Sri Lankan Onion Sambol


I’m sure you must be thinking, “What the heck is a sambol?”. Well, friends, it’s basically a condiment typically made of chillies and other spices, with whatever secondary ingredients you like (garlic, onion, or lime is common). It originates from the term sambal from Indonesia, so sambols are commonly made in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka. You must’ve heard of sambal oelek, the chilli paste. In other words, they are spicy.

In Sri Lanka, sambols typically accompany other dishes — you would have a tablespoon or two with your rice, roti, other national dishes, or even with bread for breakfast. We make sambols out of many things. We have a similar version of sambal oelek, called lunu miris, which basically means salted chillies. Using a mortar and pestle, you would crush chillies, onions, salt, Maldive fish (cured tuna from Maldives), and lime juice. We also make a delicious sambol out of coconut flesh.

This particular onion sambol recipe is something I love to eat with roti or use as a condiment in sandwiches. In Sinhalese, we call it seeni sambol, which basically means sugar sambol. Although it does have sugar, the main flavours of this spicy sambol are onions, cardamom, cloves, and tamarind. Typically, you would fry the onions with quite a bit of oil until it is crispy, and mix it with the spices, as well as tamarind puree (giving it a tanginess), and finally sugar (to counteract the tanginess, and maybe even the spiciness).

Fortunately, I’m not one for deep frying, so you won’t find this sambol bleeding with oil! The trick is to cook it on high heat without oil first, so that the water content in the onions evaporate, and then adding the oil to caramelize. Of course, you’ll be starting with a whole bunch of onions, which will reduce as it cooks down, so don’t be alarmed at the amount of onions.

Makes about 2-3 cups of sambol

  • 8 medium onions, sliced
  • 6 cloves
  • seeds from 20 green cardamom pods
  • 1.5 cinnamon sticks, broken up
  • 5-inch piece of pandan leaf, cut into smaller strips
  • bunch of curry leaves, diced (~1 tbsp)
  • 4-5 tbsp oil (I used avocado oil)
  • 1-2 tbsp chilli powder (depending on your spice tolerance!)
  • 1/4 cup tamarind pulp (you can get this from any Asian or Indian store)
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup of warm water
  • 3 tbsp agave (or 4 tbsp sugar), or more depending on how tangy your tamarind is
  • salt, to taste (~1/2 tsp)
  • optional: maldive fish (pronounces the flavour of the sambol, but I don’t like it)


Using a mortar and pestle, coarsely grind the cloves and cardamom seeds. If you’re short on time, you can use a spice grinder.

Soak the tamarind pulp in the water for about 5-10 minutes, until it has softened. Then get your hands in there and squeeze until you have a puree. Don’t worry about the veins and seeds of the tamarind for now. For a more in depth explanation of how to prepare tamarind pulp, click here. In the end, you should have about 1/3 to 1/2 cup of puree. Set aside.

IMG_2329 IMG_2331

Meanwhile, heat a saucepan on high, and add the onions, curry leaves, pandan leaf, cinnamon sticks, and ground cardamom & cloves. Let it cook down, stirring constantly until the water content has mostly evaporated (~5-7 minutes). If you find that the onions are beginning to stick to the pan, reduce the heat to medium. Now it’s time to add the oil. Let the onions continue to cook until it has become caramelized (another 7-10 minutes).



Add the chilli powder and salt and stir. Add the tamarind puree that you’ve set aside, making sure to squeeze any extra from the veins and seeds. Discard them after. Add the agave (or sugar), and mix until incorporated. Store in a jar in the fridge. Enjoy (warm or cold) with roti, rice, with bread or in a sandwich!




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