March 9, 2008

Seeni Sambol - a Caramelized Onion Side

Seeni sambol is a caramelized onion relish from Sri Lanka. It is used both as a condiment and as a side dish. The traditional accompaniment to this is a thin flat bread called Rotti, but it can be served with any store bought bread of your choice for a light lunch or a snack. Seeni means sugar in Tamil and sambol is the generic term for a spicy condiment. This dish is mildly sweet from the sugar, but has a good deal of heat from the chilli powder and spices.

There are two specialty ingredients in this recipe. Although both are optional, one of them is definitely worth a try. The first is Pandanus or Screwpine leaves (called Rampe in Sri Lanka). This leaf is used a lot in Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian sweet and savory dishes. It has a strong aroma - very reminiscent of fragrant Basmati and Jasmine rice. Cook once with it and it becomes obvious why it is added to the pot of cooking rice in these regions. It certainly changes my mood - I want to use it just to smell that amazing aroma in my home. It's most definitely worth a try just for that! I didn't know that the flowers of the screwpine are used to make Kewra water, a fragrant water used most frequently in desserts in India. The leaves are available frozen and sometimes fresh in Asian grocery stores.

The other specialty ingredient is a dried tuna fish - called Maldive fish. My guess is it lends a certain roundness to the dish.

Although umami is only a bit player in Japanese cuisine, reams of breathless prose have been produced here on this elusive fifth taste, which is supposedly linked to the profoundly pure, deep-sea flavors of kelp and dried tuna. (Source)
The strong fishy smell deterred me from using more than a minuscule amount, but I believe most of its fishiness cooks away when treated properly (like anchovies). Vegetarian can omit it completely. Good substitutes would be fish sauce or dried shrimp paste.

The trick to caramelized onions in any recipe, not just this one, seems to be to start them in a hot heavy bottomed skillet with a generous pinch of salt to get them going. After the onions start to turn color, turn the heat to medium low and cover partially to retain moisture if need. The onions should be plump and juicy when done, so we don't want too much moisture loss in the cooking process. When done, deglaze the bottom of the pan with a few teaspoons of water to get the good stuff off the bottom of the pan.

Seeni Sambol
3 large red onions peeled and sliced into half moons
1 tbs maldive Fish

1 inch ginger root, crushed

2-4 cloves garlic, crushed

1-2 tbs crushed red chilies

3 cardamoms

4 cloves

1 small sprig curry leaves

1-2 pieces pandan leaves (optional)

1 piece lemongrass, cracked well with the back of the knife(optional)
1 piece cinnamon
Salt to taste

1 tsp tamarind paste

1 tbs brown sugar

2 tbs vegetable oil

1. Mix the first 12 ingredients well.
2. Heat the oil in a cast iron skillet and add the mixed onions. Stir occasionally.
3. When the onions start turning color, turn down the heat. Keep stirring occasionally. Cover the skillet if need. 4. When the onions are almost caramelized, add the tamarind paste and brown sugar and cook until the tamarind is no longer raw.
5. Taste and adjust salt if required.


Mansi Desai said...

caramelizing onions without burning them is tricky, but seems like you nailed it:)

Dhivya said...

looks yum..nice presentation too

ServesYouRight said...

OMG - caramelized onions are so yum and quite versatile no? Very nice capture.


Cynthia said...

This is a gourmet caramelized onions. Ummmm, I can just imagine how good they are.

Anonymous said...

It definitely tasted like the real thing at its best - and I am a Srilankan!


Anonymous said...

Sun Mountain Lodge near Winthrop, WA, gave me the recipe for their fabulous Chicken Curry Soup. It calls for 1 t. of sambol. Even after reading your article about Seeni Sambol, I have no idea what they mean by 1 t. of sambol.
Could you please explain?
Thank you!

Minti said...

Hi Bill,

Apologies for the delay. I think they meant 1 teaspoon of sambol. A shorhand typically used in t for teaspoons(5ml) and T for tablespoons (15ml). I know you can buy this sambol ready made in bottles. A good brand is MD.

Anonymous said...

Actually "seeni" means "sugar" in Sinhala. This is a Sinhalese dish. Other Sinhalese relishes include

Katta Sambol
Pol Sambol
Lunu Miris

Magdalene said...

This is great info to know.

Amanda said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amanda said...

I just made it. It didn't come out just as the picture, but the taste is amazing. Thanks.

nuwanpb said...

I have tried it and e ws Fantastic, Thx for the recipe !!