Authentic Sri Lankan Prawn Curry (Shrimp Curry) where the shrimp heads are cooked first in a rich and aromatic curry base to coax out the full depth of flavor, and the shrimp body is cooked just long enough so that it’s tender and juicy and coated with that thick, luscious sauce/gravy. An easy recipe that can be adapted for any type of prawn or shrimp you have at hand. If you love shrimp curry, then I guarantee that this will be the best you’ve ever had! 🙂
Having grown up in an island with ready access to seafood, I’ve eaten shrimp often and in many different ways, but NEVER in a more deeply flavorful and aromatic way than this authentic Sri Lankan Prawn Curry (Shrimp Curry)! The flavors in this dish are unreal! I’ve actually made this recipe several times to be shared on the blog, but was never quite satisfied with the end result because the prawn curry wasn’t as authentic as I wanted it to be. The reason was that, while I could find shrimp that were peeled or unpeeled, I could never find shrimp that were whole! And therein lies the secret. 🙂
The full depth of flavor of this prawn curry (shrimp curry) comes from the whole shrimp! And that includes the head of the shrimp, especially the head. But the good news is that even if you can’t find head-on shrimp, it’s OK! I’ve spent a lifetime eating shrimp curry, made with peeled, unpeeled, head-on, headless etc., and it still tastes rich and flavorful. And you can adapt this recipe to make a curry out of any kind of prawn or shrimp that you have access to.
Another thing you’ll notice is that I use the terms prawn and shrimp interchangeably. They are both essentially the same, save for some minor anatomical differences (in terms of the number of legs and claws). Prawns are typically widely available in Sri Lanka (and in Australia and New Zealand as well). But in the US, you mostly find shrimp. But sometimes, it’s simply an issue with semantics as well. What’s called shrimp in the US, can often be referred to as prawns elsewhere. So regardless of what you have at hand – prawns or shrimp, this Sri Lankan prawn curry will work equally well. This particular recipe though is for authentic creamy, spicy, Sri Lankan prawn curry (shrimp curry) made with coconut milk!
Another important thing is the curry powder that you use. For this recipe, it’s best to use a Sri Lankan curry powder (that is heavy on coriander). You’re welcome to use a store-bought curry powder, but remember that the curry powder is what makes a good curry. Thankfully, making your own curry powder isn’t difficult at all! I’ve shared my favorite Sri Lankan curry powder recipe right here on the blog. For this prawn curry, I used the unroasted version, but you can use either roasted or unroasted. I add some fennel spice to this curry too, because fennel pairs very well with seafood curries (but not with meat curries – I’m not sure why!).
To clean the prawns/shrimp – I made a separate post with a video, which you can check out right here. For this Sri Lankan prawn curry recipe, I’m removing (but NOT discarding) the head, and peeling them as well. I’m also keeping the tail.
Here are some more tips to make the BEST Sri Lankan prawn curry (Sri Lankan shrimp curry).
- The trick to making perfect Sri Lankan prawn curry (or any other shrimp curry) is to add the prawns/shrimp in at the very last minute, and give them just long enough to cook perfectly. This way they’ll be tender and juicy, and perfectly flavorful while being coated with that luscious thick sauce/gravy.
- Cook the shrimp heads first with the spices, onion, garlic and ginger so that you have an insanely flavorful curry base that has layers of flavor. Because I pan fry the shrimp heads first, they become crispy and caramelize slightly, adding another layer of flavor the curry base. Some households actually blend the shrimp/prawn heads and strain it as the curry base. I prefer this method.
- This Sri Lankan shrimp curry (prawn curry) has a deliciously thick gravy/sauce that coats the shrimp generously. You can choose to keep it thick or add extra water to thin it out. I personally prefer a thick gravy. Just be sure to taste and season accordingly.
- Another variation is the spice level. Surprise, surprise, we LOVE it spicy! So we add a generous 2 tsp of cayenne pepper to this curry. But that’s ONLY if you like it spicy! Otherwise, adjust the level to your preference (I would recommend at least 1/2 tsp of cayenne pepper). While paprika isn’t authentic to this Sri Lankan shrimp curry, it adds that classic red color of a good Sri Lankan prawn curry (never add smoked paprika, however).
