The Spice of Life: polos

by Isha Karim (’22) | April 8, 2022

Art by Marisea Fisher (’24)

While spring and summer have us looking to fresh, citrusy dishes, I can’t help but crave a spicy rice-based dish, especially the kind that results in an afternoon nap. Internationally, many tropical regions have perfected this balancing beam of refreshing and filling, from jerk chicken to Ethiopian injera and doro wat. My favorite dish, a perfect accompaniment to any lazy Sunday meal, is ambul polos from Sri Lanka. In Sinhalese, ambul polos means jackfruit curry, specifically young jackfruit. Jackfruit are a tropical tree fruit found extensively in southern India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, and have become quite popular in the West for a plant-based alternative to beef. With a mild taste and heavy texture, jackfruit is commonly known as the “vegetable meat,” oftentimes found in numerous curries and soups across south and Southeast Asia. 

I love to make ambul polos in the spring because it perfectly balances summertime classics: coconut, tomato, and pineapple. While jackfruit is eaten in a variety of stages of ripeness in Sri Lanka, ambul polos calls for young, or unripe, jackfruit. Because this form has a relatively mild taste, the resulting curry remains spicy and rich, rather than sweet. In polos, young jackfruit almost resembles a juicy potato—when you bite into it, it quite literally bursts with flavor while retaining its starchy structure. 

Preparing ambul polos resembles the general structure of making a curry: sauce base, rough chopped vegetable, and garnish. However, what makes ambul polos shine is the pandan leaf and rapeseed oil, which add a distinct Sinhalese flair to the dish. Tempering the spices (mustard seeds, curry leaves, fenugreek, cumin, and coriander seeds) in the rapeseed oil allows for a smoky, spicy fat base for the curry. After the spices were fragrant, I sweated diced red onions in the pan and then toasted garlic, Thai chilis, and ginger. After the onions appeared translucent, I added the jackfruit, cut into medium-sized cubes. For the jackfruit, you can either purchase canned green jackfruit, which is more accessible, or a whole unripe jackfruit. Because a whole jackfruit was too large for my portioning, I used two cans of preserved young jackfruit, first draining the liquid and patting dry before I sautéed them in the pan. Once the jackfruit is almost warmed through, I added some water, a full can of coconut milk, and a quarter cup of fresh pineapple juice. While the traditional ambul polos does not call for pineapple, I found that it added a tropical flavor to the curry. 

Next, I added a spoonful of Kashmiri red chili powder and turmeric to the pan to brighten up the color and raise the spice level. Allowing the curry to simmer away, I roughly chopped the pandan leaves and a whole fresh tomato and stirred them into the sauce. Afterwards, I added salt and black pepper to taste and allowed the curry to simmer once covered. 

Twenty minutes later, I lifted the lid to find the jackfruit and tomato broken down to create a thick, rich sauce. To finish the curry off, I squeezed the juice of one whole lime and garnished with chopped cilantro leaves and stems. 

For such a heavy and spicy curry like ambul polos, I knew the best starch to accompany it was rice. I steamed some jasmine rice, flavored with pandan leaves in the rice cooker, and spooned some out alongside a generous serving of this Sri Lankan curry. Ambul polos is a spicy curry perfect for any lazy, summery Sunday because it’s heavy, filling and just the right amount of spicy to leave you wanting more. For the complete experience, I’d recommend completing this meal with a generous serving of fresh mango and shaved coconut. 

Although ambul polos may seem intimidating and time-consuming, I highly recommend it for anyone looking to broaden their palate and their international cooking repertoire.

Categories: Column, Food

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