Sri Lankan Party food #3 – Seeni sambol (caramelised onions)

‘Caramelised onions’ is a bit misleading. It conjures up sweet and tangy flavours, maybe something that goes nicely with cheese. Seeni sambol’s main reason for being popular is that it blends the sweet and tangy oniony flavours with chili. The best seeni sambol is eye-wateringly hot. It still goes nicely with cheese.

Seeni Sambol (recipe from

1 lb onions, sliced finely (red onion is best, regular onions work as well)
1/4 lb maldive fish pieces (optional)
3-4 tbsp chilli powder
a sprig of curry leaves
Rampe, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces (I can never find these, so just leave them out)
cinnamon (2 pieces, each about 1 inch long)
5 cloves
5 cardamoms

5 tbsp vegetable oil

3 tbsp tamarind pulp
2 tbsp sugar
Salt to taste

Mix the first eight ingredients together. Heat a pan with oil. Add the onion mixture. Fry till caramelized.
Next add the tamarind pulp, sugar and salt to taste.
Cook for a few minutes. Serve in a bun.

Book cover for Girl Having A Ball by Rhoda BaxterAnd here’s an extract from Girl Having a Ball, featuring seeni sambol buns and a very shouty retired military man.

As she approached the table, an elderly man with a handlebar moustache helped himself to a couple of buns that had been helpfully labelled “Hot and Spicy”. He looked at her with narrowed eyes.

“You the party planner girl?”

“Yes sir, I am.” Stevie smiled pleasantly, noting that the less fiery nibbles were almost gone. She began to gather empty trays.

“Splendid buns these,” he said.

“I’m glad you like them, Mr.…?”

“Major. Major Cosham.”

Ah, Lady Beryl’s friend. “I’m glad you like them, Major Cosham. I see they’re a bit strong for a lot of people.”

“That’s why I like ’em,” he said. “Reminds me of my time in India. Good stuff, this. Not like the nonsense you get in curry houses.” He paused for a moment, his eyes far away.

Stevie carried on gathering plates.

“I say,” said the Major. “What’s the name of your caterer?”

“There isn’t one. We made all these nibbles here, under Priya’s excellent supervision.”

The Major bit another bun in half and gulped it down. Stevie was impressed. She’d tried one of those and it had made her eyes water.

“You mean to say, Evelyn and Beryl made these? Well, I’ll be damned.”

“Evelyn and Priya, yes. Of course, the rest of us, helped out.”

“Hmm.” The Major eyed the food. “Excuse me.” He wandered off bellowing “Darling!” at a woman who was standing at the other end of the lawn talking to someone.

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