Annabel Crabb’s Sri Lankan butternut and cashew curry recipe

Butternut and cashew curry – Annabel Crabb’s take on Sri Lankan street food.

Spice up summer entertaining with a rich curry served with a traditional sambol

This dish is the product of Wendy’s patient, repeated attempts to get into a particularly popular London restaurant specialising in Sri Lankan street food; you know, one of those places that is totally relaxed and laid-back, apart from the fact that you’ve got to wait three hours before even getting in.

Anyway, her persistence is our gain here, as it got Wendy thinking about the delicious salad-cum-side dishes called sambols that are a vital part of virtually every Sri Lankan meal.

There seem to be as many recipes for sambol as there are Sri Lankan kitchens, but at its essence it is a simple mix of coconut and/or vegetables with a hint of lime and, sometimes, dried fish. This modest recreation of a sambol is pretty to look at and is the perfect foil for a rich, spicy butternut and cashew curry.

Sri Lankan butternut and cashew curry with beetroot sambol

serves 6

1 butternut pumpkin (squash), peeled and cut into wedges
vegetable oil, for roasting and frying
10 curry leaves
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp fennel seeds
8 cloves
8 cardamom pods
1 cinnamon stick
2 red onions, finely chopped
2 tsp ground turmeric
8 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
20g ginger, finely chopped
1 green chilli, some seeds removed, thinly sliced
1 x 400g tin of coconut milk
Tiny dash of tamarind paste
Squeeze of lime juice – optional
170g unsalted raw cashews
4–5 tbsp finely chopped coriander
Steamed rice, to serve

Preheat the oven to 200C.

Lightly coat the pumpkin wedges with oil, sprinkle with salt and roast for about 25 minutes. (This step can be done a day in advance and the pumpkin kept refrigerated.)

Heat a glug of oil in a wok or large frying pan over medium heat and add the curry leaves, mustard seeds, cumin seeds and fennel seeds. When they start popping, add the cloves, cardamom pods, cinnamon stick, onions and turmeric. Keep stirring – and turn down the heat if the spices are in danger of burning and becoming bitter. Next add the garlic, ginger and chilli, again keeping it on the move to avoid burning and sticking.

Now stir in the coconut milk and tamarind paste and simmer for a couple of minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning with lime juice and salt if needed, keeping in mind that Sri Lankan curries typically celebrate the woody flavours of clove and fennel rather than the zing of citrus.

When you are more or less happy with the flavour, add the pumpkin and cashews and gently heat through. (Roasting the pumpkin and adding it to the curry at the last minute helps it to hold its shape, rather than dissolving into a puddle of glorious orange.)

Beetroot sambol

30g desiccated coconut
3 small cooked beetroot, cut into matchsticks
1 lime
1 handful of kale, well washed and any tough stalks removed
½ tsp fish sauce – optional

About half an hour before you want to serve, make the sambol. Soak the desiccated coconut in water for about 10 minutes, then drain off the excess liquid. Add the beetroot and the finely grated zest of the lime, plus the juice of half the lime, a pinch of salt and a good grind of pepper.

Scrunch up the kale in your hands to tenderise it, then cover with boiling water and leave for a few minutes until just wilted. Drain, rinse under cold running water, then tear up and add to the beetroot and coconut. Just before serving, stir the fish sauce into the sambol, if using.

When you are ready to eat, scatter the coriander over the curry and serve with the sambol and plenty of steamed rice.

Even easier: Given how many good pre-made curry pastes and spice mixes there are, may I suggest you eschew the carefully constructed list of spices here and buy yourself a high-end Sri Lankan curry paste instead? Perk up your bought paste with a few cardamom pods, maybe some extra garlic and ginger – and some curry leaves, if you have a stash in the freezer – then sink your energies into making a really cracking sambol.

Make it vegan: Opt out of the fish sauce in the sambol.

  • This is an edited extract from Special Guest, by Annabel Crabb and Wendy Sharpe (Murdoch Books, $39.99). Next week, passionfruit curd meringue cake