For the winter blues: Sri Lankan coconut dhal


Hello! How are you, how’s the world at your end? Here in the UK, we’re cocooned in layers of snow of varying thickness, depending on where you are. When I was coming home tonight, around 6.30 pm, I felt this thick layer of snow under my feet is starting to freeze. I wonder what we’ll wake up to tomorrow. As idyllic as it all looks, us Mediterranean types are not faring to well in these conditions. All I want to do is hibernate until the sun shines back on us again. But though I refuse to believe it, the life goes on. There are jobs to do, people to see, dinners to cook… Yes… Dinners… Here’s what kept me awake and re-energised me this evening. Remember that delicious Sri Lankan dhal I was telling you about earlier? Here’s the recipe. Without the photos for now, until my camera awakes from its winter sleep. (I meant to take photos this evening, but my camera failed me.)


This dhal is a serious contender for the title of my favourite dhal, so far held by the seductive Bengali Red Dal. It has a rich gutsy flavour of red lentils cooked with onion, garlic, chillies, and cumin and black pepper, imbued with the heady aroma of curry leaves, and with a squeeze of lime to heighten your senses. I normally prefer to eat my dhal on the same day I make it, but this one I find improves with time. That is if you can stay away from it and leave some for tomorrow. I’m proud to day that this time I managed to do just that. Not even I can eat this much dhal at one sitting!

Let not the long list of ingredients intimidate you. This dhal is really very easy to make, and you can leave it to look after itself while you’re doing something else. Like making Sri Lankan coconut rotis, for example. Yes, that’s a good thing to do. (Recipe coming soon.) 



Sri Lankan coconut dhal


SOURCEJasmine’s recipe


COOKING TIME: about 45 min

CUISINE: Sri Lankan

SERVES: 3 – 4 as a side dish, or 2 as a main



1 cup of red lentils

1/4 red (medium to large) onions, or 2 shallots

2 large cloves of garlic, sliced

3 green chillies, roughly chopped

a handful of fresh curry leaves, shredded

1/3 tsp turmeric

2/3 tsp roughly ground cumin and black pepper mixture

1 scant tsp of fenugreek seeds

1/5 – 1/4 can of coconut milk

Juice of 1/2 lime, or more to taste

3 – 4 dried red chillies

salt to taste

a handful of (preferably fresh) curry leaves

1 tbsp vegetable oil or ghee

1 tbsp tempering spices (mixture of brown/black mustard seeds, cumin seeds and fennel seeds – see Sri Lankan spices for recipe)

1 1/2 tbsp fried onions (or 3 – 4 shallots, shredded and then fried as below)



Place the lentils in about 2 – 3 cups of water. Then chop the chillies, onions, garlic, shred the curry leaves and add them to the lentils, together with turmeric, fenugreek and the cumin and black pepper mixture. Boil together until the lentils turn soft.

When the lentils are soft, add the coconut milk and stir through.

Before you’re ready to eat, prepare the tadka or tempering for the dhal. I usually don’t have fried onions at hand, so this is what I do. I heat the oil and then add the chillies and the curry leaves to it. when the curry leaves are starting to turn crisp, I pop in the onions/shallots, and cook them until they’re almost copper brown. Then add a few more curry leaves (if you want, which I invariably do), and the tempering spices. Stir for 10 s or until they release their fragrance. Now pop the contents of the pan into the lentil mixture, reserving perhaps some for the garnish. Stir, put the lid back on, and leave it for a minute or two for the flavours to mingle and make friends.

Don’t forget the lime. I sometimes add it before adding the tadka to the lentils, and sometimes after the tadka. Either way, don’t leave it out. It really does make all the difference.



More dhals from this blog:

Bengali Red Dhal

Minty dhal (2 versions of  recipe)



More recipes with beans and lentils

More Sri Lankan recipes




We’re at the 8th helping of My Legume Love Affair hosted and organised by the talented Susan of The Well-Seasoned Cook. This is my entry for the event.  


Sri Lankan Spices

Before I tell you about the Sri Lankan spices (or rather spice mixtures), let me remind you about this month’s Eating with the Seasons event that’s hosted here at Maninas. This month, we are celebrating the seasonal ingredients for January, so hurry up and send me your entries on or before 15 January! As always, I look forward to your seasonal tips and recipes!


Anyhow, back to Sri Lankan spices! In my introductory post on this beautiful and aromatic cuisine , I mentioned spice mixtures that are characteristic for Jasmine’s Sri Lankan cooking: Sri Lankan garam masala, Sri Lankan curry powder, etc. What I didn’t tell you then that Jasmine packed me home with a little treasure: stacks of her spices and recipes for how to make them! In addition to the curry powder and the garam masala, I’ve also got a recipe for her tempering spices and rasam powder. Enjoy!


Sri Lankan Garam Masala

Sri Lankan garam masala is very different from what I know as Indian garam masalas (For a wealth of regional Indian recipes, check out Vegeyum’s beautiful and informative post). The most important difference is that the spices not roasted; cinnamon, cardamom and cloves are simply ground together raw, and the flavours of cloves and cardamom are dominant. The masala is used in certain meat and vegetable curries, and the recipe is simple:


1 tbsp green cardamom pods

1 tbsp cloves

2 cinnamon sticks, about 7 cm in length each


Simply grind all the ingredients together.

NOTE: Proportion of the ingredients can vary. The flavours of cardamom and cloves are dominant, but to what extent? Play around and find your own winning combination!

At first, I found the flavour of raw cloves a little challenging, but I soon got over it, and got used to it. In fact, I started loving it, and craving it!


