Green Bean Varai

A fresh, green element on the dinner plate.

1 medium onion, minced
1 tsp black mustard seed
1/4 rounded tsp turmeric
1-3 dry red chilies, broken into pieces (optional)
1 lb green beans, chopped finely (in a food processor is fine)
1/4 rounded tsp fresh ground black pepper
1 rounded tsp salt
1/2 cup shredded unsweetened coconut

  1. Cook onions with turmeric, black mustard seed, and chilies in a dry pan over high heat, stirring constantly, for a few minutes, until semi-cooked.
  2. Add green beans, pepper, and salt, and cook a few minutes more, enough to take the raw edge off. Green beans should still be crispy.
  3. Turn off heat, stir in coconut, and serve with rice.


 

Thai Carrot Salad

Thai Carrot Salad
 
1 T ginger & 3 cloves peeled garlic, grated very fine
2 T fresh lime juice & zest of 1 lime
1-2 T soy sauce
1 T fish sauce (optional; vegetarians can skip it)
2-3 T brown sugar
1-2 green chilies, minced (optional)
1 carrot, shredded
 
Combine all ingredients and let sit five minutes. Serve cold with rice and Thai curry.

Cauliflower Poriyal

(Lunch today: cauliflower poriyal with a little beef curry on top. Yum. Smells so good when frying the onions in ghee…)

Cauliflower Poriyal
(25 minutes, serves 4)

The key to this dish is sautéing the cauliflower until it’s browned—the browned bits will be the tastiest. I generally like to serve this dish with beef or pork curry; the slighty salty flavor complements those meats well. This is, oddly, one of my picky children’s favorite dishes, and has often proved popular with my friends’ children as well. I think it’s all the frying.

3 medium onions, chopped coarsely
3 TBL vegetable oil or ghee
1/4 tsp black mustard seed
1/4 tsp cumin seed
1 medium cauliflower, chopped bite-size
1 rounded tsp salt
1 rounded tsp turmeric

1. Sauté onions in oil on high in a large nonstick frying pan with mustard seed and cumin seed, until onions are slightly softened (not brown). Add cauliflower, turmeric, and salt. (I’ve made this in a regular frying pan, and found that it’s difficult not to burn it; if you don’t use non-stick, you’ll need to stir constantly.)

2. Cook on medium-high, stirring frequently, until cauliflower is browned (mostly yellow, but with a fair bit of brown on the flatter parts). This takes a while—don’t stop too early, or it won’t be nearly as tasty. Serve hot.

Composing a Vegan Sri Lankan Dinner

This was a fun one for me — an entirely vegan dinner, that I did for last week’s board game night. Pretty easy with Sri Lankan food. Going around clockwise: lentils in coconut milk (tons of protein), carrot in coconut milk, kale sambol, coconut sambol (spicy), seeni sambol (spicy and sweet), eggplant curried in coconut milk, with red rice / quinoa in the center.

If I were doing it again, I’d make more of a bed of red rice / quinoa — I had to go back for seconds on that to happily eat the rest, get the balance right in each bite. And I’d dice the onions for the lentils instead of slicing them — they were a little too noticeable when paired with the sliced onions in the seeni sambol.

This was plenty of food for the number of people we had, but for a larger dinner party, you could expand the plate’s options.

I’d add papadum for crunch, probably some lime-masala mushrooms for the tang. Devilled potatoes would add a luscious spicy-tomato element, though you could also just add tomatoes and potatoes to the eggplant curry for similar effect. Cashew curry or chili cashews would add another hit of protein in rich, nutty form. And while I’ve never had a raita without yogurt, I wonder if you could do something similar with coconut milk, for another cold element.

Proper balance of varied flavors for a Sri Lankan dinner party is an art form! But making it vegan was no more difficult than vegetarian or with meat, it turns out.

