Make Ahead

Ceylonese Cashew-Coconut Chicken

May 17, 2013
4 Ratings
Photo by James Ransom
  • Serves 4
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 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. —Melissa@HomeBaked

What You'll Need
  • 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
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
  • 1 small shallot (about 1 ounce), finely minced
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 3 ounces raw cashew nuts
  • 1 tablespoon unsweetened, dried coconut
  • 1 teaspoon grated ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili powder or ground chiles (this is to get you started; a Sri Lankan cook would probably use 4 times as many)
  • 1 tablespoon double-concentrated tomato paste
  • 1 pinch salt, plus more as needed
  • 2 cups plus 3 tablespoons coconut milk, divided
  • 1 pound boneless and skinless chicken thighs, each thigh cut in half
  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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).

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Melissa
  • Jaxmccaff
  • Sally
  • indieculinary
  • darksideofthespoon
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.

25 Reviews

mstv August 4, 2015
I have now made this recipe at least 10 times, for lots of different people (including my dad who is from Chennai, India) and everyone loves it to much! It is one of my favorite recipes/curries for sure. I do use 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper and 1 1/2 tsp chili powder since you mention that Sri Lankan cooks would use a larger amount. Thank you so much for this great recipe.
Melissa June 22, 2015
We had this for dinner tonight.
It was really tasty- I didn't find it bland, but I did add a bit of salt.
It's quite mild. I have a few good curry recipes, so although this was good, it likely won't make the rotation.
Jaxmccaff May 25, 2015
This chicken was good but not amazing. This could be because I only let the chicken rest for about an hour but the flavour was very mild. I would also try putting fresh chillies in next time to help add some extra punch. I might also try making it in the slow cooker to see if that helps infuse the flavours a little more.
Cindy H. May 17, 2015
Honestly, this is my first negative review and I am willing to admit I must have done something wrong. It was bland and tasteless which was surprising given the amount of spices/cashews. Also, the color was beige and unappealing and looked nothing like the photo. I can't figure out what I did wrong. Should have loved this dish....:(
QueenSashy May 18, 2015
Cindy, I am sorry that you did not like the dish… You may not have done anything wrong to it, because even though it seems like there is a lot of spice, the dish is actually quite mild. The only thing I can think of in terms of producing the lack of color is the browning of the chicken (because it happened to me once) – most of the color in this dish will come from browning the chicken and deglazing, not really the spices.
mstv December 30, 2014
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.
Shai11 May 29, 2014
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
Sally February 15, 2014
I love the author's notes and the dish itself sounds like my perfect curry. Will be trying this next week. :D
indieculinary February 9, 2014
Yum! I can't wait to try this.
ritagorra June 7, 2013
You mean chicken thighs, right?
QueenSashy June 8, 2013
Yes :)
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!
gingerroot May 23, 2013
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!
Bevi May 21, 2013
I too am so making this!
QueenSashy May 21, 2013
Bevi, Abbie, if you guys end up making it, I would very much appreciate your feedback...
aargersi May 21, 2013
I am SO making this. Sounds fantastic and now I want to go to Sri Lanka
QueenSashy May 21, 2013
Thanks :)
Madhuja May 20, 2013
Beautiful story and a gorgeous dish! Love your stash of cinnamon!:)
QueenSashy May 21, 2013
Thank you Madhuja! It is my prized Ceylon cinnamon, and my husband is not allowed to return home unless he brings back some.
fatgirleating October 21, 2013
This is marinating in my fridge RIGHT NOW and I'm very excited. Incidentally, 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
QueenSashy October 21, 2013
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...
healthierkitchen May 20, 2013
Mmm. Sounds delicious!
QueenSashy May 20, 2013
Kukla May 19, 2013
Love your fascinating story QeenSashy, and the dish sounds delicious with all these exotic spices!
QueenSashy May 19, 2013
Kukla, thank you!