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 with her. 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, the principal of the Ceylon School of Home Economics. At the time, I lived in a tiny Balkan country with no access to spices, coconuts, or exotic fruits and veggies, so my chances of experiencing Sri Lankan cooking were slim to none. Though I could only imagine the dishes, I absolutely loved the book! A couple of years later, I moved to the United States and met a guy from, you might have guessed, Sri Lanka. A year later we were married. Another year later, I finally visited Sri Lanka, the magical country of teas, spices, and jewels, and home to one of the most unusual, enchanting, and lesser-known Asian cuisines. I became addicted to their complex use of spices and the roasting and tempering that creates aromas one rarely finds anywhere else. And since Sri Lankan cooks are notoriously bad at recording their recipes, I became addicted to recreating them on my own. This one is among my favorites. —QueenSashy
Test Kitchen Notes
The fragrance of the toasted spices and coconut in this recipe serve as an alluring introduction to Sri Lankan cuisine. Make the cashew paste the night before and you'll be able to 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 chiles 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. —[email protected]
ground fenugreek seeds
vegetable oil, divided
small shallot (about 1 ounce), finely minced
garlic cloves, crushed
raw cashew nuts
unsweetened, dried coconut
chili powder or ground chiles (this is to get you started; a Sri Lankan cook would probably use 4 times as many)
double-concentrated tomato paste
salt, plus more as needed
plus 3 tablespoons coconut milk, divided
boneless and skinless chicken thighs, each thigh cut in half
In a small bowl, mix the cumin, coriander, fenugreek, fennel, cloves, cinnamon, and cardamom. Set aside. Place a small sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the vegetable oil and shallots and sauté until the shallots become soft and yellow. Add the garlic, sauté for another minute, and then add in the spice mix. Continue to cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until the spices become very fragrant. Remove the spice mixture from the heat and let it cool.
In a food processor, blend the cashews until powdery. Add the spice mixture, dried coconut, ginger, chili powder, tomato paste, salt, 3 tablespoons of the coconut milk, and 4 tablespoons of water, and purée into a fine paste. Thoroughly coat the chicken with the paste and let it rest for about 4 hours, or overnight, in the fridge. (If you are in a hurry, forget the resting; it will not be the end of the world.)
In a large sauté pan over medium heat, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Place the chicken pieces in the pan and brown them nicely, about 4 minutes per side. (Do not overcrowd the pan, otherwise the chicken will not brown nicely, and will remain pale. If needed, do it in batches.) 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 a thick gravy. Serve with steamed rice, dosa, or roti (another wonderful Sri Lankan dish).
Aleksandra aka QueenSashy is a scientist by day, and cook, photographer and doodler by night. When she is not writing code and formulas, she blogs about food, life and everything in between on her blog, Three Little Halves. Three Little Halves was nominated for 2015 James Beard Awards and the finalist for 2014 Saveur Best Food Blog Awards. Aleksandra lives in New York City with her other two halves, Miss Pain and Dr. V.