Monday, June 6, 2011

Meatless Monday - Sri Lankan Lentils

I met my dear friend Migi over twenty years ago shortly after she arrived in California from Sri Lanka.  Migi is a skilled and generous cook and such a loving friend.  She was one of the hardest people to leave when we moved across the country.  

Our husbands met first and Keith invited us over for lunch one afternoon before Migi moved to the US. He cooked an amazing Sri Lankan spread.  I’d never had a meal quite like it and although the heat of the chilies just about did me in I was hooked.  The complex flavors of the spice mixtures, the creamy curries, the variety in each meal - it was so unlike anything I’d had before. 

We met Migi shortly thereafter and we instantly became friends.  Migi cooked nearly everything from scratch with whole food ingredients.  Sadly that was new to me at the time. I learned a lot watching her but still didn't quite get the whole lesson - it would be many years and a few health issues before I finally got it.  Her cashew curry was one she often made and is still my favorite comfort food.  The cashews are soaked for several hours prior to cooking and simmer in a coconut milk based curry – a flavorful curry but not too hot and if I could eat only one meal for the rest of my life I would be content with a bowl of basmati rice with cashew curry spooned over the top.

Sri Lankan cooking is similar to Indian but somehow lighter than most Indian food I’m familiar with. Because Sri Lankan cooking is influenced by Europeans, Indians, Arabs and others there is a wonderful mix and variety of flavors and styles.  The curries can be mild and flavorful to knock your socks off scorching.  A pot of basmati rice surrounded by chicken curry, cashew curry, lentils, curried veggies and a simple cucumber and tomato salad is a classic Migi meal.

Keith and Migi know how to entertain and their parties were relaxed afternoons full of friends and special food.  If we were very lucky she made Lampries – an entire meal of rice, Dutch meatballs, Sri Lankan curry and spicy sambols wrapped in banana leaves and steamed.  The package is opened on your plate and traditionally eaten with fingers – we did not have the dexterity and grace to manage that and used forks instead.   

What I’ve come to appreciate these last few years about Sri Lankan food is that much of it is naturally gluten free. Several years ago Migi gave me the most beautiful cookbook.  It’s The Complete Asian Cookbook by Charmaine Solomon.  Ms. Solomon is from Sri Lanka and has lived all over Asia and has chapters on India, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, China and more.  She explains ingredients and techniques clearly as well as customs and typical meals.  It’s a wonderful book for anyone who loves any type of Asian cooking.  A bottle of gluten free soy sauce will make most of the book workable without other substitutions.

I count Migi as my Sri Lankan sister and am blessed she feels the same. When I miss her – and I often do – I tend to make lentils and rice.  Fast, easy and comforting.  Well, fast and easy because I’ve altered the recipe for weekdays.   Her version calls for lots of fresh garlic, ginger, curry leaves and other spices – this version comes together in minutes with ground powdered spices.  The spices are forgiving you really can't go wrong – add more or less heat as you prefer.

Easy Sri Lankan Lentils

In medium large saucepan over medium heat saute:

1 Cup Onion, chopped
2 Tablespoons Coconut Oil

When softened, add:

1 teaspoon Tumeric
1 teaspoon Ginger
½ teaspoon Garlic
½ teaspoon Curry Powder
½ teaspoon Salt
¼ - ½ teaspoon Cayenne Pepper
¼ teaspoon Black Pepper

Sauté until the spices are all mixed into the onions and be careful not to burn. Everything will be golden and the aroma will be wonderful.  


1 15 – 16 ounce can Coconut Milk
1 cup Water
1 cup Red Lentils (which are really orange) that have been sorted and rinsed and drained.

Simmer together for approximately 30 minutes.  Depending on your lentils you may need to add a bit more water – add about ¼ cup at a time.  

While the lentils are simmering I like to do something Migi taught me.  I sauté a cup of sliced onions in a little coconut oil until they’re really soft and just starting to turn brown and then add a half teaspoon or so of  black mustard seeds.  Give them just a minute in the pan and put a spoonful of the mixture over each serving of lentils.  They give the lentils another layer of yummy flavor.   

Serve with rice and sautéed vegetables of your choice for a healthy and flavorful meal.  We had kale from our garden with peppers and zucchini although I usually serve green beans with lentils because Migi usually does, too.


Anonymous said...

this looks amazing!
do you think ev/liv could do the sauce????
(not make it)
(eat it)
xoxo. gab

chacha said...

Dearest Anonymous,

We can always try. I'd make it more mild for the wee ones. It's your hubby I would be most concerned about!


Anonymous said...

Posts like this make me wish I could spend time in your kitchen and see how you do this with my own eyes. Your blog is the next best thing, of course! Thanks for sharing your recipes and fond memories of the special people that go with them.

chacha said...

Well if you're ever in the area you are more than welcome to come hang out in my kitchen! I truly appreciate your sweet comments.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to have to come back to this recipe next year when we're studying the Eastern Hemisphere! I think I could do it...

chacha said...

You absolutely can do this one. I've got lots of others so let me know if I can help you plan a menu. =D

leah said...

Almost exactly one year later, I finally made this. It took that long to find where to buy red lentils! My hubby and kids were skeptical but ended up liking it very much. While I loved it as is, I had a couple of requests to turn down the heat. Any tips on how to do that?

chacha said...

I'd start by cutting out the cayenne completely. You might want to cut back on the ginger just a bit, too, as it can add some heat.

leah said...

I'll try that next time, thanks!