I used boneless, skinless chicken thighs but any cuts will do just fine)
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon roasted curry powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 cup yogurt
1/4 cup tomato puree
2 tablespoons chopped cashews
2 tablespoons shredded coconut
1 cardamom pod
1 clove
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons ghee
1 onion, chopped
1 serrano chili, chopped

For the rice:
1 pound (about 3 cups) basmati rice
3 teaspoons ghee
1 onion, chopped
2 cardamom pods
2 cloves
2 bay leaves
1 2-inch stick cinnamon stick
A pinch of ground saffron
1 1/2 to 2 cups chicken stock
1 teaspoon salt

For the mint sambol:
3 cups mint leaves
1 clove garlic
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 serrano chili
Juice of 1 lime
1/4 teaspoon sugar
Salt to taste

1. Wash and dry chicken. Season with salt, pepper, curry powder, and cayenne pepper.

2. In a food processor, blend yogurt, tomato puree, cashews, and coconut.

3. Combine yogurt mixture, cardamom pods, clove, and bay leaves with chicken and marinade at least 2 hours to overnight.

4. When ready to assemble and cook the chicken, preheat the oven to 300F degrees. Heat ghee in a medium pan on the stovetop. Fry the onion and chili until onions are lightly browned.

5. Remove chicken from marinade (reserving marinade), add to pan, and saute for about 10 minutes. Add a little water to the reserved marinade and pour over chicken. Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat and place chicken in a deep oven-proof baking dish.

6. Prepare the rice: Wash and drain the rice. Heat the ghee in a medium pan. Fry onion until lightly browned. Add cardamom pods, cloves, bay leaves, and cinnamon stick.

7. Add rice and fry for a few minutes until rice starts to turn lightly golden. Add saffron and mix well.

8. Pour in stock and simmer until rice is partially cooked (about 15 minutes). Add salt.

9. Place rice on top of chicken in baking dish. Cover with aluminum foil and bake in heated oven until moisture evaporates, about 45 minutes.

10. In the meantime, make the sambol: Blend all of the sambol ingredients together in a food processor to make a thick green paste. Serve with yogurt alongside biryani.

Tomato Curry

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What do you do when you have too many tomatoes? Make tomato curry. This summertime curry is my new surprise favorite — I had an excessive tomato haul and wanted to try something different than salad or tomato sauce. Spicy and savory and slightly sweet from ripened tomatoes’ natural sugars, this whole thing comes together in only a few minutes and is finished with a touch of creamy coconut milk.

If you never thought tomatoes could be the star ingredient in a curry, try this and see if you don’t change your mind. It’s perfect alongside heftier curry, some rice, and pickled things to make a perfect meal.

Tomato curry

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
1/4 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1/4 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 sprig curry leaves
1 cinnamon stick
1 onion, chopped
1 serrano chili, chopped
1 pound tomatoes, quartered
1 cup coconut milk
1 cup water
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon ground corriander
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper powder
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons Maldive fish

1. Heat the oil in a pan over medium heat. Add fenugreek, mustard seeds, curry leaves, cinnamon, onion, serrano chili, and cook until golden, about 3 minutes. Add cumin, coriander, turmeric, cayenne pepper, brown sugar, salt, and Maldive fish and cook for another minute, being careful to not burn the mixture.

2. Add the tomatoes and cook for about 7 minutes, until they have softened. Add coconut milk and water, bring to a boil, and simmer until the liquid thickens.

3. Serve as a side curry to a main vegetable, fish, or meat curry alongside rice.

Sri Lankan Coconut Sambol (Pol Sambol)

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Few Sri Lankan meals are complete without pol sambol, the ubiquitous condiment that accompanies rice and curry. Spicy, citrusy, and salty, this coconut sambol brings a cooling element to otherwise fiery food. There are countless variations on pol sambol, but this one is my favorite.

