06 August 2012

Cook For Julia: Seeni Sambol

For the next few days PBS food celebrates what would have been Julia Child's 100th birthday. Their senior food editor sent me a note several weeks ago asking me to write a tribute--you can find it here.

In as much as she was a great force in American (and North American cooking) I have to admit that I really didn't know all that much about Julia. From her various cookery shows, I knew she was a cookbook author and teacher; she was tall and has a sing-song voice. She was devoted to her husband Paul, loved cats and she was, at some point in her life, was part the US's Office of Strategic Services, where she worked on top secret things during the war. I also gleaned this and that from Nora Ephron's Julie and Julia.

I picked up Noel Riley Fitch's Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child. I'm about half-way through (various things kept distracting me--I hope to finish it by summer's end). I've just gotten to the point where Julia McWilliams has returned to the US, from OSS duties in Asia, and she is absolutely besotted with the older and much more worldly Paul Child.

I am totally engrossed in this love story...and I say that as someone who rolls their eyes at such things (well, except for Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy)...I know there are decades ahead for them, and I'm looking forward to following their journeys.

When I thought of my own foodish tribute #CookForJulia tribute, I decided to not go with one of her recipes, but instead take inspiration from an important point in her life.

Julia met Paul, when they were both stationed in the OSS in Sri Lanka. She was young and free. But then came Paul who would open her to many new experiences, including exploring local cuisines where they were stationed. Not much is said about the foods they ate (or if there was, I don't recall). My guess is their cooks made available meals palatable to Americans and the British who were homesick, as well as some curries. That said, in my mind, I want to believe Paul may have introduced her to local home cooking.

In looking through my cookery library for Sri Lankan dishes, I came across Sri Lankan sambols--condiments made by grinding ingredients with a paste, served with meals and snack. Most of the recipes I have are for uncooked sambols, but I chose to make Seeni Sambol, a cooked condiment from Jeffrey Allford and Naomi Duguid's Mangoes and Curry Leaves.

This is a very easy dish to make, but it does require time and attention. The end result is a gorgeous brick red, salty-sweet-sour-hot dish that can be used to accompany meats, used as a dip, or to flavour soups, or mixed with other ingredients for marinade.

Seeni Sambol

Adapted from Jeffrey Allford and Naomi Duguid's Sri Lankan Seeni Sambol in Mangoes and Curry Leaves.

Yield: 310ml ( 1.25c)

60ml (0.25c) flavourless oil or coconut oil
750ml (3c) thinly sliced red onion (approximately one very large onion)
60ml (0.25c) minced garlic (approximately 10cloves)
2Tbsp (30ml) minced ginger
10 fresh curry leaves
8 dried red chillies, stemmed and crushed
1.5tsp (7.5ml) fish sauce (optional)
5ml (1tsp) ground cinnamon
0.6ml (1/8-tsp) ground cardamom
0.6ml (1/8-tsp) ground cloves
185ml (0.75c) coconut milk
0.5tsp (2.5ml) salt, to taste
juice of one lime
sugar, to taste


Over a medium-hight flame, heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add the onions, garlic and ginger. Stir frequently until all the water has evaporated and the onions have softened and caramelized, turning colour from a spring lilac to a golden colour.

Stir in the curry leaves, dried chillis, fish sauce, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and coconut milk. When the mixture starts to bubble, turn down the heat to a bare simmer and let blurble for about 30-40 minutes, stirring every so often, so the mixture doesn't catch on the bottom of the pan. Don't be concerned as to it's pinkish-grey hue--it will deepen in colour as it simmers.

Remove from heat, add the lime juice, salt and sugar. Stir well. Puree to a smooth paste (the curry leaves are slightly fibrous, so don't be surprised if you see threads wrapped around the blades). Balance flavours to taste.

Let cool to room temperature before storing in a sealed jar. This will keep for a month in the refrigerator.

Serving Suggestions
  • Alongside puri, parathas
  • As a condiment chicken, fish or pork or kebabs
  • Mixed into tuna salad
  • Spread on toast
  • Mixed with mayonnaise and served with fish or chicken fingers
  • Mixed with sour cream or Greek yoghurt as a dip for pitas or tortillas

For other Julia Child-related posts I've done, click here.

Bon appetit!
I'm a quill for hire!


Jennifer King said...

Nice post! The seeni sambol caught my attention. Had no idea about Julia Child's time in Sri Lanka! When I lived there (and still), sambols were one of my favorite things. I have a great Sri Lankan cookbook that you have just inspired me to open up again.

Unknown said...

This looks so sizzling!.
Just love your recipies!

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