Ambul Thiyal – Sri Lankan Sour Fish Curry Recipe

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Ambul Thiyal Sri Lankan Sour Fish Curry

Ambul Thiyal is one of the most signature dishes in Sri Lankan cuisine. When I was first learning how to make it, I was thinking of ceviche a bit because the primary method for cooking the fish is by acid. The fish, usually tuna, is cooked with white coconut vinegar (or lime juice) and garcinia paste. This paste, endemic to Sri Lanka, is made from the Garcinia Gummi-Gutta fruit; an acidic fruit that is also in the same family as mangosteen.

The recipe for Ambul Thiyal was taught to me step by step by Winston, the host of my homestay in Ella. This guy has taught me so many great recipes, like Sri Lankan Roti, and a mixed vegetable curry that is to die for. If you are making a trip to Ella (highly recommended) you can read Alona’s review of the Ella Sisila View, and see how awesome our host was!

Ambul Thiyal Sri Lankan Sour Fish Curry
Ambul Thiyal being cooked in a clay pot.

Don’t let the idea of the word ‘sour’ in the title turn you off. It is more like tart, rather than the sour you would expect of spoilt fish or sour candies. Similar to how you should drip some freshly squeezed lemon juice on your salmon steaks, the citric acid brings out tons of great flavors.

Garcinia Paste
This is what garcinia paste looks like. This is the main ingredient when making Ambul Thiyal!

Ambul Thiyal Meat

Large hunk of fresh tuna for the Ambul Thiyal
What a beautiful piece of fish

We were fortunate to be able to get a large hunk of tuna steak from the fish monger here in Ella. It was just 2,400 Sri Lankan rupees, or about $13 for enough fish for 4 servings. When making Ambul Thiyal you really want to use the best quality fish you can, since you are not adding tons of spices to mask the flavor. This recipe is traditionally done with tuna, but you can get creative and use a different fish, or even pork or chicken.

Rinsing the tuna

We let the chunks of tuna cure for one hour in all the juices and paste in a clay pot. While this was happening, we chopped up some vegetables, and grated some fresh coconut for the curry base. Actually, Alona grated the coconut while we were chopping the veggies and drinking Lion beer.

Cooking Notes

After making the curry, the strategy is to put the meat in to simmer for 5-10 minutes, but if you want the tuna a little less cooked, you can just put it in the last minute to get coated in the curry. As the tuna is cooked by acid in Ambul Thiyal, you can actually eat it straight from the clay pot!

Ambul Thiyal Tuna
This is actually the fish being cooked!

Ambul Thiyal – Sri Lankan Sour Fish Curry

This signature dish is started by cooking tuna with the acid from lime juice and garcinia paste. Added to a light coconut curry, you can enjoy this dish in just over an hour.
Course Main Course, Main Dish
Cuisine Sri Lankan
Keyword ambul thiyal, fish curry, Seafood, tuna curry
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Waiting 1 hour
Total Time 1 hour 20 minutes
Servings 4 people
Cost $5

Equipment

  • Pot

Ingredients

  • 600 grams Tuna cut into large chunks
  • 4 tbsp Vinegar or lime juice
  • 1 tbsp Garcinia Paste
  • 1 tsp Salt
  • 1 tsp White Pepper
  • 2 cups Coconut Milk
  • 2 cloves Garlic smashed, left in large pieces
  • 2 Onions chopped
  • 2 Tomato chopped
  • 20 Curry Leaves
  • 1 Pandan Leaf
  • 1 tbsp Curry Powder homemade blend of white cumin, coriander, turmeric
  • 1 tbsp Mustard Seed

Instructions

  • Cut the tuna into small chunks 20-30 grams each. Place in a colander and rinse off with cold water.
  • Marinate the tuna in a bowl with 4 tbsp White Coconut Vinegar (or lime juice), 1 tbsp Garcinia paste, and the salt and pepper. Let sit covered for 1 hour.
  • In a pot add 2 tbsp of cooking oil, the curry leaves, mustard seed, and garlic, and pandan (ripped) and bring to a simmer.
  • Add the coconut milk, chopped tomato, curry powder and salt to taste, then bring to a boil.
  • Gently add the fish and cover for 10 minutes (or less depending on how you want your fish).
  • Serve with white rice and coconut sambal

Notes

Because of the cooking style of this dish, you can leave Ambul Thiyal covered at room temperature and it will stay good for up to 3 days. It can stay up to two weeks in the refrigerator. 
Bonus picture: Alona from Jet Set Together helping us out by grating the coconut on a hand crank.
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