August 2018

Fiery Sambols: The Food of Sri Lankan Culture
August 2018

The mouthwatering pol sambol

A memorable stay in Sri Lanka is definitely about tasting its food. From the native concoction of coconut flakes to spicy and aromatic onion relishes, the gastronomic experience is an ode to our traditions.

Words: Jennifer Paldano Goonewardene
Photography: Vishwathan Tharmakulasingam

Every Sri Lankan has grown up eating sambol, the food of our culture. As adults, they remind you of good memories, of families coming together at festivals of camaraderie while eating from wayside kiosks, of wrapping a roti or hopper with a fiery onion relish. Simple, yet so well harmonised with many flavours - salty and spicy, sour and sweet, they reveal our identity.

The pol sambol is the queen of accompaniments. A truly Sri Lankan staple dish, this bright orange grated coconut sensation is a quick fixer at breakfast with string hoppers, roti or bread or even with rice at lunch. Most preferred for lunch would be a spicier version where the hotness of the chilli and the rich smoothness of coconut blend into the mildness of steamed rice. Traditionally prepared on a miris gala (grinding stone) or in a pestle, all the ingredients - chilli powder, chopped onions, peppercorns, Maldive fish flakes and salt are ground together. The coconut is added later and pulverised with the rest of the ingredients. The zest and the ultimate oomph is achieved with the addition of lime juice. One doesn't have to hesitate to try pol sambol, you just have to be a food lover looking to experience a way of life. Another thrilling way to eat pol sambol is with slices of crusty bread (known as theti or roast paan) from the local bakery!

There is a flourishing and strong bond with onions in Sri Lankan food. While onion is just one ingredient in the pol sambol, it is the key ingredient in the extra hot lunu miris. The combination of chopped onions, dried chilli flakes and Maldive fish flakes crushed to a smooth or coarse paste, mixed with salt and lime is a delicious spicy mixture. It is best enjoyed with milk rice, steamed cassava or roti at breakfast or with hoppers at dinner. It is extremely spicy, so it is best not to taste it by itself. Very much in sync with the former is the katta sambol, which is prepared sans onions, a sizzling relish of ground Maldive fish flakes and red chilli flakes combined with salt and lime.

The miris gala or the grinding stone is a rectangular slab with a cylindrical stone roller, a must have in every home. The ‘buth valanda’ also known as the ‘matti coppe’ is used to mix the various types of sambols.

There are more tangy salads, such as the raw onion salad, in Sinhala ‘amu loonu sambole', a very simple preparation of sliced onions mixed with sliced tomatoes, chopped green chillies, ground pepper, salt and lime. Consumed with rice, another popular ‘rice puller' is the lime pickle sambol, an irresistible tart condiment of sliced onions mixed with red chilli flakes, chopped green chillies and pieces of pickled lime and a dash of sugar, the ultimate showstopper amongst the fresh onion cuisine.

Then there's seeni sambol, clearly the most aromatic dish made from onions. Red chilli flakes, cardamoms, cloves, cinnamon, ginger and garlic, curry leaves and rampe (pandan) leaves release their flavours into thinly sliced onions. The onions are caramelised in oil, then mixed with coconut milk and tamarind pulp. The addition of sugar at the end, which is a very small quantity, is actually to balance the sourness of tamarind. The mishmash of scented condiments creates the most mouth-watering dish that can be enjoyed with ghee infused rice and a combination of meat. Seeni sambol goes well with hoppers and string hoppers.

The mishmash of scented condiments creates the most mouth-watering dish that can be enjoyed with ghee infused rice and a combination of meat.

The closest ally to the seeni sambol is loonu thel dala, which is onions fried in oil. The term ‘thel dala' means tempering or sautéing, a very popular method of cooking in Sri Lanka, practised to infuse extra flavour. Seeni sambol is cooked slowly to remove the moisture, while the latter takes little time. An ideal vegan dish, it can be enjoyed in a sandwich and with other native fare.

The karapincha tree or curry leaf tree (Murraya koenigii) is generally found in home gardens and generously used in every dish. To make the karapincha sambol, the protein rich leaves are pulverised along with grated coconut, green chilli, pepper, ginger and garlic, and flavoured with salt and lime. The minchi sambol, made from mint leaves is prepared the same way and is a favourite with Biryani.

In culinary rich Sri Lanka, tasting these symbols will be a celebration of culture and a feast for the palate.