Spicy and fully capable of making food connoisseurs swoon at the merest mention of its name, the Jaffna Style Crab Curry is simply a heavenly treat. Originating in the Northern parts of Sri Lanka where there’s an ample supply of Fresh Sea Crab all year-round, this is one dish Sri Lankans say you should be ashamed of for not trying at least once.
As noted on the always-superb blog “Serious Eats”:
“Is it like Indian food?” That’s the first question most people ask about Sri Lankan cuisine—if they know where the tiny island nation is, which is rare. (It’s just southeast of the southern tip of India).
My stock answer? “Sort of.”
There are some common elements, to be sure. But the “rice and curry” spreads that make up most Sri Lankan meals are pretty different from the northern saag paneer or Goan vindaloo at your local lunch buffet. Sri Lankan food offers a vivid array of flavor combinations: sweet caramelized onion relishes, bitter melon, spicy scraped coconut, and the burn of curry tamed by mild rice, and palm sugar sweetened desserts.
Samosas and dhal (lentil curry) look familiar, but upon closer inspection, these, too, have a definitively Sri Lankan spin: these thinner curries tend to be more heavily spiced than many Indian versions, and the cuisine is more inclusive of non-native ingredients, brought by international trade moving through the island.
Sri Lankan food is not for the timid eater: the fiery curries, sweet caramelized onion in seeni sambal (onion relish), and sour lime pickle are all dominant, powerful flavors that startle awake senses dulled by the thick, hot island air. While visitors to the island—or those eating in Sri Lankan restaurants outside the country—may find watered down versions, most Sri Lankan cooking is unapologetically, punch-you-in-the-face, get-the-adrenaline-pumping flavored.
Deep red “Jaffna curry,” usually Tamil-style versions from the northern part of the island, is most often made with goat and with seafood.
I use my own blend of the unique Jaffna curry powder and have made this dish as only TFD can!
Battle on – The Generalissimo
2 x 1.2 kg live mud crabs – in the U.S., try blue crabs
2 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp black peppercorns
½ cup grated fresh coconut
50 g ghee
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 red onion, quartered, sliced
10 curry leaves
3 long green chiles, finely chopped
1 tbsp Jaffna curry powder – recipe below
2 tsp ground chili
¼ tsp ground turmeric
400 ml coconut milk
1 tbsp seedless tamarind purée
1 sprig murunga (drumstick), leaves picked – available from Amazon
½ lime, juiced
steamed rice (optional), to serve
The Hirshon Jaffna Roasted Curry Powder:
¾ cup dried Chile de Arbol, destemmed
1 ¼ cups Coriander seeds
1/3 cup Black Pepper
¼ cup Cumin seeds
1/3 cup Fennel seeds
1/8 cup Fenugreek
2 tsp. Cardamom seeds
1/8 cup Turmeric powder
8 Curry leaves
For the roasted curry powder:
Dry roast in low fire the cumin, fennel seeds, cardamom and fenugreek in a pan and when fennel seeds are golden, remove them and set aside. In the same pan dry roast the rest of the ingredients separately; keep stirring constantly to avoid burning of the ingredients.
When ready, grind all the ingredients to a fine powder, keep tightly closed and use within 6 months.
To prepare the crabs, place them in the freezer for 2 hours to put them into a stupor.
Place each crab on its back with the eyes facing you, then drive a thick skewer or the point of a sharp knife between the eyes and into the centre of the crab. Break off tail flaps on the underside and discard. Carefully pull off back shells and reserve. Cut each crab in half lengthwise, then remove the “dead man’s fingers” (soft gills) and discard. Rinse and discard the stomach sac. Cut each crab half into three. Leave the large claws attached, but crack them with the heel of a knife.
Place cumin seeds and peppercorns in a large frying pan over high heat. Cook for 2 minutes or until toasted. Transfer to a mortar, wipe pan clean with paper towel and return pan to high heat. Add grated coconut and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes or until golden, then add to cumin seed mixture with 1 tbsp water. Grind to a smooth paste with a pestle and set aside. Alternatively, process in a small food processor to a paste.
Heat ghee in a large, heavy-based saucepan over high heat, add mustard seeds and cook for 30 seconds or until seeds pop. Add fennel seeds and cook for a further minute or until fennel seeds start to brown. Add onion, curry leaves and green chili, and cook for 4 minutes or until onion is browned. Add curry powder, ground chili and turmeric, and stir to combine. Add crab and reserved crab shells, and cook, stirring constantly so the spices don’t burn, for 3 minutes or until crab starts to change color.
Combine spiced coconut paste, coconut milk, tamarind purée and 500 ml (2 cups) water in a bowl. Add to crab mixture and bring to the boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer, tossing crab halfway, for 12 minutes or until crab is just cooked. Increase heat to medium, remove lid and simmer for 4 minutes or until liquid is slightly thickened. Season with salt and stir in murunga leaves and lime juice.
Divide crab among bowls and spoon over some curry sauce. Serve with rice, if desired, and remaining curry sauce.