Amma’s Sri Lankan Dhal Curry

I don’t go out much on snowy days, when the outside world is in a deep freeze. On many of these winter nights, I am alone with my dhal curry, which I enjoy in silence after tucking the kids into bed. I want to sit with my boredom and see how the dhal curry is going to fix me. It is quite impossible to pass two days without making my Amma’s Sri Lankan dish, armed with its flavor and simplicity. The fried chillies and sweet garlic burst the loneliness. The stillness is fulfilling, at least for the moment. The truths you experience as a young immigrant mother, the loneliness, the heartaches, are endless. Food is life.

I was born into a family of endearing women. We not only cook, but also pave the way for every woman in the family to find her strength through cooking. Cooking in my family is a generational gift that is passed down from mother to daughter. Women in my family always turn up when you are in need with a meal nicely wrapped with banana leaves in a rattan basket. The must-have dhal curry, a fish ambul thiyal (sour fish curry), a mallung (finely chopped greens with grated coconut), and a hot plate of rice is edible love presented to you. I crave a hug and a glance of such a dear woman now and then, but I left Sri Lanka many years ago, and it slowly fades along with my youth. I gave birth to two boys, and often spend nights alone when my husband travels for work, but my mother and my aunts are always in a corner of my heart. And they want to know what I am cooking. When I make my Amma’s dhal curry, I go back to them, back to my childhood.

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In my early memories of Sri Lanka, weary villagers carry sacks of beans on their head on the way to market, while potato growers toil in knee-deep mud to save their crops from overwatering as the irrigation canals open. Beginning around four ’clock in the morning, I hear the voices of farmers and their beasts of burden in the fields. Amma is the first to wake up at our home to light the wood stove in the kitchen. The sound of the temple gong breaks the silence in the sleeping mountain valleys. The call for prayer from the village mosque follows moments later. The farmers, who were the first to wake along with the monks, water their fields before the frost can harm the vegetables. How kind they are to each other while happily having breakfast of boiled yams with lunu miris (chilli and onion sambol) and tea. My memories flood in. I imagine they are closer to the gods than anyone.

There is a daily ritual when making the dhal curry. Amma, my two sisters, and I peel onions, chop greens, and grate coconut.

All you need in life is some quiet time and a kitchen, Amma would often say. The gas stove is used only for quick sautéing and warming food. Most dishes in Amma’s kitchen are cooked over a slow fire in the wood stove, and she firmly believes this technique makes a huge difference in her cooking. Amma’s dhal pot, which is blackened from the wood fire, is used only for curries prepared with coconut milk. She gathers green chillies, curry leaves, a bowl of grated coconut, and a few other ingredients. Freshly squeezed coconut milk is divided into thin and thick milk. The soaked dhal gets a quick rinse and settles into the pot. Dhal with turmeric, curry powder, salt, chopped green chillies, curry leaves, and pandan leaf simmer with thin coconut milk in the stove. She waits for the right smell. Time to add the thick milk, and stand guard, never daring to abandon her dhal. The thick coconut milk is full of flavor. She boils the pot and stirs.

Mushy dhal is a disgrace in my family, so the right amount of boiling is learned only by watching Amma. The sautéed ingredients are added right after the dhal is cooked, the sight of floating mustard seeds, dried chillies, and curry leaves gives the right end note to an amazing dish. The look of her face watching us eat was a perfect expression of unspoken love and satisfaction.

A farmer, a widow, a hungry family, a loner, or an elite—all will vote for a good curried dhal for any meal. Roti with dhal for breakfast, dhal and coconut sambol for a quick meal, and chicken curry and dhal for lunch. Conversations often start with “have any dhal?” Curried dhal is ubiquitous in Sri Lanka life. It served at weddings, offered at funerals, and enjoyed in a picnic lunch. This dish has been resilient through colonization, civil war, and globalization. Dhal curry really is the symbol of everything-ness in Sri Lankan life.

Today, I cook with my boys often, and we love sitting down to enjoy meals together. We always eat dhal curry with hot basmati rice and Sri Lankan fish cutlets made of potatoes, fish, and curry leaves (similar to croquettes). I sometimes ask my sons to sit on the rug during dinner, and I show them how to use their fingers to make tiny balls of rice with dhal and fish cutlets without making a mess—just like we do back home. This is a very normal refined Sri Lankan dining etiquette when eating rice with your fingers. I want to help my boys understand that having a traditional dish eaten in a traditional way is an essential part of accepting their cultural identity. Although they are as American as any American, they are nevertheless portrayed by society as immigrant kids who eat “different food” and carry a “long” last name. So, dinner time is my moment as a mother and their first teacher. The mmms and aahhs fill the kitchen followed by chit chat of a friend’s tantrum at school blended in with funny stories of my childhood mishaps. It all happens in one tiny space surrounded by food. A day with a dhal curry and fish cutlets is always a good day in my home.

My oldest son often asks me about Sri Lanka. I think about food and Amma’s stories, and I realize how much they sustain me when I am alone. A simple dish beats back my loneliness, and fills me with hope. Passed down by generations of women in my family, this food and their extraordinary stories will remain alive for me for many years to come. My kitchen, a very ordinary everyday space, becomes extraordinary with the cultural knowledge in my cooking. This is why sharing food is sacred. It is the ultimate vessel of cultural knowledge celebrated. Preparing a dish can lead to self-realization, and understanding one’s identity is an immeasurable opportunity. I often picture my kids telling their kids the memories that come with a dish and the undying traditions will continue when sharing the food their mother taught them to cook.

On Making Sri Lankan Dhal Curry

Dhal, also known as dal, has a deep connection to our earliest civilization, having been eaten by locals for thousands of years. Dhal is a South Asian grain with an earthy flavor that is enhanced when tempered with a few ingredients. Sri Lanka, just like her colorful neighbor India, has many varieties of dhal, such as moong (mung beans), urad (black lentils), toor (yellow split pigeon peas), and masoor dhal (red lentils).

I buy my dhal from Spice Corner, a South Asian and Indian specialty foods store on East Market Street in Akron. Most ingredients in the recipe are available in any grocery store. However, curry leaves and asafetida, also known as hing (a flavor enhancer powder made from a root), is only available in Indian stores. The pandan leaves should be bought from a grocer who sells Vietnamese and Korean items. Dhal is usually eaten with warm rice or flatbread, but you can eat it with any regular bread as well.

Sri Lankan dhal curry is a simple blend of flavors and is very easy to cook. Pure dhal flavor is enhanced with Sri Lankan curry powder and coconut milk and cooked in a slow fire to bring the earthy flavors to the fullest. Regular dhal curry is an essential part of a meal that can be taken to a whole new level once it is sautéed with dry chillies and curry leaves. Amma often left her leftover dhal curry on the wood stove for a few minutes until the gravy dried out. The result is well-roasted creamy dhal with an amazing flavor, which often ends up in a lunch packet for taking to work. It was out of this world!