A Sri Lankan Chicken Curry Grounded in Memory

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 screwed onto the side of a small table in her kitchen at the perfect height for a 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 snowlike flakes.

From there, my aththamma poured warm water over the shredded coconut, kneading and squeezing it by hand to yield a thick, electric-white coconut milk. She would press the shreds a few more times with more water, to extract thinner milk, but that first pressing was gold. That milk was pure and smooth, thick and slightly sweet, with a subtle and clean coconut flavor. It was unlike any coconut milk I’ve ever tasted since.

After that was ready, she’d head to the garden to cut pieces of fresh rampe (also known as pandan) and curry leaves. With those treasures in hand, along with her own special blend of roasted and fresh spices, a few tomatoes and a chicken, she made the tastiest curry I’ve ever had. It was the curry that I asked for on my birthday, the curry that taught me what cooking from scratch really meant, and the dish I’ve wished I could make alongside her since her passing.

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 I could. I toast and grind some of the spices, just as I watched her do years ago. I added lemongrass and a bit of vinegar because Charmaine Solomon does in her terrific “The Complete Asian Cookbook,” and both impart a lovely, necessary brightness. All in all, I think she’d approve of my version.

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 and weeknight sanity. My mother even uses powdered coconut milk.

But 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 until the shell loosens its grip on the meat. Using a vegetable peeler, I remove the last bits of brown shell, then toss all the coconut flesh into a high-speed blender with some water. I then squeeze the pulp through a few pieces of cheesecloth to extract the milk. It’s not simple, but it yields a divine milk worth the effort, perfect for an aromatic curry and so much more.

Recipe: Kukul Mas Maluwa (Sri Lankan Chicken Curry)

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