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Today I want to share with you J and I’s favourite new recipe for 2023: Sri Lankan Yellow Rice. After we had a fantastic meal at Hoppers Soho after a theatre visit in the autumn where we were introduced to Sri Lankan food I was given the restaurant cookbook (ad) for Christmas, and I’ve since been teaching myself the joys of cinnamon, curry leaf and coconut-heavy Sri Lankan cuisine at home.
I’ve made and loved the brilliant yet unusual cucumber and pineapple curries from the book which have boosted up my veggie side dish arsenal, and I’ve mastered the art of roasting and grinding my own whole spices to make roasted and unroasted Sri Lankan curry powders, but whilst we don’t yet have a meat curry we want to add to our regular rotation, from the very first bite we knew that Sri Lankan Yellow Rice was going to become a favourite.
Heavy with cinnamon, turmeric, cloves and cardamom, cooked in butter and finished with coconut milk before being topped with crispy crunchy fried red onions, whole cashews, sweet sultanas and fresh curry leaves it is a beautiful, celebratory dish that is always our favourite thing on the table. Make it to go along any Sri Lankan-inspired dish, and if you don’t have a favourite yet, a good cinnamon-heavy dhal would be the perfect partner instead, or a mild Indian curry like a pasanda.
I’ve changed the recipe up a little bit, mainly to scale it down to serve just the two of us (but you can easily double it up again to serve four) and to go heavier on the addictive topping which I think makes this rice so special, but it really is one of those recipes that once you’ve mastered it you can make little changes to depending on what you happen to have on hand; I’ve started to make it a little differently every time.
Frequently Asked Questions
Where can I buy fresh curry leaves? Can I use dry instead?
I’d not recommend using dried curry leaves here but fresh are surprisingly easy to come by; find them in the fresh herbs section in Sainsbury’s. If you’re not planning on using them all at once, freeze them and use them straight from the freezer as fresh. If you’re based in London I usually buy them at Raya Grocery in Borough Market, and in Kent they often have them at Macknade in Faversham.
I love the flavour they add to the rice, but if you can’t find them you can always leave them out.
Where can I find fresh pandan leaves?
These are much harder to get hold of. I’ve included it in the recipe as it gives the rice it’s authentic perfume, but feel free to just leave them out, I’ve made the rice without pandan plenty of times and you will only miss it if you’ve made it both ways – and it is just as delicious. I buy pandan leaves in big packets from Chinatown where it is in demand to flavour Thai desserts, and cut them into small lengths before freezing them and using them as I would the frozen curry leaves.
Can I substitute white or brown onion instead?
You can in a pinch, but red onions are best here for both colour as well as sweetness. The best substitute would be banana shallot.
Can I make this recipe vegan / dairy free?
It will amp up the coconut flavour of this rice, but you can always substitute the butter or ghee with coconut oil – which is common in Sri Lankan cooking – if you don’t have a favourite dairy free alternative already to hand.
Can I use different nuts in this recipe instead?
I’ve successfully made this rice topped with flaked almonds instead which would be great in a pinch, but the cashew version really does taste better!
This traditional recipe for Sri Lankan Yellow Rice is infused with turmeric, cinnamon and cardamom before being finished with coconut milk and a crunchy onion, cashew and sultana topping for a show-stopping rice dish that is sure to steal the show from everything else on the table.
For the Yellow Rice
100g (3.5 oz) white basmati rice
large knob unsalted butter or 1 tbsp of ghee
1/2 cinnamon stick
3 green cardamom pods
2 whole cloves
5cm (2 inch) piece pandan leaf (optional)
1/4 tsp flaky sea salt
1/8 tsp ground turmeric
2 tbsp coconut milk
For the Garnish
2 tbsp light oil
handful cashew nuts
10 fresh curry leaves (optional)
1/2 small red onion
handful dried sultanas (yellow raisins)
Rinse the rice in a sieve under the cold tap until the water comes through it almost clear; it will never be 100% but you’ll know when you’ve washed it enough.
In a small lidded saucepan set over a medium heat, add the butter and ghee. Once it is melted and starting to froth, in the case of the butter, or shimmer, in the case of the ghee, add the cinnamon stick, the cardamom pods, lightly bashed, the cloves and the piece of pandan leaf, if using. Cook for a minute or two, until aromatic.
Stir in the rice along with the salt and the turmeric, stirring until the rice is well coated in the butter mixture.
Add 225ml of cold water (just scant of a cup) and bring the pan to the boil. Allow the rice to boil away until the water has just reached the level of the rice. Then, reduce the heat to low and continue to cook for 8 minutes with the lid on. Remove from the heat and allow to rest, with the lid still on for a further 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the garnish. Heat the oil in a small saucepan over a medium high heat. Fry the cashews until they’re golden and toasted. Add the fresh curry leaves. They’ll start to sputter and crisp very quickly; almost instantly transfer everything in the pan to a bowl with a slotted spoon.
Reduce the heat to medium and add the onion, finely sliced to the remaining oil and cook until soft and golden. Stir in the sultanas, and once these are plump and starting to caramelise so very little, again using the slotted spoon add this mixture to the waiting bowl.
Remove the lid from the rice and remove the aromatics which should have worked their way to the surface. Return the rice pan to a medium heat and carefully fold in the coconut, making sure to not mush up the rice, but to make sure that it is heated through.
Serve in a warmed serving dish scattered with the fried garnish.
I’ve included fresh pandan leaf in the recipe as it gives the rice it’s authentic perfume, but feel free to just leave them out, I’ve made the rice without pandan plenty of times and you will only miss it if you’ve made it both ways – and it is just as delicious. I buy pandan leaves in big packets from Chinatown where it is in demand to flavour Thai desserts, and cut them into small lengths before freezing them and using them straight from the freezer as I would fresh.
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