The fresh coconut milk that made my grandmother’s chicken curry creamy and rich came from the fruit of the tall palms around her house in Sri Lanka. To make it, she first had to scrape out the bright white meat with a coconut grater.
The rusty machine was at the perfect height for 10-year-old me to get involved. I cranked it by hand, making sure to turn the coconut shell often before any of its brown husk fell into the snow-like flakes. From there, my aththamma poured warm water over the shredded coconut, kneading and squeezing it to yield a thick, electric-white coconut milk. That milk was pure and smooth, thick and slightly sweet, with a subtle and clean coconut flavor.
I never managed to write down my grandmother’s recipe while she was alive, but I’ve come up with the closest approximation of her kukul mas maluwa that I could. While using coconut milk in chicken curry isn’t unique to Sri Lanka, it is the ingredient I associate most with our family trips back. I’m happy using canned coconut milk in my chicken curry, in the interest of time.
When I feel like channeling my grandmother, I make it the old way. I don’t have a hand grater, so I start by hammering a coconut into pieces and roasting them lightly in the oven. Using a vegetable peeler, I remove the last bits of brown shell, then toss the coconut flesh into a high-speed blender with some water. It’s not simple, but it yields a divine milk that’s perfect for an aromatic curry.
KUKUL MAS MALUWA (SRI LANKAN CHICKEN CURRY)
Recipe by Samantha Seneviratne
• 4 teaspoons coriander seeds
• 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
• 2 teaspoons fennel seeds
• 1/2 teaspoon cardamom seeds
• 1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
• 20 fresh curry leaves
• 1/4 cup coconut oil
• 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
• 6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
• 3 tablespoons ginger, chopped
• 1 tablespoon sweet paprika
• 2 teaspoons ground turmeric
• 2 teaspoons kosher salt
• 3 medium plum tomatoes, chopped
• 1-3 bird’s-eye chiles, minced
• 1 whole chicken, skin removed, chicken cut into 10 pieces
• 2 pieces pandan leaves
• 1 cinnamon stick
• 1 fresh lemongrass stalk, trimmed, cut into 4-inch lengths, and bashed lightly
• 1 cup full-fat coconut milk
• 2 teaspoons white vinegar
In a small skillet, combine coriander, cumin, fennel, cardamom, peppercorns and 15 curry leaves. Heat the spice mixture over medium heat, stirring often, until the spices are toasted and fragrant, 5-8 minutes. Transfer to a spice grinder and grind into powder. Set aside the toasted curry powder.
In a large pot, heat the coconut oil over medium-high. Add the onion, garlic and ginger, and cook, stirring often, until the onion has softened, about 8 minutes. Add the toasted curry powder, paprika, turmeric and salt, and cook, stirring, another 2-3 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, chiles and remaining 5 curry leaves.
Add the chicken and toss to cover it in the onion mixture. Add the pandan, cinnamon and lemon grass, reduce heat to medium-low, cover and cook, for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the coconut milk and simmer, uncovered and stirring occasionally, until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce has thickened slightly, about 20 minutes more. Add vinegar and season to taste with salt.
Total time: 1 hour, serves 4-6.