Sri Lankan Chicken Curry

Cast iron skillet of chicken curry surrounded by spices and aromatics.

Since falling in love with Sri Lankan flavours and cooking, I’ve been seeking the perfect recipe for a Sri Lankan Chicken Curry. And, with a few of my own tweaks I’ve finally found it! With tender, flavourful chicken thighs and a rich, coconut milk-spiked spiced gravy it is one of our favourite Saturday night treats at the moment, served at the table for everyone to help themselves and a big pile of aromatic, turmeric-infused rice.

I love seeing how a relatively dry muddle of slow cooked onions and spices is transformed by tomatoes and the cooking juices from the chicken is transformed in the pot – without any stock or water – into a thick, rich, condensed gravy, with coconut milk and fresh lime juice added at the end for richness, mouthfeel and to make enough so no one feels like they’re going without sauce.

I’ve adapted it from Rick Stein’s 2009 book Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odysseyad (happily still in print!) I found for a steal of 50p (!) at a book sale last year, but I’ve added my own additions, made a few subtractions and changed the volumes of a few ingredients to both suit an easier available range of ingredients today, 15 years after the book was first published, and to also try and capture something from other Sri Lankan chicken curries I’ve made and tasted. So, if you own the book and you’ve tried the original, I still urge you to try mine!

Close up of a Sri Lankan Chicken Curry with curry leaves, half a green chilli and a whole cinnamon stick.
Sri Lankan chicken curry in a cooking pot surrounded by aromatics.

If you’ve never made Sri Lankan food before the recipe might seem a bit intimidating, but if you’ve made a homestyle Indian curry before you’ll find this is just as simple, all you need is a pan with a close fitting lid (the guys at Borough Kitchen were kind enough to give me a friends and family discount on this fantastic Lodge duel cast iron skillet cooking pot where the lid is it’s own cast iron skillet – though otherwise something like a Le Creuset or Staub casserole dish will work just as well) and some Sri Lankan Roasted Curry Powder (which I’ve included both shopping links and my own recipe for below!) for success.

Also, especially if this is your first time making this recipe I recommend getting everything sliced, measured and prepped before starting – or at least whilst you brown the chicken – so you don’t have to stress when it is time to start adding everything to the pan!

Roasted Curry Powder

The only ingredient you’ll need for this recipe that you can’t find in a regular shop is Sri Lankan Roasted Curry Powder, and it’s an important one as it is what gives this Sri Lankan Chicken Curry – among so many other Sri Lankan dishes – it’s delicious, unique flavour.

Whilst I’ve not tried any so I don’t know which brand to recommend, you can order it onlinead. You want something which is not spicy, and contains most of the following: cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, coriander, cumin, fennel, pepper and fenugreek. Like Ras el Hanout, roasted curry powders vary from shop to region, from family to household so no two are the same.

Hand holding a hand labeled jar of Roasted Curry Powder.
Close up of homemade curry powder.

If you want to start this recipe with the exact curry powder I used in this curry I’ve included a recipe over on my Substack, including a recipe for a Sri Lankan-inspired Curried Parsnip Soup so you’ve already got another recipe to use it in aside from this curry. You’ll need to set a little time aside the day before you want to make this curry to roast the spices in a frying pan and grind them either in a spice grinder, pestle and mortar or mini chopper (I have and use this onead).

It’s adapted from Hoppers: Recipes, Memories and Inspiration from Sri Lankan Homes, Streets and Beyondad, both to scale it down somewhat (I enjoy a fair bit of Sri Lankan cooking and even I don’t need the massive jarfuls the books recipes make) and to strip out some of the harder to find ingredients which I’ve tried the mix with and without, and I think on balance of searching them out, you can do without.

Happily, you’ll now see you can get all the spices needed in the supermarket, or wherever else you get your spices.

Frequently Asked Questions

Where do I get fresh curry leaves for this recipe? Can I use dried ones or just leave them out?

