This Sri Lankan curry puts cashews in a new light: a starring role

Cashew curry

Active time:20 minutes

Total time:45 minutes

Servings:4 to 6

Active time:20 minutes

Total time:45 minutes

Servings:4 to 6

Chef O Tama Carey was recently serving dishes at her Sydney restaurant when a customer asked her a simple question: “What’s in the cashew curry?”

“And I said, ‘Cashews. It’s a cashew curry.” And they said, ‘But what else?’ And I said, ‘Cashews. Because it’s a cashew curry.’”

Carey spoke to me on a Zoom call on an off night at this acclaimed restaurant, the Lankan Filling Station, and explained some of the differences between Sri Lankan food and other cuisines. “In other curries, especially Thai food, you might get a lot of other things with a cashew curry as well. But in many Sri Lankan dishes, the main ingredient is exactly what it is.”

As someone who adores cashews but is used to seeing them in plant-based cooking as ingredients for a dairy-free puree to enhance flavor, I could imagine myself being that diner asking those very questions. And I also know that once this dish found its way to my table, I would be as dizzy with excitement as I was when I made it at home.

In Carey’s beautiful new book, Lanka Food, she explains and demystifies the cuisine she learned from her Sri Lankan mother’s family and provides a fascinating overview of the island’s influences, including Dutch, Portuguese and English colonisers, as well as Arabic, Malay and Chinese traders.

As a predominantly Buddhist nation, Sri Lanka offers a wonderful variety of vegetarian cuisine, so of course this was my own way of beginning to understand the cuisine. This cashew curry recipe, which she calls “distinctly Sri Lankan,” is almost a lesson in itself.

First, there are these cashews, which are not a nut at all, but technically a fruit; they are the drupe seeds that stretch beneath the apple of the cashew tree. In Sri Lankan markets, she says, it’s common to see not only the apple, the texture of which she compares to an Asian pear, but also the fresh cashews, which are juicier and plumper than anything we can get in the States. (In processing, cashews are typically steamed to help break up their shell and must be handled carefully to avoid a toxic substance that can burn the hands of harvesters and processors. For this and other reasons, advocates of farmers and Workers before consumers of imported cashews are looking for fair trade companies.)

Carey’s recipe calls for soaking the cashews first, which helps bring back some of that richness and softer texture to the dish, which also relies heavily on another key Sri Lankan ingredient: coconut cream. On the island, coconuts are typically pressed multiple times, each pressing resulting in a less rich product, and this is one of those dishes made with the first press. Off the island, Carey compensates for the lack of ubiquitous coconut trees by starting with a canned coconut cream and adding varying amounts of water for different uses.

The third element of this dish, which exemplifies Sri Lankan cuisine, is the use of herbs and spices: fresh curry leaves, cumin and ground turmeric, along with a curry powder containing these and a few other spices. In many ways, particularly the complex layering of spices and flavors, it reminded me of an Indian paneer curry I made a few months ago. But it also tastes different: lighter, with a welcome note of lime juice.

Which brings me to Carey’s bigger point about her heritage’s cuisine. When I asked her at the beginning of our conversation what she thinks is the most common misconception about it, she was immediately enthusiastic: that it is Indian food.

“There’s just so much more,” she said. And after making this dish, I can see – and taste – what she means.

To make this recipe faster, first soak cashew nuts in boiling water, then prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Active time: 20 minutes; Total time: 45 minutes

Get ahead: The cashew nuts must be soaked for 20 minutes before preparing the curry.

Storage Notes: Store leftovers in the fridge for up to 4 days.

Where to buy: Curry Leaves and Pandan Leaves are available at Asian stores.

REMARKS: To make your own Sri Lankan-style white curry powder for this dish, toast 6 curry leaves in a pan over medium-high heat for a few minutes, cool and blend in a special spice grinder with 2 tablespoons coriander seeds, 1 tablespoon fennel seeds, and each 2 teaspoons black cumin seeds, cumin seeds and turmeric powder. Grind to a fine powder. You should have about 2 tablespoons.

If you can’t find coconut cream easily, substitute an equal amount of full-fat coconut milk and reduce the amount of water to 1/2 cup.

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  • 3 cups boiling water, plus more as needed
  • 14 ounces raw cashews
  • 2 tablespoons coconut oil
  • 1/4 cup lightly packed curry leaves
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 2 medium yellow onions (14 ounces total), thinly sliced
  • 5 garlic cloves, finely grated or pressed
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger (from a 3 inch piece)
  • 1 long green chilli, destalked and finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons curry powder (see NOTES)
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine salt, plus more to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • One (13.5 ounce) can or three (5.4 ounce) cans of unsweetened coconut cream (see NOTES)
  • One (3-inch) cinnamon stick
  • Two (2-inch) pieces of pandan leaf (optional)
  • 1 cup of water
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice to taste
  • Boiled rice for serving

In a large heatproof bowl, pour the boiling water over the cashews; They should be covered at least 1 inch. Soak for 20 minutes, then drain.

In a deep pan over medium heat, melt the coconut oil. Add the curry leaves and cumin and cook, stirring, until the curry leaves are fried and the seeds are aromatic, about 1 minute.

Add the onion, garlic, ginger, and chili and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion begins to soften, 4 to 6 minutes. Add the curry powder, turmeric, salt and pepper and cook, stirring, until the spices are very aromatic and stick to the bottom of the pan, about 1 minute.

Add the cashews and stir to coat well, then add the coconut cream, cinnamon, pandan leaf if using, and water. Increase heat to bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low so mixture is gently simmering and cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce is reduced and thickened, 18 to 20 minutes.

Stir in 1 tablespoon lime juice. Taste and season with more salt, pepper and/or lime juice as needed. Serve hot with rice.

Per serving (1 cup), based on 6

Calories: 563; total fat: 47 g; Saturated fat: 22 g; cholesterol: 0 mg; sodium: 230 mg; carbohydrates: 26 g; fiber: 4 g; sugar: 6 g; Protein: 13 g

This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not replace the advice of a nutritionist or nutritionist.

Adapted from “Lanka Food” by O Tama Carey (Hardie Grant, 2022).

Tested by Joe Yonan and Olga Massov; email questions

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Chris Estrada

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