- Curry leaves (karapincha in Sinhalese) and pandan leaves (rampe in Sinhalese) are strongly recommended, but again, if you can’t find a local Asian restaurant where those can be found, don’t worry about it. They do add a very distinct, herby flavor to the curry though.
If you can’t buy shrimp or prawns with the head, then you can get unpeeled ones, and add the shell first in place of the heads to make the curry base and coax out all that flavor (but you will have to remove the shells once they become nice and toasty). The shrimp heads really do take this curry to a whole new level. And since the shrimp cook so quickly, there’s only a small time difference between this authentic version and the easy version (without cooking the heads first), so it is absolutely worth that extra little bit of time to make that heavenly shrimp curry (prawn curry) base. And I swear once you add the coconut milk and water and cook it down to a thick sauce/gravy, the aromas will set your salivary glands on fire!
I hope you guys love this authentic Sri Lankan shrimp curry as much as I have all my life! It’s so easy, and there’s really no way you can mess things up. And once you learn the technique and take that little bit of extra time, your curries will go straight from wow this is so good to HOLY CRAP, where has this been all my life level! You can cook some steamed plain white rice or roti to accompany this dish, although I do like serving this with some veggies (like beans or cabbage) and coconut sambol too!
- 1 lb large shrimp or prawns (head-on, about 20 shrimp)
- ¼ tsp salt
- ¼ tsp Sri Lankan Curry Powder
- 3 tbsp coconut oil (or neutral oil)
- 4 - 5 garlic cloves, finely chopped (about 1 tbsp)
- 1 inch piece of ginger, finely chopped
- 1 medium onion (red onion or sweet onion), finely chopped
- 1 tbsp unroasted Sri Lankan Curry Powder
- ½ tsp ground fennel
- 1 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1 tsp regular paprika
- ½ tsp ground black pepper
- 10 - 12 curry leaves (karapincha)
- 3 pandan leaves (rampe)
- ⅓ cup coconut milk
- ⅔ cup water + ¼ cup at the end
- 2 - 3 fresh red chili peppers (or 1 tbsp sambal oelek)
- 2 tbsp lemon / lime juice
- ½ tsp sugar (optional)
- Clean the shrimp / prawns by removing the heads and setting them aside. Peel the shell, leaving the tails intact and devein the shrimp (remove the intestinal tract). For a detailed video on cleaning shrimp, please visit this post.
- Rinse the shrimp and shrimp heads separately.
- Sprinkle the salt and curry powder over the shrimp and mix well and set aside to marinate while you cook the curry base.
- Heat a saucepan or pan over medium high heat, and add the coconut oil. Once it's hot, add the shrimp heads to the pan (it will sizzle and splatter, so be careful). Cook the shrimp heads for about 5 -10 minutes until the heads become crispy and slightly caramelized in spots. Add the onion, ginger, garlic, a generous pinch of salt and reduce the heat to medium and cook the shrimp heads until they soften - a few minutes.
- Add the curry powder, fennel powder, paprika, cayenne pepper, black pepper, curry leaves (rampe leaves) and saute, while mixing frequently for about 5 minutes, until the spices are fragrant and have formed a paste with the onion, garlic and ginger.
- Add the coconut milk,⅓ cup water, fresh red chili pepper, sugar and lemon or lime juice and stir to combine. Bring the mix to a boil. Cover and simmer for about 10 - 15 minutes until the mixture is thick and dark red in color.
- Add the peeled shrimp into the gravy base and gently mix to combine and completely coat the shrimp with the gravy/sauce. Add the ¼ cup of water if the gravy is too thick, or you would like more gravy. While gently stirring, bring the mix to a boil. Cook for 10 minutes further, or just until the shrimp is cooked through and is nice and pink. Taste and season with salt if needed.
- Turn off the heat and cover the pan with a lid and let the shrimp sit in the gravy for a few minutes.
- Sprinkle chopped cilantro (optional) on top, and serve with rice or roti. Enjoy!
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