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Sri Lankan Recipe : Onion Sambol (Seeni Sambol)


  • 4 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 sprig curry leaf, remove stalk
  • 1 pandan leaf, split lengthwise and cut into 5cm segments
  • 1 lemongrass, crushed
  • 1 small cinnamon stick
  • 3 cloves
  • 2 cardamoms, crushed
  • 500g big onions, quartered and sliced
  • 2-3 tsp fine chilli flakes
  • 30g Maldive fish, crushed finely
  • 5g (size of small lime) tamarind paste, mixed with 8 tbsp water
  • 1 tsp sugar, or to taste
  • ½ tsp salt, or to taste


  1. Heat oil in a pan over a medium flame. Saute the curry leaf, pandan leaf, lemongrass, cinnamon stick, clove and cardamom until fragrant.
  2. Add the onion and fry for about 20 minutes over a medium-low fire, stirring continuously, until dark brown and caramelized.
  3. When onion is brown, add the chilli flakes and Maldive fish.
  4. Add the tamarind mixture and simmer for 2 more minutes before seasoning to taste with salt and sugar. You should achieve a pasty consistency similar to the color of tamarind paste. Serve as condiment.

Maldive fish is bonito, or sometimes tuna, that has been dried so hard in the hot sun that it needs no salting. It is often sold in pieces and needs to be ground before use in most of the Sri Lankan recipes. You can grate Maldive fish using a fine cheese grater, but pounding it in the mortar and pestle is not very effective, a rolling grinding motion works better. You can replace Maldive fish with dried bonito flakes, lightly fried soaked and drained dried prawns or any dried, unsalted fish, or even meat floss. The taste is quite mild and only slightly fishy.

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Last Modified: 11/28/11.