• Seeni sambal tarts. (Sharyn Cairns)Source: Sharyn Cairns

This sambal is sweet – yet complex with spices, chilli and tamarind – hence its name seeni, the Sinhalese word for sugar. Traditionally served as an accompaniment, it’s also found as a stuffing in bread rolls, as a perfect breakfast or snack treat, and here it’s placed upon small tarts.






Skill level

Average: 4.8 (50 votes)


  • 6 medium red onions (total weight about 1 kg)
  • ⅓ cup ghee
  • 2 cloves garlic and an equal amount of ginger, finely minced
  • ½ cup fresh curry leaves
  • ⅓ cup maldive fish (see Note), finely pounded
  • ½ tsp ground cardamom
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp ground clove
  • 2 tsp hot chilli powder
  • ½ tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp salt flakes
  • 1 tbsp tamarind paste
  • 50 g jaggery (dark palm sugar), roughly chopped
  • 1 egg
  • splash of milk
  • 2 sheets puff pastry

Cook's notes

Oven temperatures are for conventional; if using fan-forced (convection), reduce the temperature by 20˚C. | We use Australian tablespoons and cups: 1 teaspoon equals 5 ml; 1 tablespoon equals 20 ml; 1 cup equals 250 ml. | All herbs are fresh (unless specified) and cups are lightly packed. | All vegetables are medium size and peeled, unless specified. | All eggs are 55-60 g, unless specified.


Cut your red onions in half, peel and then finely slice them along the grain.

Place a heavy–based large saucepan over a high heat, give it a good moment or two to heat up, then add in the ghee. Once the ghee has melted, add in the garlic, ginger and curry leaves. Cook, stirring for about 2 minutes. Add in a third of the onion and give them a good mix, stirring for another few minutes – it should be hot enough in the pan that everything sizzles nicely. Repeat this step with another third and then the last. 

Continue cooking over high heat for the next 10 minutes, stirring regularly. By this stage the onion will have cooked down to about half its mass and be more manageable. Add in the maldive fish, spices, salt and tamarind, stirring as you go.

Give that a good couple of minutes before adding the jaggery, still stirring, and reducing the heat to low. At this stage you can leave the onion to do its thing for the next 10 minutes, stirring them every so often so they don’t stick.

Let the onion continue cooking for another 10 minutes, only stirring occasionally.

Turn the heat back up to high and go back to vigilant stirring for the next 10 minutes – it’s here when things can burn and get stuck. By this stage the onion will be a nice dark caramel colour – you want to still be able to see some individual slices in amongst the softened mass. Set aside.

Whisk the egg and milk together to make an eggwash.

To prepare the puff pastry for tarts, cut each sheet into 4 squares. Place a square in front of you and use a sharp knife to cut off each of the four corners about 1 cm down. Use a pastry brush to very lightly paint eggwash along each edge of your pastry square. Fold down each edge of your tart so the ends meet in the corners. Basically you will have created a raised frame edge around you tart. Use a fork to prick the pastry within the frame and brush the entire tart base with eggwash. Place the finished base in the fridge to rest while you turn your attention to the remaining pastry. Repeat until you have 8 nice framed tart bases.

Place your tart bases spaced out on an oven tray on some baking paper. Place into a preheated 180°C oven and bake for 5 minutes.

Remove them from the oven and use a spoon to place a good amount of the onion mix on each tart. You will notice that the bases have puffed up, so just press the middle of the frames down as you fill them with the onion mix.

Place the tarts back into the oven and cook for another 5 minutes. Turn the heat down to 160°C and continue cooking for another 15 minutes.

Remove from the oven and allow them to cool before eating. These are delicious served with a delicate bitter leaf and herb salad.



• This recipe makes more seeni sambal than you will need for the tarts, but it keeps for at least a week in the fridge. In fact, if you don’t want to fuss around making the tarts at all, this sambal is delicious served with any number of things. It works as a side for steak, is good with eggs for breakfast and perfect alongside a curry meal.

• Maldive fish and jaggery can both be found at a Sri Lankan grocer. If unavailable, replace with dried shrimp and palm sugar respectively.

• These tarts can be made in advance and kept in the fridge or even stored in the freezer. If you wish to do this, bake for 5 minutes less before storing and then slip them back in the oven for the extra time before you serve.


Photography by Sharyn Cairns. Styling by Lee Blaylock. Food preparation by Tiffany Page.

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This recipe is part of The seasonal cook: Onion column.

View previousThe seasonal cook columns and recipes.