If you can't stand the heat: Skye Gyngell visits Sri Lanka to check out the locals’ fiery curries

In early February I was in Galle in Sri Lanka, invited over to cook dinners to accompany readings at the literary festival that is held there each year. I had been to the country before and loved it – it is still very unspoilt – and attending the literary festival is one of the most fascinating and fun things I have done.

Sri Lankan food is quite beautiful. Based on the ayurvedic principle that everything that is eaten has a life-giving property, the diet is largely based on vegetables and fish – almost no meat is eaten at all. The cuisine is hot, but not overwhelmingly so, as all curries are accompanied by cooling sambal relishes.

Coconut milk binds almost everything and the fragrant flavour of lime and curry leaves abounds, while spices such as cardamom, coriander and turmeric lay the foundations. I had the opportunity to cook alongside locals, who taught me the subtlety of this beautiful cuisine. The recipe for the fish I've given here is based on a dish that was cooked for me. The fish was trevally, bought from the fisherman straight from their nets before the sun had properly risen on the beach where we were staying.

Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627, petershamnurseries.com

Coconut sambal

Almost everything I ate in Sri Lanka was accompanied by a sambal, including a breakfast dish known as egg hoppers (a pancake with an egg broken into the middle while it cooks). Sambals provide a light, sharp contrast to the earthy flavours of the curries. Many are based on freshly grated coconut with coriander, lime and tomatoes stirred through.

This coconut-based version works well with both fish and vegetable curries – I ate it with a vegetable in Sri Lanka called gotu kola – young-leafed spinach is its closest substitute. It would not be so good with curries whose base consists of meat, which, to my mind, would be better with a plain, tomato-based sambal.

Makes enough for 6

The grated flesh of 1 small, young coconut
2 red onions, very finely chopped
4 ripe tomatoes fairly roughly chopped
1 generous handful of spinach leaves, well washed and shredded
The juice of 2 limes
1 small green chilli, seeds left in and chopped
A good pinch of salt

Place all the ingredients into a bowl and mix together really well. Set aside while you make the curry.

Baked-fish curry

I think you may be as surprised as I was by the amount of salt Sri Lankans use in their cooking. The type of salt used is a fine sea salt that is damp to the touch – if you dip your finger into its flavour, it is intense but not overpowering. The sauce that is spooned over the fish is known as a gravy.

Serves 6

6 x 250g/8oz firm white fish, such as sea bass
300ml/10fl oz coconut milk
6 cloves of garlic
12 curry leaves
5 ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 thumb of ginger, peeled and chopped
1 tsp turmeric
tsp coriander seeds, roasted and pounded
5 cardamom pods
The juice of one lime
A good pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas4. Lay the fish in a baking tray and pour over the coconut milk. Scatter over all the other ingredients and finish with the pinch of salt. Place on the middle shelf of the oven and bake for 8 minutes. Remove and serve with the coconut sambal alongside.

Spinach, onion and tomato sambal

This simple sambal works very well alongside the pumpkin curry below.

Serves 6

4 ripe tomatoes, chopped
1 yellow onion, peeled and chopped
1 handful of young spinach leaves
1 green chilli, sliced in half lengthwise, seeds removed and chopped
The juice of one lime
A good pinch of salt

Place the chopped tomato and onion into a bowl. Wash and finely shred the spinach, then add to the bowl with the chilli and lime juice. Stir well to combine then season generously with salt.

Pumpkin curry

Sri Lanka has the most inspiring vegetables. Many are particular to that part of the world – wing beans and gotu kola, for example – but pumpkin, readily available here, is also used a lot. Its sweet flesh works very nicely with the base flavours of the spices and chillies used in that region. I was taught how to make this curry by the cook where we stayed.

Serves 6

1 tbsp coconut oil or vegetable oil
1 thumbnail of ginger, peeled and chopped
3 yellow onions, sliced
6 small green chillies, split in half lengthwise
6 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
A good pinch of salt
2 tsp cardamom pods, roasted and ground
15 fresh curry leaves
2 tsp coriander seeds, roasted and ground
1 medium-sized pumpkin or butternut squash
250ml/8fl oz coconut water
250ml/8fl oz coconut cream
5 ripe tomatoes, chopped

Place a large saucepan over a medium heat and, when hot, add the oil. Add the ginger, onion, chillies and garlic and turn the heat down slightly. Now add a good pinch of salt and the cardamom, curry leaves and coriander and sweat until the onions are soft. While the onions are cooking, slice the pumpkin in half and spoon out and discard the seeds. Chop the flesh into generous chunks and add to the pan. Cook the vegetables dry for a further 10 minutes then add the coconut water. Allow all the water to be absorbed by the pumpkin, by which time it should be tender. Finally, add the coconut cream and tomatoes. Taste and add more salt if necessary, then serve with the spinach sambal.