Has rain stopped play? Is your barbecue languishing in the garage? Take heart. T. Thurai has some recipes to spice up your summer and tickle your tastebuds.

Spice up summer: Sri Lankan curry (1)

When I met my husband, the contents of my store cupboard changed drastically – as did my eating habits. I had always loved curry, occasionally experimenting with Madhur Jaffrey recipes. But I never envisaged the culinary travelogue that would take place once I married a Sri Lankan.

Space in the kitchen is somewhat cramped these days as it has to accommodate the ingredients – and batteries de cuisine – of two cultures. I am accustomed to seeing (although not using) rice cookers, pitthu steamers and a thing with no name that looks like a huge metal lemon-squeezer crossed with an old-fashioned meat-mincer. With its large handle and serrated blades, it resembles an instrument of torture, although it serves a more mundane purpose, being an ingenious device for extracting fresh coconut from the shell.

I love the dark, liquorice smell of curry leaves and have trained myself to inhale deeply when opening the spice cupboard – that first explosion of aroma as the door is opened is too good to miss. I can also distinguish cardamom from cumin and have developed a passion for egg hoppers. (Not small frogs, as one friend suggested, but pancakes made from fermented batter).

I have also learned to referee the furious battles that break out between my husband and his mother when they try to share a kitchen. On one occasion, I was quietly watering the plants outside when my husband flew out of the back door like an avenging fury. Fearing the worst, I cautiously enquired as to what had happened.

“She says my wok is rubbish,” he declared, a murderous glint in his eye.

Thanks to these domestic contretemps, I perfected the art of silent laughter. It can be quite difficult to stifle your giggles in company but a pretence of sniffing roses or pulling up rhubarb generally helps. If you are bending over, no-one can see you laughing – especially if your head is buried in foliage.


If you are currently bemoaning the demise of yet another barbecue summer, then take heart. While the absence of sunshine is an undeniable loss, the disappearance of charred meat from the menu is not. The making of a curry is a process to be savoured, not hurried. It engages the senses: mustard seed pops as it roasts in the pan; spices release their aroma as they are pounded in a mortar and the eye is bewitched by the colour and variety of ingredients – star-shaped anise, bright yellow turmeric, fiery red chillies. Cooking indoors on a rainy day becomes an indulgence not a chore.

There are two basic Sri Lankan curry powders: one which is fennel-based and generally used for meat (although as you will see below, it can be applied to a variety of ingredients) and one for fish which is cumin-based. In this article, I have supplied a recipe for the fennel-based powder as well as a basic curry sauce. Subsequent articles will include the cumin-based powder as well as a selection of side-dishes and accompaniments.


Fennel-based (Meat) curry powder

The quantity below makes about two tablespoons of powder, sufficient for two curries.

14gm / ½ oz whole coriander seed (fig 7)

6gm / ¼ oz  whole black peppercorns (fig 2)

14gm / ½ oz whole fennel seed (fig 5)

1/3 teaspoon of fenugreek seeds (fig 4)

1 clove (fig 6)

2.5 cm / 1” piece of cinnamon bark (fig 3)

2 whole cardamoms (fig 8)

5 – 6 fresh curry leaves (fig 1)

In a dry, stainless steel pan, toast the coriander, fenugreek and peppercorns over medium heat. Stir continuously with a wooden spoon for 2 minutes.

Add all the other ingredients (except curry leaves) to the pan and stir for about 1½ minutes.

Turn off the heat.

Add the curry leaves and continue stirring for about 10 seconds. Then decant the contents into a dry bowl to stop the mixture being burnt by the residual heat in the toasting pan. Put the hot pan away safely.

Grind the spices into a fine powder.

Tip: If you use a pestle and mortar, place the mortar on a small tray to catch any stray seeds that jump out as you grind the spices. A tea-towel placed underneath the mortar will stop it slipping. A less labour-intensive method is to keep a small electric coffee grinder specifically for this purpose. You will not be able to use the mill for coffee afterwards as spice-grinders acquire a distinctive aroma.

Keep any leftover powder fresh in an airtight jar. Larger quantities of this powder will keep for months if properly stored. (Old-fashioned sweet jars make excellent containers).


Basic curry sauce

This versatile sauce is suitable for meat, fish and vegetarian curries. It is also an ideal way of using up leftovers.


1 tablespoon odourless cooking oil (sunflower or rapeseed)

2 cardamom pods

1 clove

½” inch piece of cinnamon bark

1 onion, finely chopped

1 green chilli, chopped (for a hotter curry) or whole (for a milder curry)

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

Chilli powder (1 teaspoon for a mild curry, 1 dessertspoon for a very hot curry)

500gm of tomato passata

A splash of white wine

Salt to taste or a stock cube (mushroom, chicken or fish depending on the type of curry)

1 teaspoon of sugar or 1 dessertspoon of tomato ketchup

5 – 6 fresh curry leaves

Your choice of ingredients which may include: chunks of pre-cooked turkey, chicken or pork (or leftovers of the same); steamed fish*; pieces of Spanish omelette*; boiled eggs, hearty chunks of boiled potato, cubes of fried tofu or pre-cooked chick peas.

A heaped dessertspoon of meat curry powder

Juice of ½ a lime


Heat the oil in a pan and, when hot, add the cardamoms, clove and cinnamon. Cook for about 30 seconds.

Add the onion and cook over a high flame, stirring frequently for about 4 minutes until the onion is golden brown and caramelised.

Add the garlic and green chilli. Stir for another 30 seconds.

As the garlic begins to brown, add chilli powder to taste. Stir for 10 seconds. (N.B. the smell is very pungent so do not inhale and, if it makes you cough, keep a window open).

Add the following:

(i)   passata (the more you add, the milder the curry will be);

(ii)  white wine;

(iii) salt or stock cube;

(iv) sugar or tomato ketchup.

Simmer for 3 – 4 minutes on a medium to low flame to blend the flavours.

Now add your chosen ingredients (except *fish and Spanish omelette cubes – see below) and simmer gently for 2 – 3 minutes or until all the ingredients are heated through.

Over a high heat, add the coconut milk, curry leaves and the meat curry powder.

When the sauce is simmering, add the lime juice. Stir and turn off the heat.

Remove the whole green chilli before serving for a milder curry.

*N.B. If using fish or Spanish omelette cubes in your curry, lay them in the bottom of a serving-dish and pour the finished sauce over the top to prevent them from disintegrating.

Tip: Fresh curry leaves can be bought from Chinese, Indian or Ghurka grocery shops.