Beets with Tropical Flavors

This image courtesy of Joseph DeLeo

Beets are a common Sri Lankan vegetable, which always catches us a little by surprise. They seem like such hearty, cold-weather root vegetables, unlikely candidates for the cuisine of a tropical island in the Indian Ocean. But the mountains are high, more than five thousand feet, and in the towns in the center of the island, like Nuwara Eliya, temperatures can get cool. We assume beets were brought by the European colonizers—the Dutch or the British seem the most likely candidates—but we don’t know. In any case, they do pop up regularly, both in restaurant fare and in home cooking. Here beets are peeled and chopped into julienne, then simmered with a blend of minced shallots, green chiles, curry leaves, vinegar, and, of course, a little coconut milk to round out the flavors. The green chiles disappear into the sauce as they cook, leaving only a hint of heat. Because the beets are cut into strips, they cook in only twenty minutes or so (and see the variation made with precooked beets). Leftovers are delicious the next day, served cold or rewarmed.

Beets will stain your hands as you peel and slice them unless you wear rubber gloves. The stain can take a day to wear off completely.

Serve as a vegetable dish with any meal, South Asian or not.


Cooking Methodbraising



Total Timeunder 1 hour

One Pot MealYes

Recipe Courseside dish, vegetable

Dietary Considerationvegan, vegetarian

Taste and Texturesavory, spiced, sweet

Type of Dishvegetable


  • ¾ to 1 pound beets (3 to 4 medium), washed
  • Generous 1 tablespoon raw sesame oil or vegetable oil
  • About 8 fresh or frozen curry leaves
  • Scant 2 tablespoons minced seeded green cayenne chiles, or substitute jalapeños
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons minced shallots
  • 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¾ teaspoon sugar
  • ½ cup canned or fresh coconut milk
  • ¼ cup water
  • About ½ teaspoon coarse salt (optional)


  1. Peel the beets.

  2. Cut them into julienne strips by first thinly slicing them, then cutting into strips about ¼ inch wide. Set aside.

  3. Place a heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid over medium-high heat. Add the oil, and when it is hot, add 4 of the curry leaves, the minced chiles, and shallots. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the beets and stir, then add the vinegar, salt, and sugar and stir and turn to mix well. Raise the heat to high and stir-fry for 2 to 3 minutes. The beets will give off a little liquid as they cook.

  4. Mix half the coconut milk with the water, then add to the pot and bring to a vigorous boil. Stir well, cover tightly, reduce the heat, and cook at a strong simmer until the beets are just tender, about 20 minutes or so. Check the water level after 10 minutes of cooking and add a little more if it is almost dry.

  5. Add the remaining ¼ cup coconut milk and remaining curry leaves. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for another 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and taste for seasoning. Sprinkle on coarse salt, if you wish. Transfer to a serving dish, and serve hot or at room temperature.

  6. Variations:

  7. Carrots with Tropical Flavors: The same method and flavorings can be used to cook carrots. Peel the carrots and cut them into julienne. Follow the instructions above, but decrease the vinegar to 2 teaspoons and the sugar to ¼ teaspoon. Top the cooked carrots with chopped coriander leaves.

  8. Precooked Beets with Tropical Flavors: You can make a quick (10- to 15-minute) version of this dish using 2½ to 3 cups chopped, already cooked and peeled beets, now available in many grocery stores. (Canned beets are not a substitute.) Chop the beets into bite-size cubes. All the other ingredients remain the same, except that the coconut milk should be reduced to ¼ cup. Follow the instructions above, but add all the curry leaves with the chiles. Stir-fry the beets for only a minute, and after you add the liquid, simmer the beets for only 5 to 10 minutes, partly covered. Transfer to a shallow bowl, taste for seasoning, and adjust, if you wish. Let cool to room temperature before serving.



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