This article is part of a series of recipes suitable for the Medieval season of Lent during which all animal products other than fish were forbidden except on Sundays. I’ll be posting at least one Lenten recipe per week until Easter Sunday (April 4, 2010).
In Sinhalese, the words “Sri Lanka” mean “Resplendent Island.” Well, it certainly has resplendent food, much of which is perfect for Lent. A tropical island nation off the south coast of India, Sri Lanka has the poetic nickname of “the pearl in the ear of India.” A common ingredient in Sri Lankan cuisine is coconut milk, which while it sticks to the letter of the Medieval rules for Lent, does seem to defy their spirit with its luxurious richness. I’m sure there were lots of pious Medieval European monks who would have loved to have had it as an option. Over half of the inhabitants of Sri Lanka are Buddhist and, another 15% or so are Hindu, resulting in many vegetarians, and being an island there is an abundance of fish dishes. A Lenten food paradise really.
Vatakka curry is an intriguing blend of sweetness and earth. The Maldive fish (more on that ingredient in a moment) is packed with umami and rumbles quietly at the bottom while the squash and spices capture your attention, sunny and bright.
Sri Lankan cuisine does require some specialized ingredients. I was able to find all of them at Kalustyan’s here in New York, which carries a mind-blowing number of things from around the world which they sell via mail order. You could also try your local international food shops, in particular ones which have Indian and Japanese ingredients.
You’ll need curry leaves, which come from the curry tree (Murraya koenigii) and have nothing at all to do with curry powder. The name comes from the Tamil word “kahri,” which means “gravy” or “sauce” which of course might contain curry leaves. The leaves are very aromatic and unlike bay leaves, they may be left in the dish and eaten. Fresh curry leaves are best, but can be hard to find, some stores also sell them frozen. If you can only find dried ones then add more as drying reduces their flavor.
Maldive fish or umbalakada is a dried fish product made in the Maldives, a chain of atolls sprinkled in the Indian Ocean about 435 miles from Sri Lanka. It is made from fish such as skipjack tuna which is boiled, smoked and dried. When finished it looks like a piece of driftwood and keeps very well without refrigeration. You might find it in powdered form in a store which sells Indian ingredients. As a substitute you can use Japanese katsuobushi (also called Bonito) which is essentially the same as Maldive fish and can be easier to find. Katsuobushi is sold in flakes and looks like cedar wood shavings. To use in this recipe grind it up into a powder using a mortar and pestle.
Coconut milk is fairly widely available in supermarkets these days. It is important to note that there are two kinds, thick and thin. Thick coconut milk comes from the first pressing, is thicker and has more fat. The second pressing yields thin coconut milk, and is sometimes labeled as “light.” This dish uses mostly the thin type, with a little bit of thick added at the end almost like butter finishing a French sauce.
The only thing that gave me a little trouble with this recipe was not knowing what kind of “fresh green chiles” to use. The easiest kind for me to get are Jalapeños, so that’s what I used, however, they’re not really very hot. Sri Lankan cooking has a reputation for being among the hottest in the world, so I’m guessing that I should have used something else. I confess to adding a little Sriracha sauce to this dish to perk it up when I had it for lunch the next day. If any readers have suggestions of a proper fresh green chile I could use that would be available in the US, please leave a comment.
Adapted from Charmaine Solomon
1 butternut squash (about 1 pound)
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 fresh green chiles, seeded and chopped
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
8-10 curry leaves, fresh or frozen
½ teaspoon fenugreek seeds
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
2 teaspoons ground Maldive fish or Katsuobushi (Bonito)
1½ cups “light” or second pressing coconut milk
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup “thick” or first pressing coconut milk
1 teaspoon black or brown mustard seeds
Put your curry leaves and fenugreek seeds in a dry saute pan and toast them while shaking or stirring until they become fragrant and the leaves begin to crisp, about 2 minutes. Remove them from the heat and set aside.
Peel the squash, cut it in half and remove the seeds and pulp. Cut the squash into a large dice, at least 1 inch, if you make it too small it may fall apart too much during the cooking. Put the squash in a medium saucepan with the onion, garlic, chiles, curry leaves, fenugreek, turmeric, Maldive fish or Bonito, light coconut milk, and salt. Stir gently to combine and cook over medium low heat at a bare simmer until the squash is tender, about 20-30 minutes. Grind the mustard seeds into a powder using a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder and mix them with the thick coconut milk. Stir the thick coconut milk and mustard seed combination into the pot and cook for 5 more minutes. Serve with rice.