The Sinful Secrets of the Simplest Seeni Sambal
By Savindri Perera
Look. If it’s not blatantly clear by now, I have a thing for alliteration and puns. This has now been worsened by the fact that Boyd is extremely pun-froward and thus, the influence is not lost on me. In any case, the title is of relevance to the recipe.
For those of you who don’t know what Seeni Sambal is, it is one of Sri Lanka’s favourite accompaniments. Sri Lankans eat this for breakfast, lunch and dinner and it is a perfect little side dish for rice, bread, flat bread and even cheese and crackers. A more contemporary way to use Seeni Sambal is on a cheeseboard, as what it is, is essentially savory, spiced caramelized onions.
There are a few recipes on how to make this. The guidelines are essentially the same. My grandmother’s recipe calls for deep frying the onions before cooking this. And there was good reason for this — seeni sambal was made to last in store, but back in the day when refrigeration was not up to par, deep frying onions ensured that they had a longer shelf life. However, as you can imagine, this deep frying process meant the seeni sambal was extremely rich and sometimes left a greasy mouthful if not done properly. As such, I have now devised a less oily, less complicated version of the well loved dish that is just as delicious. The recipe below is for 600g of onion, however, when I was cooking this, I did 3kg of onion as I was giving some of it for my friends. So the pictures might depict a lot more onion that mentioned, but don’t worry about it!
600g onion, sliced or chopped finely *it’s very important that you ONLY use red onion!
100g lb maldive fish pieces (optional)
3-4 tbsp chilli powder
4 tbsp chili flakes
1 sprig of curry leaves
4 inch piece of Pandan leaf
1 quill of cinnamon, broken up
5 cloves, crushed
5 cardamom pods, crushed
5 tbsp vegetable oil
3 tbsp tamarind pulp
2 tbsp dark brown sugar
Salt to taste
.1. Chop or slice the onions finely. As I hard a large amount of onions to chop and as I have access to the wonderful appliance known as the Food Processor, I used that. If you fancy standing about crying your eyes out as you chop red onions, then you go Glen Coco!
2. Next, prepare the other ingredients.
3. Next, get a pan or pot on high heat with the oil, and add in the aromatics
4. Once they have fried off, proceed with the onions and the other ingredients. At this stage, do not worry too much if the onions start giving out a lot of water. This will be cooked slowly until the onions caramelize and you can turn up the flame to get rid of the water towards the end of the cooking process.
5. Next up is probably the trickiest part of the whole process. At this point, you need to adjust the seasoning, keep the sambal on a low fire and check on it constantly. You might need to add more salt, sugar or chili, depending on your tastes. You do have to keep an eye on the onions to make sure you aren’t burning the bottom, while slowly allowing for the moisture to evaporate and onions to caramelize completely. I was using a deep pot initially, however I transferred the onions into a wide pan so that the onions would cook a lot more evenly and the water would evaporate better. When it starts to look like the photo below, this is nearly done (note the bubbles of moisture on the outside, these need to disappear). At this stage, you need to check the salt and sweet level once more.
6. At this stage, this is pretty much done. You do have to let this cool completely before you pack it into jars. Make sure the jars you use are washed with warm, soapy water and completely clean and dry before you store the sambal. This will keep in the fridge for up to 3 months, and longer if you pressure seal/heat seal your jars (but who has the patience for that right?)
And then there’s nothing left to do but enjoy the goodness! As always, your comments and feedback is very welcome.