Ceylonese Cashew Coconut Chicken

By • May 17, 2013 • 21 Comments

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Author Notes: About twenty years ago, my great grand aunt Buba passed away. A grand lady, married to a diplomat, she traveled the world and brought pieces of it back home. As it always happens, upon Buba’s death, my other great grand aunts promptly redistributed her belongings, except for a tiny book on Sri Lankan cuisine, which lay forgotten, until someone recalled my love of cooking. I became a proud owner of “Ceylon Cookery”, printed in 1968 and written by Chandra Dissanayake M. Sc., Principal of Ceylon School of Home Economics. Living in a tiny Balkan country, with no access to spices, coconuts, or exotic fruits and veggies, my chances of experiencing Sri Lankan cooking were close to none. And although I could only imagine the dishes, I absolutely loved the book! It must have been an omen -- not that I believe in omens, but they tend to work regardless of my beliefs. A couple of years later I moved to the US and met a guy from, well you might be guessing, I met a guy from Sri Lanka. A year later we were married. A year later, I got to visit Sri Lanka, the magical country of teas, spices, and jewels, and one of the most unusual, most enchanting, and least known Asian cuisines. And I have been hooked ever since. I became addicted to their complex use of spices; the roasting and tempering that create aromas one rarely finds anywhere else. And since Sri Lankan cooks are notoriously bad in writing down their dishes -- they do not follow recipes, they do not remember recipes -- I became addicted to recreating them on my own. This one is among my favorites.QueenSashy

Food52 Review: The perfume of toasted spices and coconut in this recipe is an alluring introduction to Sri Lankan cuisine. Make the cashew paste the night before, and whisk this dish onto the table in the time it takes to cook a pot of rice. Fry the chicken gently and stir the remaining cashew paste into the simmering coconut milk to reap the fullest flavor. Next time I’ll boost the heat with more chilis and ginger. I’d also like a scattering of bright cilantro or mint, toasted cashews for texture, and a side of citrusy greens to balance the rich sauce.Melissa@HomeBaked

Serves 4

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground fenugreek seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground fennel
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili powder or ground chilies (this is to get you started; a Sri Lankan cook will probably use four times as much)
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 small shallot (about 1 ounce), finely minced
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 3 ounces raw cashew nuts
  • 1 tablespoon unsweetened desiccated coconut
  • 1 teaspoon grated ginger
  • 1 tablespoon double-concentrated tomato paste
  • Salt
  • 2 cups plus 3 tablespoons coconut milk, divided
  • 1 pound boneless and skinless chicken thighs, each tight cut in half
  1. In a small bowl, mix the cumin, coriander, fenugreek, fennel, cloves, cinnamon and cardamom. Place a small sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add one tablespoon of oil and shallots and sauté until the shallots become soft and yellow. Add the garlic, sauté for another minute, and then add the spice mix. Continue to cook for another minute or two, until the spices become very fragrant. Remove the spice mixture from the heat and let it cool.
  2. In a food processor, process the cashews until powdery. Add the spice mixture, coconut, ginger, chili, tomato paste, a pinch of salt, three tablespoons of coconut milk and four tablespoons of water, and pure into a fine paste. Thoroughly coat the chicken with the paste and let it rest for about four hours, or up to a day, in the fridge. (And if you are in a hurry, forget the resting; it will not be the end of the world.)
  3. In a large sauté pan over medium heat, heat the remaining oil. Place the chicken pieces in the pan and brown them gently, about four minutes per side. Pour out the excess oil. Reduce the heat to medium low, pour the coconut milk into the pan, deglaze, and bring the coconut milk slowly to a boil. Adjust saltiness if needed and continue to simmer uncovered, for another 20 minutes or so, until the sauce has reduced to thick gravy. Serve with steamed rice, dosa, or roti (another wonderful Sri Lankan dish).
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Comments (21) Questions (1)


4 months ago mstv

I made this tonight with a dhal and rice pulao and it turned out great! I used skinless, bone-in chicken thighs (cut in half), legs, and drumettes (two of each). I used 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper and 1 1/2 tsp chili powder. I only have about 1 1/2 cups of coconut milk so I simmered the curry with the lid on and the texture was prefect. Delicious! Thank you for this wonderful recipe.


11 months ago Shai11

I made this last week and it came out beautifully. I was expecting a robust result, but it was surprisingly sophisticated. I've tried other recipes with similar flavors, but this one was heads above the rest. I'm adding it to my rotation!!! Thanks for sharing the recipe


about 1 year ago Sally

I love the author's notes and the dish itself sounds like my perfect curry. Will be trying this next week. :D


about 1 year ago indieculinary

Yum! I can't wait to try this.


almost 2 years ago ritagorra

You mean chicken thighs, right?


almost 2 years ago QueenSashy

QueenSashy is a trusted home cook.

Yes :)


almost 2 years ago darksideofthespoon

This was really good. Next time I make it: I'll increase all the spices, probably won't marinate the chicken and cut down on the oil - we found it to be a little greasy. Was great with steamed rice and naan!


almost 2 years ago sdebrango

Suzanne is a trusted source on General Cooking.

I just saw this and plan on making it very soon, it sounds absolutely delicious. I love stews, I can't wait to try this.


almost 2 years ago gingerroot

What a beautiful dish! I belong to a cooking club associated with my local chapter of Slow Food and last year one of the highlights was a Sri Lankan feast, hosted by two members originally from Sri Lanka. We all helped to prepare the dishes - you are right, they don't follow written recipes per se, but cook by taste and feel. It was a glorious meal. I can't wait to make your dish!


almost 2 years ago Bevi

I too am so making this!


almost 2 years ago QueenSashy

QueenSashy is a trusted home cook.

Bevi, Abbie, if you guys end up making it, I would very much appreciate your feedback...


almost 2 years ago aargersi

Abbie is a trusted source on General Cooking.

I am SO making this. Sounds fantastic and now I want to go to Sri Lanka


almost 2 years ago QueenSashy

QueenSashy is a trusted home cook.

Thanks :)


almost 2 years ago Madhuja

Beautiful story and a gorgeous dish! Love your stash of cinnamon!:)


almost 2 years ago QueenSashy

QueenSashy is a trusted home cook.

Thank you Madhuja! It is my prized Ceylon cinnamon, and my husband is not allowed to return home unless he brings back some.


over 1 year ago fatgirleating

This is marinating in my fridge RIGHT NOW and I'm very excited. Incidentally, penzies.com sells ceylon cinnamon both sick and ground. Not nearly as romantic as having your beloved bring you some, but should do for the rest of us


over 1 year ago QueenSashy

QueenSashy is a trusted home cook.

My beloved forgot to bring cinnamon from the last trip to Sri Lanka and I am too now turning to penzeys :) Please let me know if you liked it...


almost 2 years ago healthierkitchen

Mmm. Sounds delicious!


almost 2 years ago QueenSashy

QueenSashy is a trusted home cook.



almost 2 years ago Kukla

Love your fascinating story QeenSashy, and the dish sounds delicious with all these exotic spices!


almost 2 years ago QueenSashy

QueenSashy is a trusted home cook.

Kukla, thank you!