Sri Lankan Curry Powder

Sri Lankan curry powder is roasted, and not ‘raw’: the spices are roasted and then ground, which gives them a seductive nutty flavour. The curry powder is often added to the dishes at the final stages of cooking, to finish off the flavours. There are numerous versions of the recipe, and it’s usually homemade. This is Jasmine’s:


200 g fennel seeds

100 g cumin seeds

1 tbsp green cardamom pods

1 tbsp cloves

2 cinnamon sticks, about 7.5 cm in length each

a handful of curry leaves

pandan leaves, 7 cm piece (optional)


All the ingredients are roasted briefly together, and then ground.


Jasmine’s Tempering Spices

Jasmine uses this spice mixture for tempering her delectable dhals and vegetable preparations.


Brown mustard seeds

cumin seeds

fennel seeds


Equal amounts of these spices are simply coarsely ground all together (unroasted).


Jasmine’s Rasam Powder


1 cup coriander seeds

1 dessert spoon of cumin seeds

1 dessert spoon of fennel seeds

1 dessert spoon of black pepper

a few dried red chillies


The spices are simply ground all together (unroasted).

ALSO: Jasmine keeps at hand a mixture of freshly ground, raw cumin and black pepper, which I think is a great idea as I love both of these flavours.


I don’t have a recipe for Sri Lankan chilli powder (which is a mixture of spices),  as she shared with me some of her own, sent to her especially and all the way from Sri Lanka. I really am lucky! 🙂 (A quick note: I’ve noticed she uses chilli powder when cooking meat, and certain vegetable curries, and green chillies in other vegetable preparations and dhal.)

There you go! Now we’re all set to cook Sri Lankan! (Though I appreciate that many of these ingredients may be difficult to find for many people.) More delicious recipes coming next! In fact, I’m going to post a Sri Lankan recipe for a leek and cabbage side dish  with coconut for the January Eating with the Seasons, so stay tuned!



My other posts and recipes on Sri Lankan cooking:

The aroma of curry leaves: Sri Lankan cooking (Introduction)

Varar – Sri Lankan cabbage and leek with coconut

Sri Lankan coconut dhal

Sri Lankan Fish Cutlets


The aroma of curry leaves. Sri Lankan cooking

Wherever I am, the aroma of curry leaves cooking will take me to Jasmine’s kitchen. Outside, one of those sultry and wet English November dusks; inside, a warm kitchen fragrant with spices. We chop and chatter, stir and laugh. I suspect that half the time I’m in the way and only slowing her down, but she graciously lets me learn by doing it myself. And I’m grateful to her for that.

Jasmine is a formidable cook, with English, Italian, Chinese and many other dishes in her repertoire, but tonight she is introducing me to the flavours of her homeland, Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka (‘sacred island’ in Sanskrit) is an island nation situated in the Indian Ocean, to the southwest of the coast of India. Its cooking has been compared to that of South India, but to me it has a very distinct character of its own. Rice is the staple in both cuisines, and coconut, cashews and bananas (some of Sri Lanka’s main crops) are used extensively. Curry leaves feature prominently in both South Indian and Sri Lankan cooking, but Sri Lankans also make use of pandan leaves (Jasmine calls it ‘rampa’) and lemon grass (‘sera’).

Jasmine, my kind host and teacher, tells me her cooking combines the Northern, Tamil cooking and the bold spices of the West of Sri Lanka. Her food is fragrant, full of bold flavours, mouth-watering. Three flavour trinities, as Jasmine calls them, describe it best. The first is lime, green chillies and of course the curry leaves. Their haunting, addictive aroma permeates almost all the dishes. I had them before, and cooked with them, and loved them, but nothing comes close to this. I will always remember them and associate them with Jasmine’s cooking. Lime is also used extensively, and is usually added at the end, after the dish is finished cooking.

Jasmine’s other flavour trinity is Sri Lankan garam masala, Sri Lankan roasted curry powder and Sri Lankan chilli powder. Sri Lankan garam masala is very different from what I know as Indian garam masalas. Firstly, it is not roasted; cinnamon, cardamom and cloves are simply ground together raw, and the flavours of cloves and cardamom are dominant. Sri Lankan curry powder is roasted, and not ‘raw’. The spices are roasted and then ground, which gives them a nutty flavour. The curry powder is often added to the dishes at the final stages of cooking, to perk up the flavours. There are numerous versions of the recipe, and it’s usually homemade. Sri Lankan chilli powder, on the other hand, is often shop-bought. It is a mixture of spices, rather than a single spice. All three are spice mixtures are deliciously captivating.

The third flavour trinity is garlic, ginger and pandan leaf (or ‘rampa’).

That first night, Jasmine served us an exquisite meat feast:

The second day, we were treated to a fish feast of:

Both dinners were simply superb. Suffice to say that since then, I have made many of the above dishes in my own kitchen. One day, they will all find their way to this blog!

With this, I would like to than Jasmine for her warm generosity, and for putting up with me in the kitchen!

Curry leaves      (PHOTO: Sonja Pauen – Stanhopea @ Wikipedia Commons)


INFO: Curry leaves


‘The Curry Tree or Karivepallai or Kadipatta or Sweet Neem leaf.(Murraya koenigii; syn. Bergera koenigii, Chalcas koenigii) is a tropical to sub-tropical tree in the family Rutaceae, which is native to India.’ (WIKIPEDIA) Its aromatic leaves are used as a herb in South Indian and Sri Lankan cooking.

For more information, please see Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages.



My other posts and recipes on Sri Lankan cooking:

Sri Lankan spices (including recipes for Sri Lankan garam masala, curry powder and more!)

Varar – Sri Lankan cabbage and leek with coconut (V)

Sri Lankan coconut dhal  (V)

Sri Lankan Pineapple Curry (V)

Sri Lankan Fish Cutlets

Sri Lankan Fish Curry (Meen kulambu)


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