Since the beginning of our adventure, I have often gone on quests to look for ingredients to prepare recipes that I discovered here and there. This time, even if the ingredients for the recipe I chose for Sri Lanka are highly unusual, I had all of them at home!
I must say that after several visits to ethnic markets such as Filipino, African or even Japanese markets, my house has turned into a treasure trove of international cuisine! Last week, during my quest to find perch fish for my Ghanaian recipe, I landed at three Japanese markets. There, I decided to buy a bag of frozen lotus roots. You never know when you may need lotus, I told myself. Fans of our Facebook page have picked the countries that we would visit this week. Sri Lanka was selected, so I started to search for a traditional recipe made with lotus, and I found it!
Nelum ala curry. In Sri Lankan, nelum ala means lotus. But what is lotus anyway? Lotus is an aquatic plant. It is often called sacred lotus in some Asian countries. It is perhaps because its seeds have a record of longevity. Indeed, researchers have recently managed to germinate lotus seeds dating back 1300 years!
Several parts of this plant can be used. Flowers, seeds, young leaves, stems and rhizomes are all edible. Roots or rhizomes that I used this Sri Lankan lotus curry recipe are very rich in dietary fiber, vitamin C, potassium, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6, phosphorus, copper, and manganese. Well, we’ll stop there before this post turns into a botanical or nutrition course!
Sri Lankan cuisine is rich and varied. It is obviously influenced by southern India cuisine with its heavy use of some spices like pepper, cardamom, cumin and coriander, as well as its very spicy food. Indeed, Sri Lankan cuisine is one of the hottest in the world. Natives have developed a tolerance to chili adapted to this cuisine but it is not necessarily to the liking of tourists who come to the island. It is quite common in touristic areas of Sri Lanka to find restaurants with menus specially catering to Westerners with a delicate palate.
All the nelum ala curry recipes that I found had the same basic ingredients but were all slightly different. So I decided to create my own recipe to get a taste of different and unusual spices, herbs and plants for this stopover in this colorful country.
It was the first time that I cooked lotus. The only times I had tasted this plant have been in the form of pickles in Indian restaurants. So I was very excited to discover this plant in a cooked dish. I bought fenugreek seeds (methi) a few months ago at my local Indian market but I had not even used yet. It was the perfect chance for this recipe. This seed is quite hard and tastes a bit “earthy” in its raw state.
Another first for me: a few weeks ago, when I visited our local Filipino supermarket, I bought frozen pandanus leaves. I was again intrigued by this plant that I had never heard of but that I discovered after reading a few recipes from the Asian continent. I told myself that I was going to need these leaves one day. This nelum ala curry recipe was thus a perfect opportunity!
I started cooking this dish on Friday at 7 am. When my wife and children got up to go to school, the whole house smelled like curry. Although I love curry, this is perhaps not the first smell that my family wanted to smell in the morning.
Speaking of curry, I would like to make a brief clarification because there is a lot of confusion about this word. The dish called “curry” is called as such only in Western countries but not in India. Each curry dish has a distinct name and Indians never use this term to describe them. Curry is primarily a tree whose leaves are often used in Indian cooking as they are used in this recipe. This tree has nothing to do with dishes called curries. This recipe for lotus “curry” also uses a spice blend called curry (as if that was not complicated enough). Curry is not a spice but the name given to various spice blends. Each country, region or chef has its own spice blend recipe although some spices are essential in these blends such as turmeric that gives curry its yellow color. Again, Indians rarely use the term curry for the spice blend and prefer using terms like garam masala or others.
My daughter Ava approached me that morning and told me: “daddy, it doesn’t smell so good”, to which I replied, “Yes honey, but don’t worry, I have prepared a lunch box for you to take to school.” Her brother, who was convalescing that day, stayed home and tasted lotus curry for lunch with me. My son Elior being as adventurous as I am when it comes to food, not only finished his plate but asked for more. My wife Anne who is as picky as our daughter had refused to taste this dish… but finally decided to eat with us. Her highly critical opinion : “This is one of the best meals you have prepared since the beginning of 196 flavors!”
That day, we even had lunch with our maid Cecilia. Not knowing whether she ate spicy or not, I had served her a teaspoon of the hot sauce concoction that I had prepared to go with the dish. I forgot she was from Mexico and that her tolerance to heat was therefore much higher than ours. She added two tablespoons of my spicy preparation!
I am aware that all the ingredients, herbs, and spices I used may not be available in your local supermarket… but if you have the opportunity to prepare this dish or eat it in a Sri Lankan restaurant, I would say go ahead and trust me on that one !
- 1 lb lotus roots (fresh or frozen), sliced
- 1 red onion , thinly sliced
- 3 cloves garlic , pressed
- 1 tablespoon mustard seeds
- 1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds (methi)
- 3 teaspoons yellow curry powder
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 pandanus leaf , cut into a dozen ½ inch/1cm pieces
- 10 curry leaves
- 1 (14 oz) can light coconut milk
- 1 (14 oz) can thick coconut milk
- 2 tablespoons sambal sauce (or equivalent)
- 1 green chili pepper , finely chopped
- In a pan with hot oil, add mustard seeds and fenugreek seeds.
- When the seeds begin to pop, add half the onion and sauté for a few minutes.
- Add the lotus roots, 2 garlic cloves, curry (spice blend), turmeric, curry leaves and half of the pandanus leaves.
- Continue to sauté for 2 minutes so that the lotus is covered with spices and herbs.
- Add the light coconut milk and stir for 2 minutes. Pour the thick coconut milk. It is not necessary to use all the can but you may adjust based on how rich you want the sauce to be.
- Cover the pan and simmer until lotus roots are tender enough. Depending on the thickness of the lotus slices, it may take 10 to 15 minutes.
- In a skillet, sauté a little oil, add sambal (spicy sauce), green hot pepper, one garlic clove, a few pandanus leaves and the rest of the red onion. Sauté for a few minutes.
- At serving time, add one tablespoon (or more) of this concoction to spice up your lotus curry.