What is pol sambol?
Pol sambol (coconut sambol) is a traditional Sri Lankan condiment prepared with freshly grated coconut. It is most often used as an accompaniment with rice, string hoppers (idiyappam), hoppers (appam), as well as other dishes.
Coconut in Sri Lankan cuisine
Coconut is a very important crop in Sri Lanka, a country that is currently the fifth largest coconut producer in the world, after Indonesia, the Philippines, India and Brazil. Coconut is so important in the country nicknamed as “Pearl of the Indian Ocean” that it occupies about 20 percent of Sri Lankan arable land. Its current contribution to Sri Lankan GDP is actually more than 1%, and its contribution to export earnings is about 4%. Nearly ⅔ of this production is consumed domestically.
Coconut is indeed a big part of Sri Lankan diet, whether it is used as a drink, or as a food. Its shell, husk, sap, leaves and trunk are also used for a number of other applications. Sri Lanka features a large number of coconut varieties, some of them are native to the island, like thembili, also called king coconut.
Coconut milk is used in most Sri Lankan curries, as well as condiments (sambol). Beside its wonderfully sweet taste, coconut allows to tame the typical very spicy foods of the country.
Pol sambol (or pol sambola) is the perfect example. It is a fresh coconut relish, with a blend of red onions, dried whole chilies (or chili powder), lime juice, salt and Maldive fish.
How to make pol sambol?
The traditional method for preparing pol sambol is to grind the ingredients on a rectangular block of granite with a granite rolling-pin, which is known as a miris gala (chili stone in Sinhalese). These stones are traditionally used for grinding various pastes that are used in Sri Lankan curries and condiments. You can obviously use a standard stone mortar and pestle if you do not have access to a miris gala. I personally used a large Mexican molcajete.
In Sri Lanka, pol sambol is used as a garnish or as a side dish for a number of staple dishes, including rice and curry, pol roti (coconut roti), paratha, or string hoppers. It is even sometimes just spread over slices of bread that can be buttered.
Sri Lankan sambol varieties
There are various condiments that are fairly similar to pol sambol. Lunu miris, for example, is a pol sambol, with no coconut. Katta sambol is typically made with the same ingredients without the red onion or coconut. Thenga chammanthi from Kerala, in the south of India, is also similar. However, it is served as a ball and also includes tamarind and ginger.
Versions of pol sambol
Pol sambol is traditionally prepared with Maldive fish (umbalakaḍa), a smoked and cured tuna, that is sold in chips or flakes. The same ingredient that is used in other Sri Lankan dishes, including kiri hodi or seeni sambol for example. However, some vegan-friendly versions of pol sambol often omit this ingredient, which is mostly used to add an umami layer to the condiment.
Some versions of pol sambol also add tomato, as well as garlic and green chili, although those versions are less common.
The fresh pol sambol is already delicious as is… but you can also prepare a variation of the same condiment by sautéing the pol sambol in mustard seeds, curry leaves and sliced onion. This preparation is called badapu pol sambol (sautéed pol sambol).
- ½ fresh coconut ,grated (about ½ lb), (or ½ lb frozen grated coconut)
- 6 small red dried chili peppers (or 2 tablespoons crushed red pepper)
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 6 small Bombay onions or 1 red onion, diced
- 1 tablespoon Maldive fish chips (optional)
- Juice of 1 lime
Using a large mortar and pestle (or working in batches in a smaller mortar and pestle), grind the dried red chilies with the salt and sugar into a fine paste until there are no chili seeds visible in the paste.
Then, add the Maldive fish chips (optional), and grind a little more.
Next, add the freshly shredded coconut to combine with the paste. The whole idea at this stage is to get the coconut to absorb the flavor and get the color of the chili paste.
Finely, add the diced red onions. Grind a couple more minutes until obtaining a paste with enough texture.
Add the juice of the lime, mix well, and serve.