Weekend Foodie Guide: Crab curry from Sri Lanka that’s exploding with flavors

As any fan of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain knows, food is more than raw ingredients. To understand a bowl of noodles or a perfectly formed dumpling, a foodie must understand the people who make it, the place where it is made, and the deeply rooted history of both.

Halfway across the world, in the small-yet-mighty city-state of Singapore, students are embarking on the journey of a lifetime at The Culinary Institute of America’s first international location. Bachelor’s degree candidates studying toward an Asian Cuisines concentration spend a semester at the CIA’s Singapore location learning from world-renowned chefs, a vibrant culinary scene, and travels through neighboring countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.

On a recent visit to Sri Lanka, students explored the local flavors of traditional curries. The country has a wealth of ingredients that were historically inaccessible in other parts of the world, resulting in flavorful combinations of spices, produce, and proteins that are uniquely Sri Lankan.

Inspired by the journey, the class prepared this recipe for Sri Lankan Crab Curry, a spiced (and a little spicy) mixture that is exploding with flavors and ingredients that you may not use every day. Alongside the familiar coconut milk, garlic, and lime juice, you’ll find sour tamarind paste, earthy pandan leaves, and nutty fenugreek seeds.

While you may not find some of these ingredients in your everyday grocery store, they should be easily found at a well-stocked Asian market or through online retailers. If not, ask around the market for suggestions to replace the hard-to-find ingredients. The beauty of a curry is that, while every ingredient plays a role, there is enough flavor to go around so minor omissions or substitutions won’t ruin the recipe.

We’re including a recipe for curry powder, and while you can purchase a pre-made blend, making your own gives you the freedom to adjust the mixture to your preferences. If you just can’t stand the flavor of fennel, then use a little bit less, because it’s your curry. Use any leftovers to coat roasted vegetables, to punch up a chicken soup, or to stir into hummus for a flavorful sandwich spread.

However you use these ingredients, and no matter where you purchase them, allow this recipe to transport you somewhere new, and maybe you’ll be inspired to go off and taste the world yourself.


Servings: 8 servings

Start to finish: 1 hour (Active time: 15 minutes)

3 tablespoons Curry Powder (recipe below)

Two 2-pound crabs, top shell, gills, and guts removed (see note)

1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder

3 tablespoons Indian chili powder

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed

1/2 cup coconut oil

1 cup sliced shallots

1/4 cup sliced garlic

2 sprigs curry leaves (about 15 fresh leaves)

1 long green chili, sliced

2 cups coconut milk

1/2 cup tamarind paste, soaked then strained

4 fresh pandan leaves

1 cup coconut cream

2 tablespoons lime juice, plus more as needed

Curry Powder

6 cardamom pods

1 cinnamon stick

2 teaspoons coriander seed

1 tablespoon cumin seed

1 tablespoon fennel seed

6 whole cloves

1 teaspoon fenugreek seed

1 teaspoon Indian chili powder

6 dried curry leaves

To prepare the curry powder, heat a small skillet over medium heat. Add the cardamom pods and toast, stirring occasionally, until the pods have darkened slightly and are fragrant, about 1 minute. Transfer to a bowl. Add the cinnamon stick and toast until it is also slightly darkened and fragrant. Transfer to a bowl, and then repeat with the coriander, cumin, fennel, cloves, and fenugreek until all are toasted. Add the chili powder and curry leaves to the mixture and grind in a mortar and pestle or electric spice grinder. Set aside.

Cut each crab into quarters. Crack the claws, but leave them attached. In a shallow dish, combine the crab, curry powder, turmeric, chili powder, and salt, and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Heat the coconut oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Add the shallots, garlic, and curry leaves and cook until softened, about 1 minute. Add the green chili and crab and cook until aromatic, about 3 minutes.

Add the coconut milk, tamarind paste, and pandan leaves and stir to combine. Reduce to a simmer and cook until the crab is fully cooked, about 12 minutes. If the mixture seems too dry, add additional coconut milk or water 1/4 cup at a time.

Remove from the heat and add coconut cream and lime juice, and season with salt, to taste, before serving.

Chef’s Note: If you prefer, you can substitute 8 ounces of lump crabmeat for the whole crabs. In that case, skip the marinating step and add the curry powder, turmeric, chili powder, and salt with the green chili and lump crabmeat in Step 3, then continue as written.


Nutrition information per serving: 455 calories; 241 calories from fat; 27 g fat (23 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 43 mg cholesterol; 405 mg sodium; 39 g carbohydrate; 3 g fiber; 22 g sugar; 16 g protein.