There’s a clip floating around YouTube that pokes fun at Sri Lankan grandmothers. In it, these clucking ladies urge their offspring and their offspring to eat more, bundle up, apply creams and pastes and oils for every ailment. It’s not completely off base—but it definitely assumes that the youngsters don’t want to be fussed over. Me? I loved it.
My grandmother’s love language is a similar mix of cooking and worry. She arrives at her son’s house with a suitcase of ingredients, just in case the myriad Indian grocers in London don’t have the right thing. Alarms are set for six a.m. to make kiribath, a silky, creamy, coconut rice breakfast pudding. The fridge is cleared so vats of cashews can soak for curry. Every onion and bulb of garlic in the house is minced precisely. And then, everyone (especially grandchildren) is told to “eat, eat, eat.”
As both a Food Person In Training and generally needy child, kid-me enjoyed all this fuss—and in the past few years, I’ve been trying to repay some bit of the favor—or at least, the cooking. The problem is, my attempts at recreating the somewhat laborious Sri Lankan dishes I grew up with have been lackluster: a fermented rice batter bubbled and reeked of beer, a lime-laced onion and coconut sambol veered more bitter than tangy.
That all changed when I flipped to this recipe for Prawn Moilee in Dishoom. The soupy coconut-based dish looked like the Kiri Hothi my grandmother made on special occasions. Kiri Hothi, which means coconut gravy, is traditionally served with iddyappam, or string hoppers—thin tangled nests of rice noodles that catch the fragrant, lightly sweet sauce.
To make fresh string hoppers, you need a special press, but authors Shamil Thakrar, Naved Nasir, and Kavi Thakrar suggest that steamed rice will do if you’re without one. Growing up, we usually ate the gravy with boiled eggs, but this South Indian version of the dish calls for plump prawns, tossed in at the end with a handful of tomato wedges. Save for some matchsticks of ginger, nothing needs to be cut too preciously. Onions should be chunky, chiles are whole, and a jar of garlic paste replaces hand-minced cloves. It’s conspicuously easy—so much so, that the first time I made it, I checked the recipe twice to see if I was missing some tricky step.
If you can’t find a decent tomato, you can riff a bit, serving it with boiled potatoes (as we often did when I was younger) or maybe throwing in some sliced leeks while you’re sautéing the onions. I usually have a bag of prawns in the freezer, but small filets of a firm white fish would do well, too.
In about the time it takes to steam a pot of rice, the curry is done. Lemongrass and chili plays against the dish’s creaminess, which is brightened at the very end with a generous squeeze of lemon. Tender prawns, which can too often get lost in a curry, stand out against the gently spiced sauce. It’s almost exactly the food I remember from so many holidays and dinner parties, but a little punchier thanks to all that garlic and lemon—and I think, just maybe, it’ll go well with a pile of quickly dressed salad greens until I master the kale mallung and pol sambol to serve alongside.
The beauty of this Prawn Moilee is that unlike the other childhood meals I’ve tried to recreate, this dish is easy enough to master on the first go, and feels endlessly adaptable. I realized I had approached the task of learning how to cook my grandmother’s food by trying to tackle the most complicated, perhaps most impressive dishes first. But that ignored one of my favorite things about this food: that well-placed coconut, chiles, and citrus can make even a simple weeknight dinner luscious and layered.
This weekend, I’m having an early Christmas lunch with my grandmother. She doesn’t know it yet, but I’ll be making Moilee.Naved NasirKavi ThakrarShamil Thakrar
Originally Appeared on Epicurious