Let’s head to Sri Lanka for a spicy condiment called lunu dehi.
Sri Lankan cuisine is known for its fiery curries, the sweet and spicy relishes like seeni sambol and the sour and spicy pickles! Their entire spread is packed with dominant and powerful flavors. It is rightly said that the Sri Lankan dishes are not for the faint of hearts.
In any Sri Lankan home, meals regularly consist of rice and a curry (either vegetarian or non vegetarian). Rice-based dishes like kiribath, puttu and string hoppers are also quite common. In order to balance the subtle taste of these rice dishes, a spicy side is always served along. These hot and sour pickles or relishes perfectly complement the dishes and hence they became a must-have during the meal. Today’s recipe is an integral part of the Sinhalese cuisine. Lunu dehi, a piquant condiment from the tiny island, will add a zest and punch to your meals, will startle awaken your senses, and will make you pucker at every bite.
Lunu dehi (lunu for salty, and dehi for lime in the Sinhalese language) is a hot and sour pickle made of ripened limes.
Pickling is one of the ancient methods of food preservation and is still commonly done in many South Asian countries like India and Sri Lanka. The ingredients (mostly vegetables) are preserved in vinegar (or any acidic medium) to increase their longevity. It is one of the best ways to preserve abundant seasonal harvests to be consumed during the non-seasonal times.
Pickle preparation is time consuming and laborious. One has to follow the steps patiently and carefully; else the food might get easily spoiled. Below are the important things to consider when making lunu dehi.
How to make lunu dehi
First and foremost, for making lunu dehi, use ripened lime and not lemons. The ones that grow in Sri Lanka are small and round, thin skinned and quite tart with a greenish yellow tint.
Sufficiently salting the lime is also important. The higher concentration of salt acts as a preservative to enhance the extended shelf life of limes. Salting is also an ancient method of food preservation.
The next vital step in making lunu dehi is the drying of limes. The moisture has to be completely removed in order to increase the shelf life of the pickle and to prevent it from being spoiled. The traditional and natural way to dry the lime is under the sun. The salt stuffed limes are usually covered in a muslin cloth and are allowed to dry in the sun for about two weeks until the moisture is completely removed. The skin of the lime becomes pale brown and the core whitish. If you live in a humid or cold space, place it near any heat source.
Spices, especially the chili powder, can be adjusted as per the preferred taste. A traditional lunu dehi is not for the faint of heart as it has a good amount of spice!
Always store the pickle in a clean, dry glass jar as any other metallic containers might react with the acid (vinegar).
There is also an instant version of lunu dehi in which the limes and the spices are boiled together and once the lime withers and softens, it can be drained and stored in an airtight glass jar. This cannot be kept for long, as the shelf life is three or four days at the maximum.
Other Sri Lankan pickles
Sinhalese also make other varieties of pickles using mixed vegetables, eggplant and even papaya. Pickles are also known as achcharu in the native language. The most popular ones are sinhala achcharu, Malay achcharu and batu moju.
- 15 limes (yellow/ripe)
- 2 teaspoons mild pepper powder
- 1 teaspoon ground kochchi miris (spicy red pepper)
- 6 white peppercorns , crushed
- 4 whole cloves (optional)
- 4 pods cardamom , crushed (optional)
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- White vinegar
- 3 quarts water
- Kosher salt
Choose non-stained, round and yellow limes. In a large pot, boil 3 quarts (3l) of water.
- Immerse 10 limes in this boiling water for 30 seconds (no more) and drain. Using a cloth, wipe the limes thoroughly to dry them completely.
- Make two crossed cuts on one end of each of the 10 limes. Open these limes delicately by hand and stuff them with a large amount of kosher salt. Press gently to close them as much as possible.
- Place the limes stuffed with salt in a shallow dish. Do not put them on top of each other but flat on the whole surface of the dish.
- Squeeze the juice from the remaining 5 limes and pour into a deep dish. Add two pinches of kosher salt.
- Place both dishes under the sun or near a source of heat to dry.
- The juice of the limes only requires a small drying cycle (about 48 hours). After that, pour it into an airtight jar and keep it in a cool, dry place.
- The salted limes are dried when the skins become light brown. The longer the drying time, the better.
- Gently remove the damaged salt around the dried limes. Quarter them. Place the cut limes in a large glass jar.
- Add ground mild pepper, ground kochchi miris (pepper), white peppercorns and sugar. Add cloves and cardamom (optional).
- Stir the reserved dried lime juice well and pour over the dried limes.
- Pour vinegar into the jar until all the limes are submerged. Shake the jar lightly until all the ingredients are well mixed.
- Close the jar tightly and place it in a cool, dry place for several weeks. The more it matures, the better.