It’s ubiquitous, delicious and has as many permutations as there are Sri Lankans. I think I can say without challenge that it is one of the dishes that defines Sri Lankan cuisine. It’s certainly one that is a taste memory as evocative for expatriate Sri Lankans as Vegemite is to expatriate Australians, a buttery croissant is to expatriate French and a MacDonald’s hamburger is to States-siders.
Pol sambol is usually a go-with as are all sambols, but as a kid a favourite way to eat it was as a topping on a slice of bread and butter.
So, what makes a pol sambol?
The oldest codified recipe I have found for it is in Hilda Deutrom’s classic 1929 Ceylon Daily News Cookery Book, though she calls it Goda Sambol.
½ a coconut (scraped) 1 tablespoonful sliced red onions
10 dry chillies juice of one lime
1 dessertspoonful Maldive fish salt
Pound together the chillies, Maldive fish, onions, and salt, then add the coconut and pound lightly. Moisten with the lime juice and mix well together.
N.B. – Instead of being pounded, the ingredients may be lightly ground.
I’ve eaten many a pol sambol in my 60plus years and I have strayed from this recipe in ways that Deutrom may not approve. But as I said in the intro to this, pol sambol is a dish that encourages and, indeed, invites variation. I asked Sri Lankan Facebook friends how they made theirs, wondering what everyone saw as the non-negotiables and how widely they ranged. All agree that if you don’t have grated coconut (derr!), dried chili (double derr!!), lime, onions and salt, you are not even in the square outside of which to think .
Unstated is that the coconut is freshly grated, though one person did say that their mother used rehydrated desiccated. I conducted an experiment and can report that this will give you quite an inferior sambol; it can’t quite escape the powderiness of its desiccation nor has it the light oiliness of fresh grated. Using frozen freshly grated coconut on the other hand I found quite acceptable if you are not in the happy position of having a coconut palm in your backyard or be within easy distance of a specialist Asian grocer who has a reliable source of reasonably recently plucked coconuts or happen to be in an area where the big generalist grocers have cottoned on to the changing demographic of their customers and has started stocking coconuts.
On the chili front, there is variation as to whether they need to be fresh or dried or both. I confess that I am not above using chili powder, which gives the sambol a more orange colour which is pleasing. Some also use both red and green chilies, with the latter either ground along with the red or sliced fine and tossed through when the basic paste is made.
The type of onion again usually goes unstated, but were it being made in Sri Lanka, it would most likely be the fingernail sized red onions. These are very hard to source in Australia but what are now being sold as shallot onions are a good alternative, and your average brown onion will also do.
Were you making the sambol in Sri Lanka there is a high probability you would be using sea salt, but any table salt will do. Lime juice preferably fresh, but if not, then a good quality pre-juiced is fine. Lemon doesn’t work: lime juice generally is more acidic and it’s what you want in this dish.
Now, about the Maldive fish. As far as I can discover, this is something particular to Sri Lankan, Maldivian and Tamil food. It’s tuna – skipjack, yellow fin, little tunny – that’s been skinned, eviscerated cut into lengths, then boiled, smoked and dried till it is as hard as a piece of wood and looks not dissimilar. In Sri Lanka you can buy it in large ‘fillets’, but it is most often sold as small chips, like wood splinters, which have to be pounded further before being added to a dish. The intensity of its fishiness and its strong odour can put people off. It has the kind of depth of flavour of dried prawns or shrimp which can be substituted in the sambol. Also, it can be left out if you are averse to dry seafood of any kind, or are a non-piscatarian vegetarian or, of course, a vegan.
Form here, you can add what takes your fancy but you will drift further and further away from the essence of the sambol. Some of my correspondents add garlic and/or ginger and said in their family this was then called Lansi sambol, where Lansi apparently means Burgher which is interesting as it suggests it is seen as not authentically Sinhalese but an adaptation by Dutch/Portuguese. Some add curry leaves, one suggested adding a little sugar, another adds a little pineapple, another adds lime pickle. One added Marmite, a distinctly British brown salty paste that is a yeast by-product of beer making, on the suggestion of a tradie doing work on her premises and says it worked well.
What makes this simple combination of ingredients so tasty? First and foremost is its umami base, the ‘fifth’ taste, usually described as mildly meaty or just savoury. Coconut, chillies, Maldive fish and onion are all umami. This contrasts with the sharpness of the salt and the bitterness of the lime.
Then there’s the heady aroma released throughout the process, intensifying as the ingredients are pounded to release their odorants - the menthol of the coconut, the aldehydes in the lime, the intensely ammoniac scent of dried fish.
The mouthfeel, too, is part of its attraction. As I said above, Deutrom calls the dish goda sambol. This indicates that she intends the dish to be made on a miris galla (literally a chili stone), a combination of a large flat stone and a cylindrical stone grindstone. Grinding releases the water in the onion and adding salt extracts more. Combining this with the powder formed from pounding the Maldive fish and dry chillies forms a paste. The grated coconut is fibrous and also a little oily (you can feel this with your fingers, just the hint of viscousness). It’s a combination of wet, rough, smooth, oily that gets your tongue sending exciting complicated messages to your brain about the shapes, textures and feel of the sambol.
When the astringency of onion and the burn from the chili hits the pain receptors of your tongue, it’s like firecrackers exploding in the finale of the sensory fiesta that is a pol sambol.
My thanks to the following for sharing their pol sambol secretes with me: Anne-Marie Scharenguivel Kellar, Suzanne Therese Paiva, Natalie Punchihewa, Trudy Kern, Honorine Misso-Ludwick, Hugh Karunanayake.