Sunday Night Special: Colombo Chicken Curry & Green Bean Mallum
Yes, this is food from last Sunday. I’m not foretelling the future. I would forego mentioning this meal altogether (I document my cooking very infrequently because honestly it’s not that exciting and lately I just haven’t had the attention span) but Sri Lankan food is something different for me. I don’t know that I’ve ever cooked the cuisine before and I’ve only tried it twice in restaurants.
A friend was savvy enough to find my Amazon wish list and order “Mangoes & Curry Leaves” for my birthday last month. Unfortunately, I wasn’t savvy enough to keep said list up to date and already had the book. No problems, that’s why I love Amazon. Even though I wasn’t the buyer, I was able to exchange it for the same authors’ brand new cookbook, “Beyond the Great Wall.”
I took the opportunity to add “1080 Recipes,” the supposed Spanish “Joy of Cooking,” into the order. Now I’m faced with some serious skimming. I realized that 1080 is a lot of recipes, but I had no idea the book would be a massive 2 ½ inches thick (yes, I measured it).
So, before delving into my two new acquisitions I gave “Mangoes & Curry Leaves” another look. Who knows when I’ll have a chance to get back to it. All I knew is that I wanted to make something using chicken because I had bunch of bone-in thighs that needed using up. Colombo Chicken Curry fit the bill and only required the purchase of cashews and two tomatoes.
I do way more Southeast Asian than South Asian cooking so I’m used to pounding lots of herbs and fresh chunky things in a mortar and pestle. This style is more about toasting and grinding. I was shocked that I actually had every spice on hand: cumin seeds, coriander seeds (and used every last bit) fenugreek, cinnamon sticks and cardamom (not the pods, unfortunately). Interestingly, a spoonful of white rice and three times as many cashews also get tossed into the skillet, browned, then pulverized.
The end result, stewed with chopped tomatoes, grated coconut and coconut milk is complex in a way that’s hard to describe. I wouldn’t say that it tasted Indian or Malaysian but it definitely hinted at both. Just like whenever I infrequently attempt Malay curries, the flavor is rich, spicy but slightly flat like something’s lacking. Part of this is my inability to salt properly but I think the big issue is freshness of ingredients. It’s not like I live anywhere near the Spice Islands. Who knows where my spices came from and how long they sat around before sitting around in my kitchen.
I took one of the side dish suggestions seriously and read up on Green Bean Mallum. I’ve never heard of this vegetable dish. Luckily, EatingAsia has reproduced the recipe using sword beans. You’re not likely to find anything that exotic in the NYC area or probably anywhere in the U.S. but green beans work just fine. Better than fine. I really loved this condimenty side, maybe even a little more than the chicken. I ate this with brown rice like a hippy during the rest of the week and it was amazing and super spicy.
I was wary about shredding the beans, ultimately using my so-so food processor, because I hate fiddliness. But the texture was necessary. Whole beans would’ve been too substantial and dominated the dish. Really, the grated coconut is almost equal in prominence. Which reminds me, if you hate coconut I totally don’t understand you and you’ll hate both of these dishes.
Essentially, you cook the beans, shallots, turmeric, grated coconut, green chiles (I didn’t have Maldive fish or recommended substitute bonito flakes so instead sprinkled a few dashes of fish sauce) illogically with no water or oil in a covered pot for ten minutes. That’s it. You could totally do this with carrots, which I think wouldn’t be wholly untraditional. Though soggier, you could probably use a shredded green like spinach too.