Sometimes a flavorful sprinkling adds precisely the accent that a food needs to elevate it from dull to delicious.
During the last few weeks I've been putting a seasoning called coconut sambol on the table next to the salt and pepper. I first tasted it at Curry Bowl, a Sri Lankan
restaurant in Los Angeles, and I loved it at first bite. It had the spicy punch of hot pepper, a bit of salty tang, and the rich flavor and pleasing texture of grated coconut. At the restaurant it was presented for sprinkling over fine rice noodles. In The Complete Asian Cookbook (Summit, 1976), author Charmaine Solomon, who was born and raised in Sri Lanka
, recommended serving it with rice and curries.
The cooks of Sri Lanka make different sambols from a variety of ingredients - bean sprouts, cucumbers, pickled limes and fried eggplant - each of which is combined with hot chiles and often coconut. According to Solomon, a simple onion sambol flavored with hot red peppers, dried fish, lemon juice and salt pounded together in a mortar "is as basic to the food of Sri Lanka as salt and pepper are to Western food. Very hot, very acid and distinctly salty, it is often the only accompaniment to serve with rice, boiled yams, manioc or sweet potato, or any of the starches that are the staple of the native diet."
From nearby comes south Indian peanut powder, which also contains roasted sesame seeds and hot red chiles. Neelam Batra, the author of 1,000 Indian Recipes (Wiley, 2002), writes that it is used mainly to season steamed rice, but she feels that the toasty fragrance and soft crunch of peanuts and sesame seeds makes for a lovely topping over green salads, cooked chicken, steamed vegetables and noodles.
sambols are peppery and crunchy. One kind, according to Lie Sek Hiang, the author of of Indonesian Cookery (Bonanza, 1963), is made of packaged potato chips! They are combined with hot red peppers, sugar, tamarind juice, seafood paste and fried onion flakes to make a crisp spicy sprinkle for rice. Variations are made with fried cashews or fried soybeans instead of the potato chips. Another sambol, made of coconut and roasted peanuts flavored with onion and garlic, enlivens rice, vegetables and meat dishes.
We in the Mideast have our own favorite sprinkles. Think of za'atar mix, the aromatic medley of the thyme-like herb za'atar with salt and toasted sesame seeds, that is offered when you buy a beygele on the streets of Jerusalem's Old City
. Like sambol, it's also good on rice, vegetables, salads and tofu. A related Egyptian sprinkle called dukkah is made of chickpea flour, cumin, black pepper and cinnamon. I bought tasty dukkah at a spice shop called Tavlinei Tevel near Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market
. May S. Bsisu, the author of The Arab Table (Morrow, 2005), adds sesame seeds to her version of dukkah and notes that the spice blend "can be served dry on a small plate, as a dip for an olive oil-soaked piece of bread, or it can be sprinkled right on the bread and then served."
France has its own savory sprinkles. Persillade, a mixture of fresh garlic and parsley, gives punch to many Provencal dishes, from seafood to mushrooms to omelets. Italian gremolata, a mixture of grated lemon zest, garlic and parsley, is the classic finishing touch for osso buco, a dish of braised veal shank slices.
Often these savory sprinkles were created to season specific dishes but have other good uses.
For little effort and only a few ingredients, sambol, za'atar, persillade and gremolata provide tasty twists to all sorts of plain foods, from cooked carrots to corn kernels to green beans to lima beans to mixed vegetables. They also perk up pasta, couscous, cooked fish, and leftover chicken, turkey and meat.
Sambol is a good way to enjoy coconut because a little goes a long way. If you prefer a more healthful nut, you can prepare a variation with grated almonds, walnuts or pecans. Some cooks season this sambol with 1 to 2 teaspoons dried fish powder. If you don't have fresh chilies, use 1/2 to 1 teaspoon hot red pepper powder, or to taste. Set this savory mixture on the table for sprinkling over plain rice or vegetables.
1 cup dried coconut
1 tsp. salt
1 or 2 tsp. paprika (optional)
1 or 2 fresh red or green hot peppers, seeded and finely chopped, or to taste
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 Tbsp. lemon juice, or to taste
2 to 3 Tbsp. hot milk or water (optional)
Combine coconut, salt and paprika. Add hot peppers, onion and lemon juice and mix well with a fork so that coconut is evenly moistened. If it is too dry, add milk or water. Serve at room temperature in a small bowl.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast (Harper Collins).