Seeni Sambol| Sri Lankan Caramelised Onion Relish

Seeni Sambol is a beautiful condiment from the island nation of Sri Lanka, made using onions.

I made a batch of Seeni Sambol recently for a blog challenge I am participating in, and it turned out so, so good! I am glad I found an authentic recipe on the Internet, and made it with some little deviations. In today’s blog post, let me share with you all how I went about making this flavour bomb of a condiment, or relish if you want to call it that.

Seeni Sambol – it’s finger-lickingly delicious!

Exploring Sri Lankan cuisine

Sri Lankan cuisine is robust and flavourful, with ample use of fragrant spices, curry leaves, rice, coconut, tropical fruits, seafood, poultry. meat and local vegetables. Many assume that Sri Lankan food is just the same as Indian food, but it is definitely not – Sri Lanka has a distinct, unique and wonderful cuisine all of its own. Parippu (dhal) Curry, Polos (baby jackfruit) Curry, Kiribath (milk rice), Idiyappam (string hoppers), Appam (rice and coconut milk pancakes), Mallung (stir-fry), Wambatu Moju (eggplant pickle) and Pol Pani (coconut pancake) are some traditional vegetarian dishes from Sri Lanka. Different types of dry condiments (called ‘Sambol‘) are also an integral part of Sri Lankan cuisine – Pol Sambol (made with coconut), Amu Miris Sambol (made with green chillies), Lunu Miris (using red chilli), Gotukola Sambol (made using Asiatic pennywort), Karapincha Sambol (made with curry leaves), Katta Sambol (which is tangy) and Seeni Sambol (which is sweet and spicy) are a few examples.

Aided by a colleague of the husband’s, who is more like a friend, I have had the chance to try out some lovely Sri Lankan dishes, such as this Dhal Curry and Pol Sambol I made some time ago and absolutely adored. I am no expert in the country’s cuisine, but I love how this exploring brings me a little bit closer to the place and makes me feel what it would be like to visit some day!

What is Seeni Sambol?

Any dry condiment or chutney is called ‘sambol‘ in the Sinhalese language, and ‘Seeni Sambol‘ means ‘sambol that is sweet’. The sweetness comes from the slow caramelisation of onions, and along with the sour and spicy flavours that are added in, the Seeni Sambol is quite a force to reckon with.

Seeni Sambol is quite a popular thing in Sri Lanka, from what I understand. It is a hugely versatile condiment that is not just a great accomplishment to meals, but can also be used in several other ways. The Seeni Sambol can be stuffed into buns and sandwiches, and also in burgers. It goes well with rice, string hoppers and toasted bread alike. We polished off most of the sambol I made with dosas – it tastes so good that way too! – and then put the rest into sandwiches, along with some cheese.

The Shhh Cooking Secretly Challenge

I am sharing this Seeni Sambol recipe in co-ordination with the Shhh Cooking Secretly Challenge, a group of passionate food bloggers. We cook based on a pre-determined theme every month – we decided to explore Sri Lankan cuisine for the month of August 2022, and that’s how this post came about.

For the Shhh Cooking Secretly Challenge, the participants are divided into pairs. Each pair exchanges two ingredients secretly, unknown to the rest of the group members. These ingredients are to be used by each member in preparing a dish that fits into the theme of the month. A picture of each finished dish is posted in the group, and everyone tries to guess the two secret ingredients that have gone into them. It’s super fun and challenging, and an incredible learning experience!

Narmadha, fellow food blogger at Nams Corner, loves Sri Lankan food, and she suggested we explore the same in August 2022. She has quite a few Sri Lankan dishes on her blog already, and you should definitely check out the droolworthy dessert Dodol she has dished up for the challenge!

I was partnered with Kalyani of Sizzling Tastebuds for the month, and suggested she make something using chickpeas and Sri Lankan curry powder. She used them in this beauty of a dish, Haath Maluwa or a Sri Lankan 7-vegetable curry. Can’t wait to try out your recipe, Kalyani! πŸ™‚

Kalyani gave me ‘tamarind’ and ‘curry leaves’ as my secret ingredients, and I used both of them in Seeni Sambol.