I prefer pol sambol with rice and curry, but it’s also standard alongside roti or buttered bread. And uh, please forgive the poor quality photo. Sometimes you just can’t wait to dig into the pol sambol. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Pol Sambol

Ingredients:

1/2 cup chopped onion
2 serrano chiles, seeded
1 clove garlic
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper powder
1 sprig curry leaves
2 teaspoons Maldive fish
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup shredded coconut (fresh or previously frozen, not dried)
Juice of 1/2 lime

1. Place onion, serrano chile, garlic, cayenne pepper, curry leaves, and Maldive fish in a food processor and blend. Add the salt, pepper, and coconut and blend until mixture is bound.

2. Remove from food processor and put in a bowl, mix in lime juice, and let sit in the fridge for at least an hour, covered, for flavors to blend, before serving.

Sri Lankan Caramel Pudding

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A nation’s cuisine is in many ways a reflection of its history. Take Sri Lanka, for example. Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim, Indian, Indonesian, Dutch, and Portuguese influence factor into everything from street food to curries to desserts, a reminder of trade routes, colonization, and migration.

One of the sweeter examples is caramel pudding, which bears an uncanny resemblance to Portuguese flan. I include a tiny bit of ground cardamom in my version, but you can omit it. Either way, it’s a perfect cooling treat at the end of a Sri Lankan meal.

Sri Lankan Caramel Pudding

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons sugar
1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
1 1/2 cans water
4 eggs, beaten
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

1. Heat sugar with 1 tablespoon water in a 2 quart stainless steel mold or saucepan until the color of amber. Swirl the melted sugar to coat base and sides, being careful to not let the caramel burn.

2. In a bowl, mix condensed milk, water, eggs, vanilla, and cardamom.

3. Pour mixture into the prepared mold or saucepan, cover with aluminum foil, and steam in a double boiler for 30 minutes until set. (The water should not boil under it but simmer.)

4. Remove from heat, remove foil, and allow to cool.

5. Cover and refrigerate for at least 5 hours before serving. Serve chilled.

Kadalai (Chickpea) Curry

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This chickpea curry is popular not only in Sri Lanka but in South India as well. In this version, a Jaffna-style curry powder gives the dish its spicy, complex flavor. It’s worth making your curry powder — the store-bought version doesn’t compare. Use the leftover curry powder in other dishes. It’ll go quickly, trust me.

This easy weeknight curry is perfect with rice or flatbread alongside Iranian torshi or Sri Lankan sambol.

Kadala curry

Ingredients:

4 ounces dry red chiles
8 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon fenugreek seeds
1 potato, peeled and diced
1 15-ounce can chickpeas
1/2 cup water
1-inch piece ginger, peeled
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 1/4 teaspoons turmeric powder
2 tablespoons oil
1 onion, chopped
4 sprigs curry leaves
1 tomato, diced
salt, to taste
1 teaspoon garam masala
juice of 1 lemon

1. Make the Jaffna-style curry powder: Place chiles, coriander seeds, peppercorns, and 2 sprigs of the curry leaves in a pan and dry roast until curry leaves are crisp. Roast fennel seeds, cumin seeds, and fenugreek seeds until golden brown. Remove from heat and add 1 teaspoon of turmeric. Mix all ingredients together and grind in a spice grinder. Set aside.

2. Boil potato in salted water for 4 minutes and drain.

3. Grind 1/4 cup of the chickpeas, water, ginger, garlic, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon turmeric in a food processor.

4. Heat oil in a medium saucepan. Saute onions and remaining 2 sprigs of curry leaves until onions are translucent. Add 1 heaping teaspoon of Jaffna-style curry powder and mix for 1 minute. (Place unused curry powder in a glass jar and store in the fridge, reserving for other uses.) Add remaining chickpeas, potato, chickpea puree, tomato, and salt to taste. Simmer until mixture is thick and creamy, about 15 minutes.

5. Add garam masala and lemon juice, stir to mix thoroughly, and serve warm.