Cooking with Tradition – Sri Lankan Chicken Curry

Giving Thanks to Chicken Curry

by Dara Schwartz on December 2, 2011

Sri Lankan flavors bless our table from a special guest
Gathered around the dining room table at the Subel Thanksgiving you’ll hear belly laughs from recited lines of Seinfeld episodes and reenactments of Christopher Guest movie, Waiting For Guffman. Joining in on the laughter, as he passes the gravy, is our welcomed friend from Los Angeles, Chamara Edirisinghe.

As the side dishes circulate on a pass-it-to-the-right rotation, Chamara gestures to me to take a whirl of his whiskey cocktail to help soothe my raspy throat. Sure enough I took his direct orders and my throat and chest began to open up, being left with a warm, cozy tingle inside. I got a nod of reassurance that this is the right treatment plan.

Lucky for us Chamara has joined us for two Subel Thanksgiving celebrations, from the extended invite of my boyfriend’s brother, Matt Subel. Chamara left his hometown of Dehiwala, Sri Lanka to study computer science at Clarion University in Pennsylvania, where Matt and Chamara became college roommates and close friends.

The Subel family festivities continue on with a post dinner dance party, dancing to legendary classic hits by Jim Croce, Chuck Berry and others alike. Chamara, not one to shy away from any party, twists a hip or two and jumps his way through a Slovenian Polka with mom Sue Subel in the kitchen.

Being a veteran of a Subel Thanksgiving, he quickly adapts to their family traditions and is reminded of the ones close to his heart. Every April, Sri Lankans begin celebrating Aluth Avurudu (Sinhala New Year,) a celebration of new beginnings and a marking to the end of the harvest season. As families in the United States gather around a traditional feast every November, families in Sri Lanka gather around their tables every April to savor their family recipes.

I invited Chamara into the Subel kitchen to share some of his memorable family dishes that are enjoyed during every Aluth Avurudu. He created a menu to pay tribute to his mom and older sister, the two women who taught him how to cook the spice-infused chicken curry, coconut sambal and green bean curry, each having its own coconut base.

I assisted Chamara in the kitchen where I smashed garlic and ginger and carved meat from a fresh coconut, substituting for the shaved coconut we couldn’t find. How many cooks does it take to crack a coconut? Apparently three, partnered with a hammer and chisel. Finally, the sacred juice began to stream from the coconut and we all celebrated as if it were a harmonious ceremony. Chamara pointed to the bowl of fresh coconut juice and said, “you drink that, it’s good for digestion.” I continued to take instruction and when prompted, I gradually added spoonfuls of curry, garam masala, turmeric, cayenne and chili powder to coat the chicken he was marinating. Chamara put his final touch on the chicken curry by adding aromatics of broken bay leaves and cracked cinnamon sticks. After the spices infused into the last addition of coconut milk, the curry was ready to be served.

Chamara mixed together an accompaniment called coconut sambal, a similar concept to what we know as chutney where just a spoonful can be a complement to any dish. He claimed that the one he made for us was more fiery hot than his family’s sambal. His warning was proven once we saw Chamara quickly follow Sue into the freezer, both grabbing fudgesicles to cool off.

We devoured the green bean curry and chicken curry, each sharing a sweet and spicy creaminess—bringing warmth from the heat and comfort from the depth of aromatics. I sat there wondering if it was the same kind of comfort that could be found at Chamara’s family table in Dehiwala.

Being on the other side of the chopping block accompanying Chamara to create family flavors from afar pleasantly cured my curiosity of his cultural roots. And as I suspected, his heartfelt meal soothed my soul, leaving me with a warm, cozy tingle inside.

Keep those taste buds dancing,

Sri Lankan Chicken Curry
Serves 8

1.5 lbs of skinless, boneless chicken breasts
2 tablespoons curry powder
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon coriander powder
1 tablespoon turmeric
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons garam masala
1 onion chopped
6 garlic cloves smashed
1 inch ginger, cut into 3 slices and smashed
1 jalapeno sliced with seeds
1 can coconut milk
2 cinnamon sticks broken in half
2 bay leaves torn in half
Olive oil

Accompaniment: Basmati Rice. Cook rice with one broken cinnamon stick and 2 tablespoons of butter.

1. Season chicken with salt and the first 7 spices. Coat the chicken and set aside in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

2. Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat in a large pot. Add the onions and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add coated chicken, ginger and garlic and sauté for a few more minutes. Stir until spices are fragrant. Add sliced jalapeños, bay leaves and cinnamon sticks. You will notice you have made your own curry paste.

3. Pour in coconut milk and about 3/4 cup of water. Simmer for 20-30 minutes. Serve over rice.

Pairing: Dogfish Head Brewery’s Namaste—a Belgian white ale brewed with coriander, orange and lemongrass. This well-balanced, light beer pairs perfectly with the spicy overtones of the chicken curry.

Sharpen Those Skills: Combine dark chicken meat with the white meat to add flavor and to keep the rest moist.

Veggie Friendly: Replace the chicken with chopped carrots, sweet potatoes, russet potatoes and/or green beans. After adding the onions, add the vegetables into the pan with all spices.

Chef’s Playlist: Ravi Shankar, The Essential.

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