Food has always intrigued and delighted me. One of my most vivid memories as a child, in fact, is climbing up on the kitchen counters to search the cupboards for cookies or other goodies, and stumbling upon an endless assortment of jars containing my mother’s spices. This was my first introduction to cinnamon, coriander, cumin, nutmeg, cardamom, cloves, paprika, cayenne pepper, saffron and much, much more. These spices seemed almost magical to me because I knew they were the secret ingredients my mother used to make our food taste so good. I remember curiously sniffing at the contents; poking a stubby finger in; dabbing a little on my tongue; and reveling in the different colors, flavors, smells, and textures. This was the moment of awakening for my taste buds.
Like any child, my undeveloped palate veered towards Chef-Boyardee, Swanson or McDonald’s, but not because I didn’t like my mother’s cooking. A native of Sri Lanka, she prepared a pot of fluffy basmati rice and various curries a couple of times a week, and this food stands out most in my mind. Sometimes I would watch her in the kitchen as she used a medieval-looking grater to scrape the succulent white “meat” out of a freshly split coconut, or grinded spices together with the traditional stone mortar and pestle. Never measuring , she would add a pinch of this jar or sprinkle from that over meat, fish or vegetables to create a delectable dish whose enticing aroma wafted through our entire apartment (I always remember she would close the bedroom doors so the curry smell didn’t permeate everything). To the tongue, the flavors were always pungent and distinct—incomparable to any pot roast or meat loaf I ate at friends’ houses. Growing up on this tasty fare, it is hardly surprising that my tastes expanded to encompass other exotic flavors. My favorites include Vietnamese, Mexican, Malaysian, Indian, Middle Eastern, and Ethiopian food, but, still, nothing I have ever had quite compares to my mother’s rice and curry.
In college, I appreciated Sri Lankan food even more, having had to suffer under mediocre institutional cooking for four years. Luckily, I could sometimes escape to my older brother’s place, where, by this time, he was beginning to master the art of Sri Lankan home cooking. As the torch is inevitably handed down, so, too, did I acquire these skills. Not only was it infinitely easier to prepare than I ever expected, but it was a means of connecting with my culture through its food. Since then, I’ve always enjoyed sharing this food with other people as I constantly strive to expand my repetoire. But it all started with this one dish–chicken curry.
3 tbsp. roasted curry powder
1-2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 tsp. apple cider vinegar
2 tbsp. oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, sliced
2 in (5 cm) piece ginger, sliced
1 sprig curry leaves
2 in (5 cm) stalk lemon grass
1 in (2.5 cm) stick cinnamon
1 cup (250 ml) coconut milk
salt to taste
2 tsp. tomato paste
1.) Wash and clean chicken, removing most fat.
2.) Place chicken in bowl with curry powder, cayenne, and vinegar. Mix well with hands and set aside for 30 minutes. NOTE: marinate the chicken overnight for optimum results.
3.) In a large pot, heat oil. Once hot, add onions, garlic, ginger, curry leaves, lemon grass, cardamoms, cloves, and cinnamon. Fry until onions are golden brown.
4.) Add chicken pieces one by one, stirring occasionally until chicken is browned.
5.) Add a little water to the bowl that contained chicken and slosh around to catch any remaining marinade and add to pot.
6.) Stir in coconut milk and salt and bring to a boil.
7.) Reduce heat, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes.
8.) Stir in tomato paste and simmer for additional 10
Makes 6 servings