Seeni Sambol recipe

Here is how I made the Seeni Sambol. I have adapted the proceedure from Top Sri Lankan Recipe, with a few little changes.

Ingredients (makes about 1 cup):

1. 3 medium-sized onions

2. A small piece of tamarind

3. 1/2 tablespoon oil

4. 2 green cardamom

5. A small piece of cinnamon

6. 1 sprig fresh curry leaves

7. Salt to taste

8. Red chilli powder to taste

9. 1 tablespoon jaggery powder or to taste


Top left, centre and right: Steps 1, 2 and 3, Bottom left, centre and right: Steps 4, 5 and 6

1. Soak the tamarind in a little boiling hot water for 15-20 minutes. Allow it to soften.

2. Meanwhile, peel the onions and slice them thinly.

3. When the tamarind has cooled down enough to handle, extract all the juice from it. Keep the tamarind extract thick and not too watery.

4. Now, heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add in the green cardamom, cinnamon and curry leaves. Let them stay in for a few seconds, without burning.

5. Add the sliced onions to the pan now, along with a little salt. Mix well. Turn the flame down to medium.

6. Saute the onions on medium flame for 3-4 minutes. Stir intermittently. By this time, the onions would have become soft.

Left top and bottom: Steps 7 and 8, Right top and bottom: Steps 9 and 10

7. At this stage, add in salt and red chilli powder to taste. Add in the jaggery powder as well. Mix well.

8. Saute for a minute on medium flame.

9. Add the tamarind extract to the pan. Mix well.

10. Cook on medium flame for 4-5 more minutes till the raw smell of the tamarind has gone. Switch off gas when the ingredients come together into a homogeneous mixture and get a nice dark brown colour. Your Seeni Sambol is ready to use. If you are not using it immediately, allow it to cool down completely and then bottle it up. Store refrigerated.

Tips & Tricks

1. I have used regular red onions here. From what I understand, these onions work best in this recipe.

2. You can use sugar in place of the jaggery I have used here. I prefer the jaggery.

3. I have used moderately spicy red chilli powder here. You can use red chilli flakes instead, too.

4. Remember to keep the tamarind extract thick and not too watery. Adjust the quantity as per personal taste preferences.

5. Use a heavy-bottomed pan to make the Seeni Sambol. It is crucial to cook the mixture on medium heat, so the onions cook evenly and caramelise nicely, without burning and sticking to the bottom of the pan.

6. Some recipes suggest mincing the onions for the Seeni Sambol. I prefer finely slicing them, the way I have done here.

7. Some add a piece of pandan leaf and/or a lemongrass along with the whole spices. I have not used these ingredients as I did not have them.

8. You can add a few other whole spices like bay leaves, star anise and cloves too. I stuck to cinnamon and green cardamom only so as not to overpower the dish.

9. Keep the Seeni Sambol refrigerated when not in use, in a clean, dry, air-tight bottle or box. Use a clean, dry spoon only. This way, it stays for up to 2 weeks, but it is best to use it sooner rather than later.

10. This is a completely vegetarian recipe that is vegan (plant-based) as well as gluten-free.

Did you like this recipe? Do tell me in your comments!


29 thoughts on “Seeni Sambol| Sri Lankan Caramelised Onion Relish

  1. The onions have caramelized so well. It looks very tempting and I would love to have it with some hot rotis or rice


      1. Seeni Sambol sounds and looks so delish. While reading the recipe only I decided that I have to make it soon. It would be a perfect accompaniment to dosa/Adai.


  2. caramelised onions is a sure winner at home even with the little one, surely would give this Seeni Sambol a try soon, priya ! looks delish!


  3. Delicious preparation. We have this quite often as my hubby’s aun’t used to live in Sri Lanka and she always made this with the addition of dried fish .


  4. Seeni Sambol looks absolutely flavorful with those perfectly caramelized onions ..I like the way you have used jaggery in this recipe. I am tempted to give this recipe a try.


  5. so simple but tastes so delicious. Seeni sambol looks so delectable and love your presentation. It goes so well with chapati or pol roti.


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