Sri Lankan beef curry

This Sri Lankan beef curry features beef, slowly braised in a coconut gravy.

It is the last recipe in my grandmother’s notes. It was written in the late 1950s after dining with some friends who had lived in Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as was. This recipe captured my grandmother’s imagination as it was so like, but quite different from the Indian food she knew and loved. Her notes call this “Mrs McEwen’s Beef Curry”.

Many of the big trading houses had establishments in Ceylon and moving their people between Ceylon and India was common. Because of proximity and these trading links, largely due to the tea trade, it was considered a British colonial outpost. A young British person entering Indian trade might well find himself in Ceylon rather than India.

Myanmar, or Burma, was the same. The British had trading stations there for rubber and they had deep links with their compatriots in Calcutta. There will be some Burmese recipes posted in this book.

Today’s geopolitical situation notwithstanding, the British saw a single but diverse set of food cultures, and they adopted all the places where they had trading relationships. Somehow, they took dishes from all these parts of the region and embraced them in their food legacy.

This dish was quite a revelation to my grandmother.

Mrs McEwen cooked the food herself, from a recipe she learned from her mother. The notes talk about discussing curry powder, which to my grandmother was anathema. She realised that instead of the horrible spice mix she had found in England, which you might add to a stew, this was a special spice mix. Her notes then contain references to reliable spice shops, which was a problem she had been dealing with for over a decade.

For those of you in London, the place to go back then was the Clapham markets.

This is a delightfully simple recipe to prepare and is taken directly from my grandmother’s notes. The only ingredient that requires some effort is to get some Sri Lankan curry powder, which may be available from good Indian grocers. I have made this with supermarket curry powder, and it works adequately. The purpose of this curry powder is to provide depth of flavour and aroma. Proper Sri Lankan curry powder makes a significant difference, with the aroma even more pronounced.

When cooking this you need to make sure that the coconut milk does not separate. If you follow the instructions and keep the heat low, you will be rewarded with a beautifully aromatic beef curry.

We serve this just with basmati rice.

the recipe

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  • wide pan with lid


  • 800 g chuck steak - cut into 3cm pieces

For the marinade

for the gravy


to marinate

  • Heat a small frypan over medium heat. Add the coriander seeds and toss gently until the seeds start to colour and become aromatic. Remove from the heat, allow to cool then grind to a fine powder.
  • Place the beef in a large bowl and add the ground coriander seeds, chilli powder, turmeric, curry powder and jaggery. Mix well to ensure the beef is evenly covered with the spices.
  • Add the tamarind water, onion slices, green chilli and tomatoes and mix well.
  • Cover the bowl and refrigerate overnight.

to cook

  • Place a large pan over medium heat and add the oil.
  • Add the curry leaves, mustard and fenugreek seeds, cassia stick and cardamon pods to the oil. Stir until fragrant and the mustard seeds start to pop.
  • Reduce heat to low, add the onion slices and sprinkle with the salt. Fry gently until the onions soften and become golden-brown. This will take around 10 minutes.
  • Add the ginger and garlic, then gently fry, stirring continuously, until the raw garlic smell has gone. This takes around two minutes.
  • Increase heat to medium and add the marinated beef and any accumulated liquids and spices. Mix well and fry for five minutes, or until the beef is evenly coloured.
  • Add 100ml of the coconut milk and 250ml of water to the pan and allow to come to a simmer. Reduce heat to very low, cover the pan with a lid, and let the beef simmer for 1½ hours, stirring occasionally. If the curry is drying out add a little more water, one tablespoon at a time
  • When the meat is tender, add the remaining coconut milk and mix well. Increase the heat slightly and gently simmer the curry, uncovered, for further 20 minutes or until the gravy thickens.
  • Remove from the heat and serve.


  • If you cannot find Sri Lankan curry powder use a good quality brand from the supermarket. The curry powder provides a depth of flavour and aroma.

private notes

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Serving: 250 g | Calories: 848 kcal | Carbohydrates: 29 g | Protein: 44 g | Fat: 66 g | Saturated Fat: 41 g | Trans Fat: 2 g | Cholesterol: 136 mg | Sodium: 893 mg | Potassium: 1377 mg | Fiber: 7 g | Sugar: 11 g | Vitamin A: 1872 IU | Vitamin C: 82 mg | Calcium: 149 mg | Iron: 11 mg

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