The Spice of Life: kukul mas maluwa

by Isha Karim (’22) | May 10, 2021

Despite May setting in, a chill seems to have descended upon us. For me, at least, that means an unexpected onset of cooler temperatures and the looming close to the semester, both of which require immediate attention, preferably in the form of warm, starchy dishes. In my quest to fulfill that craving, I stumbled on a popular Sri Lankan dish: kukul mas maluwa, a coconut-based chicken curry typically eaten with rice or a thick slice of bread. Before setting out on this recipe, however, I made a quick fix for myself: to make a no-chicken Sri Lankan chicken dish. This chicken curry sans chicken challenged me even before I looked over the recipe itself. 

The recipe for kukul mas maluwa is fairly straightforward; the process of assembling ingredients and the basic philosophy behind the preparation reflects how, perhaps, a simple coconut curry is made. First comes the task of tempering the spices—in a hot pan, first sauté fenugreek and curry leaves together and add minced garlic and red onion. Once the onion is translucent and golden, stir in turmeric, chili, coriander, cumin, fennel, paprika, salt, and vinegar. The introduction of vinegar in this curry was surprising, given its scarcity in many South Asian curry dishes.  

Next came the daunting challenge of selecting a suitable vegetarian substitute. While paneer has been a common vegetarian replacement in many South Asian dishes, its rich, cheese-like texture did not work with the tropical profile of the kukul mas maluwa. Instead, I leaned into the tropical roots of this Sri Lankan favorite and chose jackfruit as my vegetarian spin on the dish. The pull-apart texture of jackfruit, along with its relatively neutral flavor profile, worked well as a vegetarian option in this case. Just as the traditional recipe calls for, I immediately introduced my canned jackfruit with my sautéed onions and garlic and stirred over medium heat until the jackfruit was coated with the spices.

To begin the base of the curry itself, I added two puréed Roma tomatoes into the jackfruit mixture with whole spices and lemongrass. In order to let the jackfruit absorb the spices and the tomato purée, I covered and left the mixture on low heat for roughly an hour. In the meantime, I concentrated my efforts on what I consider the most stellar flavor point of kukul mas maluwa: the coconut. While coconut is used in many cuisines in a variety of ways, I absolutely adore coconut curries for the freshness it leaves on the palate, almost similar to a squeeze of lemon. In Sri Lanka, fresh coconut milk is extracted from grating the coconut and straining warm water over it. As someone with little access to coconuts in general, I made do with canned coconut milk from my local grocer. You can equip yourself with a can opener (or, in my case, a sharp knife and confident plunge did the job) and pour its milky white contents into your simmering tomato-jackfruit mixture. At this point, I did a quick taste test and adjusted the spiciness and salt levels to my liking. A note: make sure you do not cover after you’ve added the coconut milk and work quickly before removing the curry from heat. 

To finish off this dish, I served my vegetarian kukul mas maluwa with steamed mint rice and a generous serving of wedged lemons. What’s truly remarkable about kukul mas maluwa is the unexpected nostalgia for moments I’ve never experienced, reminiscent of rainy days on a tropical island. It’s not simple and certainly not quick to prepare, but the resulting aromatic curry before you is sure to fit a perfectly lazy Sunday lunch.

Categories: Column, Food

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