Tempered Lentils (Paripoo / Dal)

(60 minutes, serves six)
 
Lentils are a staple dish in Sri Lanka—across the country, people eat what we call paripoo daily, at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s terribly good for you, very affordable, and also delicious. I used to dislike lentils, or I thought I did, but it turned out I only disliked my mother’s version (which everyone else loved, so I blame my being a slightly picky kid). I was converted to lentils through my adult discovery of Ethiopian food, a cuisine which cooks the lentils to a soft porridge-like consistency; now I am quite fond of them. This recipe is adapted from Charmaine Solomon’s The Complete Asian Cookbook.
 
2 cups red lentils
1 can coconut milk, plus 1 can hot water
1 dried red chili, broken into pieces
a pinch of ground saffron
1 tsp pounded Maldive fish (optional)
2 TBL ghee or oil
2 medium onions, finely sliced
6 curry leaves
1 stick of cinnamon
three strips of lemon rind (about a quarter lemon)
salt to taste (about ¾ – 1 t.)
 
1. Put lentils in a saucepan with the coconut milk, chili, and saffron (and Maldive fish, if using). (If you don’t have red lentils, you can use a different variety, but it will notably change the flavor.) Fill the can with hot water and add that as well; this will ensure you don’t waste any coconut yumminess. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer until lentils are soft, about forty-five minutes. Stir periodically and add more water if needed; it’s fine if the bottom starts to stick a little—just scrape it up.
 
2. In another saucepan, heat the oil and fry the onions, curry leaves, cinnamon, and lemon rind until onions are golden-brown.
 
3. Reserve half the onions for garnishing the dish and add the lentil mixture to the saucepan. Stir well, add salt to taste, and cook down until thick, like porridge. Serve with rice and curries.
 
Notes: Some people like their paripoo more watery, but I think they’re just wrong. Still, cook to your preference. I tend to leave the Maldive fish out, since I often make this dish when I’m cooking for vegetarians, but it certainly is more traditional (and I think tastier) with the fish added.

Sri Lankan Carrot Curry

(20 minutes, serves 4)

3 medium onions, chopped
3 TBL vegetable oil
1 T ginger, minced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
3 Thai green chilies, chopped fine
1/2 tsp black mustard seed
1/2 tsp cumin seed
six large carrots, sliced into thin coins
1 rounded tsp salt
1 cup coconut milk (can use milk instead, but be extra careful not to curdle)

1. Sauté onions in oil on high with mustard seed, cumin seed, and ginger until onions are golden. Add garlic, carrots and salt. Cook on medium-high, stirring frequently, until carrots are cooked through.
2. Stir in coconut milk and turn heat down to low; simmer until well-blended, stirring constantly. Serve hot.

NOTE: You’d typically also add in half a teaspoon of turmeric with the salt, but I honestly forgot this time, and it was still good.

Beef Curry + Carrot Curry + Shirataki ‘Rice’

This may be the most iconic flavor combo of my childhood — beef curry with carrot curry on rice. I think my mom made it close to weekly, and the two flavors go perfectly together — the savory spice of the beef with the sweetness of the carrots cooked in coconut milk.

When I eat it, part of me is twelve years old again, sitting at the kitchen table at dinnertime with my little sisters, reading a book. (I was a terrible conversationalist at family dinner. Mostly still am.)

(Not pictured with actual rice — was trying out shirataki.  Shirataki, marketed here as ‘Miracle Rice’ would be an okay substitute for noodles, I think.   It basically has no tooth, though, so if I were desperate for no-carb, almost no-calorie, rice-like thing, I might have some, but I definitely like rice + quinoa better for a lower-carb than plain white rice option.  Or if I really felt like I wanted a big bed of white ‘something’ to put under curry?  I am more than a little weirded out by the almost-no-calorie food concept, though.)

 

Leeks Fried with Chili

(50 minutes, serves 8)

This accompaniment offers a little extra heat and onion-y zing to a plate of rice and curry.

4 medium leeks
1/4 cup oil
1/2 rounded tsp turmeric
1 1/2 rounded tsp chili powder
1 rounded tsp salt

1. Rinse dirt off outside of leeks. Discard any tough or withered leaves, but do use the green portions as well as the white.

