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Pining for Pol Sambol

Passport & Plate - The Perfect Pol Sambol - two ways

United Arab Emirates | Wednesday, 12 March 2014 | 5 photos

1 freshly grated coconut (substitute - desiccated coconut. Before using, sprinkle some water over the coconut and microwave for a minute to moisten the coconut)
5 whole dried red chillies (substitute – red chilli flakes or 1 tsp of red chilli powder, depending on how hot you want the sambol to be)
6 red button onions (substitute – 2 tbsp chopped red onion)
1 tbsp Maldive fish (unfortunately there’s no substitute for this, chopped Beef Jerky might work)
1 tsp salt
Juice of one lime.

How to prepare this recipe:
Throw in the chillies and salt into a mortar and pestle (or grinding stone) and grind till it turns into a fine paste (there should be no visible chilli seeds). Next, add the Maldive fish and mix in with the paste. Add the onions. Using the pestle crush them into little chinks and combine with the chilli paste. Finally add the grated coconut and give it a good mix with the pestle till the paste is completely mixed in with the coconut. If you are using chilli powder, add all the ingredients (except the lime juice) and give it a good mix. Once the ingredients are combined well, add lime juice or sauté as below.

Basic pol sambol
Add a generous squeeze of lime juice and mix well. Serve immediately with rice, string hoppers (stringy rice pancakes), hoppers (fermented rice pancakes) or roti.

Sautéed pol sambol
Do not add lime juice to the final mixture. Heat around 1 tbsp of oil in a frying pan till very hot. Throw in 1 tsp of mustard seeds. When they start to splutter, add around 2 tbsp of chopped red onion and 5-6 curry leaves. Sauté till onions turn golden brown. Add the coconut mixture and give it a good mix. Sauté the sambol till the coconut turns slightly dry (around 2-3 minutes). This can be kept in an airtight container in the refrigerator for about a week.

The story behind this recipe:
Having been born and raised in Sri Lanka, a country abundant in all things green (think of lush verdant forests, tree-canopied foot paths, blue mountains, endless paddy fields… I can go on forever..) it took me a while to get used to the flat, sand-hued landscape of Dubai which I have been calling home for the past 8 years. It wasn't just the absence of green things that I had to get used to, I also had to let go of those elaborate rice and curry lunches I used to tuck into everyday, back home.

Whenever I think of Sri Lankan food the first thing that comes to my mind is pol sambol – a coconut relish made with freshly grated coconut, dried red chillies, red onions, salt, lime juice and umbalakada (also known as Maldive fish) which is cured fish traditionally produced in the Maldives and commonly used in Sri Lankan dishes. It is a must have dish in any Sri Lankan meal (especially those elaborate rice and curry lunches I mentioned before!). Served with a steaming hot plate of rice, it is my ultimate comfort food.

This dish also brings back so many memories, especially of picnics we used to have in a place called Riverston in Sri Lanka. It’s an isolated little mountain range where you find grass growing in the middle of the road and tall fragrant pine trees growing thick on either side. Our picnic spot used to be next to a beautiful little stream. We would take a dip in the icy cold water before tucking into parcels of rice, pol sambol and other gorgeous curries all wrapped in banana leaves. The aroma of the banana leaf and the rich curries combined with the fresh mountain air and the gurgle of the stream was just divine…

Whenever I need to bring back the flavours and smells of home or treat myself to that occasional rice and curry lunch all I have to do is roll-up my sleeves, dust the cobwebs off my grinding stone and whip up a delicious mound of fiery red pol sambol!

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