Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Plate on Fire: Sri Lankan Kale Mallung + Pol Sambol

If you thought that the spiciest cuisine in the world is Mexican, you are wrong, you are very, very wrong. It is Sri Lanka, the tiny island at the southern tip of India, that takes the first prize. Speaking of which, for the last ten days, I am home alone. My husband, also known as Dr. V, and my daughter, also known as Miss Pain, are visiting Sri Lanka. I am in the workforce, with no vacation left, and therefore stranded alone in our New York city apartment, envisioning all the glorious places they will go to, and all the glorious foods they will be eating. To add insult to injury, I happen to be the only one in the family who cares about both the glorious places and the glorious food. The pain is unbearable.

During the first week of their absence, I try to celebrate my newfound singledom, and engage in all activities that elude me when we are together. I embark on an eating expedition to Chinatown. I spend an entire day in bed reading my collection of Modesty Blaise comics. I watch two seasons of Scandal and one season of Homeland, back to back. I throw a party. Have a girls’ night out. I grill an octopus. I source a three-pound lobster and eat it all by myself, no sharing. I then email a glorious photo of the glorious lobster to Sri Lanka, to create some food envy back there.

After the first week of singledom is over, I do not feel any better. The level of envy is about the same, and on top of that, I am exhausted from my escapades. And that is when I decide to cook Sri Lankan. If you can’t beat them...

When I crave Sri Lankan food, it is not the curries I desire, it is the mallungs (or mallums) and the sambols. The word mallung means "to mix up" and is a category of Sri Lankan dishes that feature shredded leafy vegetables, coconut and spices, all cooked in a dry skillet or claypot, and then finished with a couple of drops of lemon juice. The process of dry roasting produces vibrant green veggies infused with the aromas of coconut and spices, and brightened by the touch of lemon. Mallungs are one of the primary sources of vitamins for Sri Lankan folks -- one or two of them are served with every meal and are accompanied by rice and different condiments. Which brings me to pol sambol.

Sambols are garnishes, the condiments to the meal. Pol (coconut) sambol is a garnish made with freshly shredded coconut, chopped red onions, a squeeze of lime juice, chilies and salt, mixed together in a mouthwatering perfect harmony. Pol sambol is the most Sri Lankan of all Sri Lankan Dishes. The way we Westerners feel about ketchup, well, pol sambol brings about the very same warm and fuzzy feeling among the Sri Lankan folks. One can get seriously addicted to Pol Sambol. I am. It is on my list of top ten dishes of all times. Right next to kale mallung. And today I will be making both.

The key ingredient in Sri Lankan cuisine is fresh coconut, which presents one of the greatest challenges for Westerners making an attempt at Sri Lankan cooking. And we are not talking the young green coconuts we all sip the lovely coconut water from. No, no, no, it is the meat from the tough old fruit we are after. Unfortunately, the old coconuts can be quite tricky to source in western supermarkets. And even when the cook is fortunate enough to get hold of one, the cook faces close to insurmountable obstacle in opening it up. I spent hundreds of hours in our stairwell with a saw, a hammer, and even a machete once, trying to do the job with dignity. Most of the time, I give up and leave it to Dr. V to finish the job. Given that Dr. V is not around at the moment, I will not even think of the job today. But I do however, have a small trick up my sleeve. Let’s proceed to the recipes and you will find out...

Kale Mallung

* 10 oz kale 
* 4 green chilies (use Serrano for more heat, jalapeno for less), minced 
* about 10 curry leaves 
* 1 red onion, finely chopped 
* 1/2 cup unsweetened desiccated coconut 
* 1/4 cup coconut water 
* 2 tsp turmeric powder 
* 3-4 tsp brown mustard seeds 
* juice of one lemon 
* salt

1. In a small bowl, cover the coconut flakes with the coconut water, and leave for about an hour, until coconut absorbs the water.  

2. Wash the kale, dry it completely and then chop finely.  

3. In a bowl, mix the kale with onion, curry leaves, turmeric and green chilies. Gently squeeze the coconut to release excess water, and add it to the mix. Set aside for about 15 minutes.  

4. Heat a cast iron skillet or casserole over medium heat. Add the mustard seeds. When the seeds start to pop, add in the kale mixture. Roast the kale over medium heat for about 10-15 minutes, stirring constantly. Resist the temptation to add any water to the skillet. Remove from the heat when the kale softens, and before it starts to discolor. Add salt and lemon juice.  

5. Serve hot, with rice, or cold as salad.

Serves 4-6

Pol Sambol

* 1 cup unsweetened desiccated coconut 
* 1/2 cup coconut water 
* 2 oz red onion, minced 
* 2 tsp crushed dried red chilies 
* 2 tsp chili powder 
* 8 curry leaves, crushed 
* Juice of one lime 
* 1-2 tsp salt

1. In a small bowl, cover the coconut flakes with the coconut water, and leave for about an hour, until coconut absorbs the water.

2. Mix the onion, chili powder, dry chilies, and curry leaves, and grind or finely chop in a chopper. (Mortar and pestle can also be used).

3. Once the ingredients are crushed and mixed thoroughly, gently squeeze the coconut to release excess water, and add the coconut to the mix.

4. Mix well until coconut turns evenly red. (In Sri Lanka, this is often done with fingers).

5. Squeeze in the lime juice. Mix well.
Serve with curries, rice or as a condiment to any dish.

Serves 4-6


  1. At least, order some condiments and spices for them to bring you back Sri Lanka!!

  2. You're right. Sir Lanka's food is the best!


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