2. With a sharp knife, slice the leeks thinly across the stalk, making thin rings / chiffonade; when you’re slicing the green leaves, make a tight bundle in your hands for easier slicing.

3. Wash the sliced leeks very thoroughly. The soil trapped between the leaves won’t actually taste particularly bad, but the grittiness is unpleasant. I recommend not simply running the sliced leeks under a colander—rather, put them in a large bowl of water and wash them vigorously, changing the water at least three times. This is labor-intensive, but well worth it.

4/ Heat oil in a large saucepan and add the leeks. Sauté, stirring for 5 minutes, then add the remaining ingredients and stir until well blended.

5. Cover and cook over low heat for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. The leeks will reduce in volume. Uncover and cook, stirring, until liquid evaporates and leeks appear slightly oily. Serve hot.

 

Sri Lankan Roasted Beets

(1 hr 15 min., serves 4)

1 lb. beets, peeled and cubed into bite-size pieces
2-3 T vegetable oil
1 t. salt
1 t. pepper
1 t. coriander seed
1/2 t. cumin seed
1/2 t. black mustard seed
2 T coconut milk
3-5 minced green chilies
1-2 T lime juice

1. Preheat oven to 350. Toss beets in oil, salt, and pepper, and spread flat on a foil-lined baking sheet. Bake 45 minutes.

2. Add coriander seed, cumin seed, and black mustard seed, and bake an additional 15 minutes, until beets are soft and slightly crispy.

3. Combine coconut milk, green chilies, and lime juice in a large bowl, stirring to blend. Add beets and toss until combined. Season to taste with salt and pepper; serve hot with rice or bread. (Pictured here with beef and potato curry and chili leeks.)

Hoppers / Appam

If I had to pick the perfect Sri Lankan meal, this would be it. There’s nothing like breaking off a crisp piece of hopper, dipping it into broken egg, and scooping up some curry and a bit of seeni sambol. Delectable.

These rice flour pancakes have a unique shape; fermented batter is swirled in a special small hemispherical pan, so you end up with a soft, spongy center, and lacey, crispy sides — that contrast is the true glory of the hopper. Typically you’d make one egg hopper per person, plus another plain hopper or two, and maybe a sweet hopper to finish up.

If you don’t have a hopper pan, you can make hoppers in a regular frying pan; you just won’t get quite as much of the crispy sides. It’s a little time-consuming to make hoppers, since each one must be individually steamed for a few minutes, but with practice, you can have four hopper pans going on a stove at once. I’d recommend starting with just one pan at a time, though! Serve with curry and seeni sambol.

2 cups South Asian rice flour (or a mix of rice and wheat flour)
1 tsp sugar
pinch of baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups coconut milk
eggs for egg hoppers
extra coconut milk and jaggery for sweet hoppers

1. Mix first five ingredients thoroughly in a large bowl, cover, and set in a warm, turned-off oven to ferment overnight. (In a cold climate, fermentation may not occur without a little help—I turn my oven on to 250 degrees, and when it’s reached temperature, turn it off and put the covered bowl in the oven to stay warm.)

2. Mix again, adding water if necessary to make a quite thin, pourable batter.

3. Heat pan (grease if not non-stick) on medium, and when it’s hot, pour about 1/3 cup batter into the center. Pick up the pan immediately and swirl the batter around, coating the cooking surface. The sides of the hopper should end up with holes in them: thin, lacy, and crisp – if the batter is coating the pan more thickly, mix in some hot water to thin it down. Cover and let cook for 2-4 minutes — you’ll know it’s ready when the sides have started to brown and the center is thoroughly cooked. A silicone spatula will help with getting the hopper out of the pan.

4. For egg hoppers, after swirling, crack an egg in the center before covering. The egg will cook as the hopper does, finishing in about 3-4 minutes.

 

5. For sweet hoppers, after swirling, add a tablespoon of coconut milk and a teaspoon of jaggery to the center of the pan, then cook as usual.