Ceylon Curry

How to Make a Ceylon Curry

By Elisabeth Leembruggen-Kallberg



A good Ceylonese curry makes the taste buds pop, the mouth sizzle, the eyes water with joy or pain, depending on your palate and predisposition. I deliberately say `”Ceylonese” curry because, now, curries from Sri Lanka are likely known as Singhalese or Tamil, although the Moors and Malays have added to our wonderful island mixture.


I lived on the island when it was known as Ceylon, when we were all Ceylonese, whether our ethic origins were European, Singhalese, Tamil, Malay or Moor. This wonderful mixture of Europe, Arabia and India haunts the culinary palate of anyone who lived on the island pre-1973. Shaking off the colonial oppressor, becoming truly ‘independent’, hasn’t seemed to make life freer. But at least our food remains rapturously liberated.


The curries I know best are those handed down via legend and training from our Singhalese cook. In the days that predate my existence, Burgher families, Europeans of Dutch and Portuguese colonial descent, led the high life with cooks, butlers, gardeners and the omnipresent ‘ayah’—the children’s nurse maid—to tend to every want, wish and whim.


In the early days, to get us out of the house and hair of both mother and ayah, we’d stroll to the market with cook. She’d bring a large, hand woven green and purple basket in which to put fresh produce bought at market stalls at the top of the ‘mound’, from whence came the name of our town, Mt. Lavinia. The walk along the Galle road to the mound wasn’t a particularly dangerous undertaking in those days. A slow amble in brilliant sun which hadn’t reached its summer zenith did us all good. As we approached the vendor’s stalls, excitement would bubble up and over as we zigzagged our way through the crowd of sari clad shoppers, sarong clad merchants and Leyland buses spewing their noxious, grey-black diesel fumes.


“Ko hee da yanne”? Where are you going? Cook would call after us as we darted in and out of stalls overflowing with produce. “Male pol”! “To pick up coconuts” we’d retort in chorus. “Don’t be cheeky” she’d roar back, parroting our mother’s pet phrase, hiking her Lungi “just enough” to dash after us,  pinning our ears back  when we finally stopped to catch our breath.


From the Mount Lavinia market Cook would buy wonderfully fresh, elongated, bright red chilies. This is the firey element in any great Ceylon curry. Cook preferred fresh chillis, but the dry, wrinkled sort were on offer, too. In another stall she’d buy ginger, with its pungent, knobby, brown-yellow root, swollen with goodness. She would point out those with dried-up ends looking like atrophied limbs, and say, “never buy this child”! It was her favourite mantra. She must have known one day I’d be shopping for these food stuffs on my own.


At the spice stalls, she’d buy the ingredients which make Ceylon curry special. From the myriad of yellows, greens, browns and reds, she’d select tiny brown cumin nuggets; shavings of red-brown cinnamon bark known as Cassia; round, stout prong-headed cloves; bulbous-green cardamom pods and black, pepper-corn beads. These essential elements—curry vitamins she used to call them—were ground on a grinding stone that stood in the corner of the kitchen counter top. In those days, there were no kitchen mixers. Any concoction that needed mincing was pummeled, scraped and ground to a pulp on the grinding stone by hand. The grinding stone actually consisted of two elements: the flat, grey stone on which one put the ingredients to be ground and the large, phallic-looking pestle, with which one pounded the ingredients to a paste. It was culinary yin and yang.


To complete the morning’s market shopping, cook would select the finest coconut. She would thump it, making sure it was the appropriate ripeness.  The best coconuts were the King coconuts, huge, lime-green orbs. In the afternoon, we would drink the watery contents from the interior of the King coconut to assuage our tropical thirst.


For daily curries, Cook would use the ordinary, brown-fibered coconut found today in any local super market. She removed the dark brown exterior fibre and split the husk, exposing the meaty, white flesh from which coconut milk is made. Making coconut milk in those days was a back breaking undertaking. There was no ‘coconut powder’ to which hot water was added. No coconut milk in tins. No, cook would sit at her hirimani—a contraption that looked like a medieval torture device—and scrape the white flesh from the inside of the coconut by hand. Dressed in a patterned Lungi skirt and a white chole top, cook would hoist her skirt, straddling the wooden bench. Body poised over a long, metal device with a serrated blade attached to one end, she would scrape out the coconuts white flesh. In the sixties, newer table top models with a hand-turned, rotary blade came out. But cook would have none of it. “What nonsense, child?, she would ask. Aye-oh, men, don’t spend money on such contraptions”. She continued to scrape away, sitting astride her hirimani to her dying day.  There was no arguing with cook.


