Sri Lankan Seeni Sambol

This is perhaps the most famous of the Big Three sambols (see page 30) of Sri Lanka. Unlike the other two, which are uncooked, it’s slow cooked to a dense mass. Flavors are very hot as well as sweet and aromatic. This recipe makes a relatively large quantity; store it in a glass jar in the refrigerator and bring it out as a condiment with any meal. Put it out in a small bowl with a serving spoon so guests can dollop a little on the side of their plates, as they would hot mustard or horseradish.


  • ¼ cup coconut oil or vegetable oil
  • 3 cups packed thinly sliced red onions or shallots
  • ¼ cup minced garlic or garlic mashed to a paste
  • 2 tablespoons minced ginger or ginger mashed to a paste
  • 8 fresh or frozen curry leaves
  • 4 to 8 dried red chiles, stemmed and broken into pieces
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ⅛ teaspoon ground cardamom
  • ⅛ teaspoon ground cloves
  • ¾ cup canned or fresh coconut milk
  • ½ to 1 teaspoon sugar
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice, or to taste


  1. Heat the oil in a large heavy saucepan over medium-high heat.
  2. When it is hot, add the onions or shallots, the garlic and ginger, and cook, stirring frequently, until very soft and turning golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes.
  3. Lower the heat, add the curry leaves, dried chiles, fish, if using, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, and coconut milk, and bring just to a simmer.
  4. Simmer over low heat for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure the sambol is not sticking.
  5. Remove from the heat, add the sugar, salt, and lime juice, and stir to mix well.
  6. Transfer the sambol to a food processor and process to a smooth puree.
  7. Transfer the sambol to a jar and let cool. Seal lid tightly and store in the refrigerator. It will keep for a month or more if refrigerated.


Serve to accompany mild-tasting dishes, such as Cauliflower Dum (page 148) or Aromatic Pumpkin and Coconut (page 160), for a chile-hot contrast, or as a dip for Hoppers (page 121) or Idlis (page 120), or, less traditionally, for tortilla chips or pita bread wedges.


Mangoes & Curry Leaves: Culinary Travels Through the Great Subcontinent


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Sri Lankan Seeni Sambol