Traditionally cooked over a naked flame in a clay pot, wambatu moju is a Sri Lankan eggplant pickle with a very definite spicy kick. It’s a great accompaniment to have with curries and other dishes but it’s also really delicious on its own with steamed rice, appa (rice hoppers), or flatbreads (e.g. roti, paratha, etc.)
Because Sri Lanka is a tropical island, fish and coconut feature heavily in the cooking. Fish is generally used in curry dishes – or, in its dried form, as a flavor enhancer, while coconut in its many guises (flesh, milk, toddy, oil, etc.) is usually a dominant ingredient.
But not in wambatu moju! Although, you could use coconut oil to fry the vegetables if you wish!
Wambatu moju is one of Sri Lanka‘s most famous dishes, and of course, as so often happens, recipes differ from cook to cook. Wambatu moju, for example, can be eye-wateringly sour, almost caramelized, or a balance between the two. I prefer balance.
Even though the food is generally simple to make, it’s said that for the average outsider, Sri Lankan cooking is not easy to master, due to the wealth of variations for even the most basic of dishes. Each Sri Lankan cook has their own way of making their food, and recipes are usually handed, not written down.
Wambatu moju is a case in point – I’ve come across at least a dozen variations!
But don’t let that put you off – Sri Lankan cooking is actually really easy, especially if you’re used to Thai, Malay, Indonesian, or Indian cooking. Particularly South Indian. In fact, Sri Lankan cuisine is kind of halfway between South Indian and Thai.
Wambatu moju – what’s in a name?
Due to the diversity of Sri Lanka‘s cultural heritage, along with culinary variations, often even names of dishes are varied. For example, wambatu moju is also known as brinjal, aubergine, or melongene moju. Wambatu, brinjal, aubergine, and melongene are all names for eggplant, of course.
The eagle-eyed among you will have spotted that melongene is very similar to the Italian, melanzane. Both of these names come from the Latin, Solanum melongena. The solanum family includes tomatoes and potatoes, and are all classified as nightshades.
The more astute will spot the relationship between brinjal and the Portuguese, berinjela. This stems from the 150 year-long control the Portuguese had over Sri Lanka (then the Kingdom of Kotte) during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Brinjal, of course, is Anglo-Hindi. However, as with berinjela, aubergine, and the Punjabi baingan, it’s derived from the Arabic name of al-badinjan.
And if you’re reading this, wondering why we call it eggplant when it neither looks nor tastes remotely like eggs, it’s actually because of the small, white, almost spherical cultivars, which do indeed resemble hens’ eggs in shape and size. If you want to try these for yourself, look for the Casper and Easter Egg varieties.
Making wambatu moju
Like so much of Sri Lankan cooking, wambatu moju is very simple to make. However, the true skill is in getting the flavor cycle right, so here are some tips:
– Split the chilies almost all the way along their length, don’t slice them up.
– Yes, 10 chilies does seem a lot but we’re not talking Thai chilies here! Sure, they pack a punch but in wambatu moju, they are primarily there for flavoring, not biting into, which is why they’re kept intact. If your palate can take it, then by all means, eat the chilies too!
– Onions: generally, small red pearl onions are used because they are sweeter than white or yellow, and they’re fried whole. However, you can use thickly sliced or quartered medium-sized standard red onions instead.
– Use coconut toddy vinegar if you can get it. If you can’t get toddy vinegar, use white or apple cider instead.
– Feel free to play around with ratio of vinegar to salt and sugar, and add more or less, according to your personal taste. I start out with a little, and taste as I go along. You can always add more but if you add too much at the beginning, the only thing you can do is start over.
– The same goes for the sugar and salt: the aim is to strike a balance between salty, sweet, and sour – none should overpower the other.
– Pounding the garlic and ginger, plus the mustard seeds, together releases the aromatics, and gives the dish more flavor. It also makes it easier to mix up the “pickle” paste.
– Fresh curry leaves are best – you’ll be able to find them at your local Indian or Sri Lankan grocery store, or online. If you have to use dried, they will work but you may need to use a few more, as the longer they’re stored, the more the flavor decreases.
– Don’t add too many eggplant strips at a time to the pan, or else the steam created will mean they take longer to cook, make them soggy, and of course, retain too much oil. Instead, fry small batches in hot oil. Test the oil by dipping in a wooden skewer or chopstick – if the oil bubbles vigorously around it, it’s ready to use.
– Umbalakada (Maldives dried fish): some people use whole dried sprats, some use powdered, others not at all. If you can’t find it, it’s fine to leave it out – it won’t affect the taste. Think of it as a flavor enhancer, similar to MSG or Thai fish sauce. It won’t impart a fishy flavor, it just ramps up the umami. I’ve actually seen street hawkers in Colombo making wambatu moju with soy sauce instead of Umbalakada.
Wambatu moju will keep for up to two weeks in an airtight container.
Enjoy your meal!
- ½ lb eggplants , cut into small strips
- 1 large red onion , sliced thickly
- 10 green hot peppers , split lengthwise
- 3 cloves garlic , crushed
- 1 (1-inch) piece ginger , chopped
- 2 tablespoons umbalakada (smoked and dried Maldives fish)
- 10 leaves curry
- 2 tablespoons fresh cilantro , chopped
- 1½ tablespoons mustard seeds
- 1 tablespoon turmeric powder
- 3 tablespoons white vinegar
- 3 teaspoons sugar
- Vegetable oil (for frying)
- In a large skillet, heat a large amount of oil over medium heat.
- When the oil is ready, fry the eggplant strips until lightly brown on both sides.
- Using a skimmer, remove eggplants from the oil, and place on paper towels.
- In the same oil, fry the onions and green hot peppers for 10 minutes over medium heat.
- With the skimmer, remove the onions and green hot peppers from the oil, and place on paper towels.
- Finally, still in the same oil, fry the umbalakada (smoked and dried Maldives fish) until they turn golden.
- With the skimmer, remove the umbalakada from the oil, and place on paper towels.
- Using a blender or mortar and pestle, crush the ginger and garlic to make a paste.
- Add the mustard seeds to this paste, and pound until the mustard seeds are crushed.
- Add the coriander, sugar, turmeric, salt, and vinegar, and stir the mixture until the sugar is dissolved.
- Heat two tablespoons of oil in a large skillet over medium heat, and add the fried vegetables, fish, and the paste.
- Mix well, and sauté for 2 minutes, stirring gently.