Seeni Sambol (Sri Lankan Onion Confit)


Seeni sambol is a very common accompaniment on many a breakfast table in Sri Lanka. My first childhood memories of this pungent, yet extremely flavorful spread goes back to our annual family pilgrimage to Kathirkama temple ( We went on this trip with several extended families and we all brought all necessary provision for preparing our meals. Seeni sambol was a must have! My grandma and other ladies brought their versions of this popular relish because it kept fresh without refrigeration for the week-long trip (or was it 10 days?) – thanks to the tamarind pulp and ample amount of oil in it. For breakfast, we were served this with rotis (flat breads), string hoppers, puttu or just plain freshly baked crusty bread (we called them “roast paan” – “paan” being a Portuguese word referring to bread)! Oh, the memories of childhood!

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Regardless of any variation, the shining star in this dish is PLENTY of onions! A popular variation to an otherwise vegan dish is the addition of dried Maldives fish (which is really bits of dried tuna). Growing up, we kids would usually picked this out but as I grew older, I have come to enjoy the subtle flavor imparted by the fish. To think of it, I would like to make a version with a bit of shrimp paste one of these days! Hmmmmm…

Back to the dish, so, yes, be prepared to peel and slice plenty of onions. Other than that, there is no other prep work. So, the time you save prepping ingredients….well, you will need that for the cooking process! Just saying.

Seeni sambol (Sri Lankan Onion Confit)

5 to 6 cups of thinly sliced onions
3″ piece of cinnamon, preferably Ceylon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 sprig of curry leaves
1/4 tsp cloves
1/2 tsp fennel seeds, lightly bruised
4-6 pods of green cardamom, crushed
1 tsp salt
1 to 2 tsp cayenne, or per taste
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon of tamarind paste
3 tblsp oil (another tablespoon more if needed)
2 tblsp sugar

1. In a large wok or heavy bottomed pan, heat oil.
2. Add mustard seeds and let them pop. Now, add onions and begin to sauté.
3. After about 3 minutes, add remaining ingredients except tamarind and sugar.
4. Continue to cook under medium low heat until onion begins to caramelize and become sort of pulpy and glazed. This should take about 20 minutes. Remember to stir well every few minutes as this recipe uses less oil and onion tends to stick to the bottom of the pan as it begins to caramelize. While stirring, just scrape up any bits of stuck-on onions. 🙂
5. Now, add tamarind paste and sugar and continue to cook for another 10 minutes. The end product should be a beautiful golden brown confit.

If you use more than 4 tablespoons of oil (like how my grandma used to make and ahem…my mom continues to make!), at the end of the cooking process, excess oil will separate from the onion mixture. This is one of the reasons seeni sambol keeps for several days without spoiling. 🙂 I use as little oil as possible without sacrificing too much flavor and taste! I think you will enjoy this recipe. Try it with a slice of toast, as a spread for a sandwich (mozzarella melt anyone?) or as in the picture below as a filling for baked empanadas! Yum!