Our kitchen contained all the “mod cons” of the day. However, this didn’t matter to cook. One day father, thinking poor old cook could use a helping hand in the kitchen, set out with great fanfare to make “some much needed purchases”. He came back that afternoon with a gleaming black and white Odiris cooker. Not just any Odiris cooker mind you, but an Odiris three burner, table model, complete with bottle attachment—the cat’s meow in those days. And that was only the beginning.


Thinking cook would be overjoyed, he purchased a brand new Odiris coconut scraper with chromium plated blades—a table top model with suction cup feet! Cook need never bow and scrape again. He drove all the way to Dehiwala, to the Odiris Electricals & Sons show room to make his purchases. To complete the ensemble, he bought new, heavy-duty Shell Aluminium Hollow-Ware. “Those who cook well, cook on Shell”, he uttered triumphantly as he staggered onto the veranda, his back bowing under the load. He called to cook, uttering yet another slogan, “Cooks in every Nook use Odiris cookers”. “There” he said triumphantly, placing the collection on the floor, looking at her expectantly. “Now you can cook with ease, to your heart’s content”, he said. Cook looked at him, kicked the stove and trundled back to her hearth.


Cook maintained the best curry was made in a chatty pot over the open flame in the hearth of yesteryear. No aluminum pots. No kerosene cooker. And it was hard to argue the point. Curries cooked in a chatty pot over a hearth fire did taste better! And there’s scientific reason enough. Chatty pots, made of rich, red clay baked in a kiln, retained the flavour of fertile Ceylonese sod. The earthiness of the chatty pot infused the curry with a certain flavour, character and richness not found in copper-clad, aluminium “monstrosities”. Cook didn’t know the scientific basis. She just knew it tasted better. When I suggested she use the new pans, just once, to taste and compare, she simply said: “Pis suda, lamia”?  Are you mad, child?  I must have been.


Making curries was a day long affair. And for this reason, cook would make batch quantities to last a few days. Besides, curries taste better the longer they sit about infusing. 


The essential elements of any curry remain the same: cumin, coriander, cardamom, and other assorted bits. But every cook has their secret weapon—that special ingredient that makes their curry better than the next. And so it was with our cook. To the ingredients already mentioned, cook would add karapincha—curry leaves—grown on long branches in the back garden; Rampe, a long spindly, green shoot and Serah, a lemon tasting herb found in Eastern cooking. Cook’s secret weapon was Maldive fish. ‘Maldy fish’, a sea slug from the Maldive islands, costs a fortune these days. But in cook’s day, it flowed like water and she used it liberally, in every dish. It sounds extremely distasteful, but in fact, it imparts certain “somethingto curries. Its absence is notable. Whether the dish was vegetarian or meat, Maldy fish was a staple ingredient for cook.

As she collected the curry ingredients, she would roast them dark brown over the two burner kerosene stove favoured for such jobs. The best curries simmered all day long in chatty pots on the open hearth in the kitchen.


Cook made the best fish curry in the world. She would get up at dawn, march dawn to the beach and await the fishermen with their daily catch. They would come in early, sea gulls cawing and swooping over head, dive bombing the fisher men in their out rigger boats. As they hauled in their fishing nets, all manner of fish would flop about on the beach, eyes lolling back in their heads. The head man would sort out the fish according size, weight and variety. He established a price, but cook would always haggle until she got the fish she wanted for the right price.


All this happened before our morning tea. As the sun came up, and the waves washed ashore, we would walk back to our house on the Galle Road and have a delicious cup of Uva, high grown golden tea, with pittu and a bit of breakfast curry.


Fortified, cook would begin the curry making ritual. She cut onions and garlic by the tonne, scraped bushels of coconut which she would squeeze together with water for thick or thin milk, slice ginger and grind cumin, coriander, fennel and mustard seed to a pulp on the grinding stone. Then she began her dance about the kitchen making several curries in one go. By noon, the table was set with succulent Seer fish, aromatic yellow rice with saffron and cardamom, dhal curry, made from pink lentils, cucumber salad, and  mallung—a dish made from fresh tender shoots plucked from a bush in the garden, mixed with desiccated coconut and lime. Everyone’s favourite Papadoms—those wafer thin disks fried in hot oil—rounded out the main course.  Cook insisted this food was healthy, good for the kidneys, bladder and digestion. Time and health studies bear witness to her intuitive knowledge.


After gorging ourselves, we’d finish off the meal with a cup of tea and a sweet or a fresh fruit salad with plantains—tiny, plump, sweet bananas—pineapple and papaya. The only thing left to do was lie down for a nap, which all, including cook, did with relish. Mind you, not every day was filled with this rich bounty, but as cook said: “A little Pol and Bath with the one’s you love is food enough”.