Virtual Sri Lanka trip via curry, coconut, cashews

David Tanis / New York Times News Service /

The other day, as I was thumbing through cookbooks looking for inspiration, I came upon a recipe for chicken with cashews, and not the bland Chinese-American version that was so popular for a while. Madhur Jaffrey, the prolific authority on Indian cooking, had a Sri Lankan version in her fascinating book “From Curries to Kebabs,” published in 2003. In it, she describes the path beginning in India that took curries to the far reaches of the globe; to Indonesia, Africa and beyond. Her recipe, which I adapted and modified a fair bit, contained both cashews and coconut, along with a mixture of spices in a pungent, creamy sauce. It sounded wonderful and made me want to travel.

I have not visited Sri Lanka, and probably won’t anytime soon, but it’s my new fantasy. For now, research and experimentation must suffice, but one day I’ll get there. In the meantime, here are some things I discovered.

Evidently, fresh coconut is used there in great quantity. Nearly all Sri Lankan curries are made with coconut milk. The most common condiment is sambol, made from grated coconut, dried fish, hot pepper and lime juice. Another popular dish is mallum, or chopped cooked greens, seasoned with ginger and a sprinkling of coconut. And there are hoppers, which are not insects, but a kind of crisp rice flour pancake (there’s coconut milk in the batter), and griddled flatbreads called pol roti stuffed with coconut and onion.

Sri Lankan cuisine is similar in some ways to that of southern India, its close neighbor. For the most part, food in Sri Lanka is quite highly spiced and hot peppers are featured in many dishes. But there have been lots of other culinary influences throughout the island’s long history. Early Dutch and Portuguese occupation left an imprint, which is seen in certain rice dishes. It is doubtful that the British colonization had much impact on the food; though the English were responsible for establishing the tea plantations that make Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, a leading exporter today. The tea is still called Ceylon.

Main courses in Sri Lanka are usually rice with curries, which come in every imaginable combination from fish and shellfish to vegetables, meat and fowl. Cashews are often added, and one especially popular curry is made entirely of them. (Another factoid: the Portuguese first brought cashews to the region from Brazil, where they are a native plant.)

But back to our chicken curry. It goes together fairly quickly despite the long list of ingredients. I used skinless, boneless thigh meat, because it always stays moist and can absorb a lot of flavor from a short marinade in ginger, garlic and spices. To intensify the taste, the cashews and coconut are used two ways. First, a handful of each is ground to a powder and added to the sauce. Then after simmering for 30 minutes or so, the curry is finished with a generous cup of thick coconut milk and garnished with toasted cashews.

I also added, because I like it and thought it would harmonize nicely, a totally nontropical vegetable, parsnip — optional, but delicious.