The one thing O Tama Carey wants to achieve with her beautiful golden-coloured cookbook, Lanka Food: Serendipity and Spice, is to have it splashed with food. “Mostly I want it to be a cookbook that you use so often it gets messy,” she writes in the book’s introduction.

It seems an easy get for the Sydney chef – the book is full of vibrant curry powders, spice-sprinkled rice dishes, textural sambols and robust curries packed full of ingredients that will spray and bubble over onto the pages as you make them.

Carey is owner-chef of modern Sri Lankan restaurant Lankan Filling Station (LFS), in the inner-city Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst. Her mother’s family are Sri Lankan (a mix of Tamil and Burgher going back generations), and her book weaves in the history of the tiny teardrop-shaped island, as well as the family’s journey coming to Australia. “To go from sophisticated living in a cosmopolitan city … to white, bland, sometimes racist, suburban Australia at a time when you couldn’t even buy fresh garlic was undoubtably a shock. But they stayed, they assimilated, they contributed and they thrived,” she writes.

It also tells the fascinating story of Carey’s journey – from working at influential Aussie eateries such as Kylie Kwong’s Billy Kwong and Berta, to Carey finding her cooking style and navigating the complex issues around heritage, tradition and authenticity.

Her cooking, and these recipes, are “bits and pieces from everywhere” she says. “Some are my nan’s, which I learnt while cooking with her in Perth (Lankan food with hints of suburban Australia). Some are from my mum, who cooks the food of her remembered childhood and still tweaks it. Some are inspired by things I have read, some are strictly traditional … And there are also dishes that evolved because of the produce we have in Australia and the fact that my culinary training has taken me all over the place.”

This chicken dish was one of the first curries Carey was willing to try as a child, “and my mum’s version is still the one I aspire to”. She recommends cooking the chicken on the bone to get maximum flavour. “It’s hot and oily, tangy with tomatoes and sweetly spiced with cardamom and cloves. Traditionally you wouldn’t see any Sri Lankan curries cooked in the oven, but this method works quite well,” she writes.

It looks like a lot of ingredients but it’s not a hard dish to make, you just need a couple hours for simmering so it’s an ideal Sunday arvo recipe to make. Plus if you make the red curry powder recipe, you’ll have extra leftover for other dishes.

“Use it in any recipe that calls for a Jaffna curry powder. I know there are a lot of ingredients in this one, but the spices are all untoasted so it’s just a matter of measuring and grinding. It has a good chilli kick to it, but if you want a rich redness in your curry without the heat, reduce the amount of chilli powder and flakes (or leave them out completely) and increase the paprika accordingly,” says Carey.

Chicken curry
Serves 6–8
Preparation time: 45 minutes, plus 60 minutes resting time
Cooking time: 120 minutes

Ingredients:

Red curry powder:
Makes approximately 150g
5g curry leaves
24g sweet paprika
20g chilli powder
20g coriander seeds
15g white peppercorns
13g chilli flakes
12g cumin seeds
10g cardamom seeds
8g fennel seeds
8g cinnamon quill, roughly crushed
7g turmeric powder
5g fenugreek seeds
3g cloves
3g star anise

Pounded rice mix:
12g rice (any variety)
8g grated coconut
2 green bird’s eye chillies
3 cardamom pods
5 whole cloves

Spice mix:
24g red curry powder (see above)
8g fenugreek seeds
7g mustard seeds
4g chilli flakes
4g chilli powder
4g sweet paprika
3g salt flakes

1kg chicken thigh cutlets (including skin and bones)
15g long red chilli, sliced into rounds
100g red onion, diced
15g garlic, finely chopped
15g ginger, finely chopped
15g lemongrass (white part only), finely chopped
5g curry leaves
Bottom 5cm of 1 lemongrass stem, lightly bruised
1 pandan leaf, tied in a knot
200ml coconut cream
600g tinned peeled tomatoes
Salt flakes Black pepper, freshly ground

Method:
To make the red curry powder, place the curry leaves in a frying pan over a medium–high heat and cook gently for about 2 minutes. Reduce the heat a little and cook for another 1–2 minutes until they are dry and toasted, but not browned. Allow the leaves to cool completely, then combine them with the remaining spices and grind to a fine powder. Store in an airtight container.

For the rest, use a cleaver to chop each chicken thigh across the bone into two or three pieces, depending on size. Set aside.

The next step is to prepare the pounded rice mix, which will make the gravy nice and thick. Tip the rice into a small frying pan and gently toast over a low heat for 2–3 minutes until it just begins to colour. Transfer to a bowl and set aside to cool.

Add the coconut to the pan and toast, stirring constantly so it doesn’t burn, for 2–3 minutes until it is an even dark brown colour. Add to the bowl with the rice.

Using a mortar and pestle, pound the rice, coconut, bird's eye chillies, cardamom pods and cloves to a fine consistency. Add a splash of water near the end to make a paste. Rub this mix through the chicken and let it sit in the fridge for an hour or so.

Combine the spice mix ingredients, massage into the chicken and set aside for another hour. You can do this the day before and leave it overnight in the fridge if preferred. If you are just leaving it for an hour, room temperature is fine.

Preheat the oven to 160°C. Mix all the remaining ingredients through the chicken, making sure you season well with salt and pepper. Transfer to a shallow baking dish or casserole dish that is large enough to fit everything snugly in a single layer.

Cover closely with a layer of baking paper, then seal with foil or a lid, and place in the oven. Bake for 80–90 minutes until the chicken is cooked through, checking it every half-hour and giving it a good stir.

This is an extract from Lanka Food: Serendipity and Spice, by O Tama Carey, published by Hardie Grant, $55. Buy it here.

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@missotama