I buy big bunches of fresh curry leaves at my local independent food hall, but you can find them in most big Sainsbury’s, and in some of the much bigger city Waitrose. They freeze really well in an air-tight bag or container, and I use them from frozen. You could use dried in this recipe (though not in all Sri Lankan recipes, or the rice I’ve included below) but fresh will give a much better flavour.

Can I use skinless boneless chicken thighs for this curry?

Please, please use bone-in chicken (thighs, legs, drumsticks etc.) as it really contributes to the flavour and whilst I’ve left them on for extra richness, you could make this curry lighter by removing the skins.

What should I serve this Sri Lankan Chicken Curry with?

I always serve this curry with Sri Lankan Yellow Rice which is one of our favourite rice dishes, wonderfully fragrant, so easy to make and topped with toasted nuts and crunchy onions. I also sometimes make this Sri Lankan-inspired Carrot Salad to go on the side, which is loosely inspired by a classic Sri Lankan sambol. You don’t need to, but if you want to serve a fresh herb with this coriander is the one to pick.

Bowls of spices and fresh aromatics next to a pan of curried chicken thighs.

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Cast iron skillet of chicken curry surrounded by spices and aromatics.

Sri Lankan Chicken Curry

  • Author: Rachel Phipps
  • Prep Time: 10 minutes
  • Cook Time: 55 minutes
  • Total Time: 1 hour 5 minutes
  • Yield: Serves 2-3 1x
  • Category: Dinner
  • Cuisine: Sri Lankan
  • Diet: Gluten Free


This rich, aromatic Sri Lankan Chicken Curry recipe pairs tender, flavour-infused chicken thighs with a richly spiced coconut and tomato gravy for the perfect introduction to Sri Lankan cooking. 


  • 1 tbsp light oil or coconut oil
  • 4 x skin on, bone in chicken thighs
  • 1/2 tsp flaky sea salt + extra for seasoning the chicken
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 5 cloves
  • 5 green cardamon pods
  • 2 brown onions, finely sliced
  • 4 large garlic cloves, minced
  • thumb sized piece fresh ginger, finely grated
  • 1 tbsp roasted curry powder
  • 1/2 tsp chilli powder (kashmiri for preference)
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1 medium tomato (approx. 100g), chopped
  • 10 fresh curry leaves
  • 1 green chilli
  • 225ml coconut milk
  • juice of 1/4 large lime


  1. Heat the oil in a large, heavy bottomed cooking pot or casserole dish with a heavy fitting lid over a medium high heat. Season the chicken thighs really well with salt, and brown on both sides until golden, working in batches if necessary. Set aside.
  2. Add the cinnamon stick, cloves and cardamom pods – crushed with the side of your knife to reveal their seeds – to the remaining fat in the pan and cook until sizzling.
  3. Lower the heat to medium and add the onions and the 1/2 tsp of salt, cooking for about 10 minutes until the onions are starting to soften and brown. 
  4. Stir in the garlic and ginger, and cook for another couple of minutes until aromatic.
  5. Stir in the roasted curry powder, chilli powder and turmeric, cooking for another few minutes until the new layer of flavours are once again aromatic.
  6. Stir in the tomato, curry leaves and the green chilli, split in half then nestle the chicken thighs amongst the mixture. Put on the lid and lower the heat for medium low, allowing the curry to simmer for 25 minutes, stirring halfway to scrape up all the flavours from the bottom of the pot, until the chicken has cooked through and the mixture is saucy.
  7. Stir in the coconut milk and allow to simmer, uncovered, for a further 5 minutes.
  8. Stir in the lime juice, to taste, and serve alongside a bowlful of Sri Lankan Yellow Rice, which can easily be made in the time it takes for the curry to simmer. 


If you go to the cupboard and realise you don’t have a can of coconut milk but you do have coconut cream, as has happened to me on occasion making this recipe make coconut milk form coconut cream by blending 1 tbsp of water for every 3 tbsp of coconut cream.

Keywords: curry, chicken curry, sri lankan, sri lankan chicken curry, sri lankan curry, chicken thighs