We all know pumpkins can be turned into pies, baked into cupcakes, blitzed into soups and dumped into lattes. Pumpkin curry, on the other hand, doesn’t get as much airtime during the annual gourd onslaught – and that’s a real shame.
As the holidays approach, when spices are already in the air and steaming pots on the stove have never been more inviting, what could be better than a warm bowl of pumpkin curry? There are so many variations too – I’ve had, and loved, Punjabi-style kaddu ki sabzi, Thai gaeng ped gai faktong, Japanese pumpkin curry and, most recently, Sri Lankan pumpkin curry, or wattakka kalu pol. (This recipe takes inspiration and guidance from Sri Lankan recipe writers The Flavor Bender and Love and Other Spices.) I’m pleased to report that this may be the best pumpkin curry I’ve had yet.
One key point of clarification: Though this curry is pumpkin in name, I wouldn’t recommend using anything you’d carve into a Jack O’Lantern. Rather, look for a small red kuri or onion squash, whose richer flesh and thin skin make them the ideal choice in this recipe. And don’t peel your squash: The skin provides nice textural contrast and prevents the pumpkin pieces from falling apart.
In wattakka kalu pol, pumpkin is paired with coconut in three forms – desiccated, oil, and milk – which lends it a delicately sweet, creamy foundation. A broad medley of spices is added while the dish simmers and another batch is fried in coconut oil, or tempered, and used as a garnish at the end of cooking. And while you could certainly serve the curry with plain basmati rice or your preferred flatbread, I – never one to overlook a theme – decided to make coconut rice instead.
The result is hearty, fantastically comforting and thrumming with enough spice and heat to warm even your most frozen extremities. Wine helps with that too, of course – and for a dish with as much intensity and impact as this, I can’t think of a better fit than Kumpf et Meyer’s Utopiste Maceration.
This wine – made from 100% Gewurztraminer – is bonkers, and I mean that as a compliment. That isn’t just because of Gewurz’s famously perfumey flavour profile of jammy roses and lychees and candy. Unlike other 100% Gewurz wines, which can feel heavy or even oily on the palate, this wine is light on its feet, with just the right amount of volatile acidity to give it raciness and sharp little teeth. Gewurz is often the grape that sommeliers reach for when pairing South Asian dishes with wine and this one carries all of the spices and sweetness and potency without losing any of its zany, floral beauty.
And so, this autumn, by all means, order as many PSLs and pumpkin beers and slices of pumpkin pie as you’d like. But don’t forget about the restorative and warming power of pumpkin curry.
Sri Lankan Pumpkin Curry (Wattakka Kalu Pol)
For the curry:
4 tablespoons desiccated coconut shavings
3 tablespoons coconut oil
2 red onions, thinly sliced
4-5 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2-inch piece ginger, peeled and minced
2 bird’s eye chillis, minced (optional)
Fine sea salt, to taste
1 1-kilo red kuri or onion squash, innards removed (but not peeled), cut into
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon fennel seeds
½ teaspoon chilli powder
1 400ml tin full-fat coconut milk
4 pandan leaves (optional)
1-2 tablespoons light brown sugar or jaggery (optional)
For the coconut rice:
340g basmati rice
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
2 tablespoons coconut oil
1 400ml tin full-fat coconut milk
300ml boiling water
For the tempered spice garnish:
3 tablespoons coconut oil
15-20 curry leaves (preferably fresh)
1 ½ teaspoons black mustard seeds
½ teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1. First, toast the desiccated coconut, which will later be used as a thickening agent for the curry. In a small, dry frying pan, add the coconut in a single layer and turn the heat to medium-low. Stir and toss frequently for 7-10 minutes, or until the coconut is evenly golden-brown. Transfer to a bowl and allow to cool. Once cool, grind to a fine powder with a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Set aside.
2. In a large, lidded sauté pan or similar, add the coconut oil and place over medium heat. Once hot, add the onion slices. Cook for 4-5 minutes, or until softened, and add the garlic, ginger and chillis. Season generously with salt. Cook for several minutes more, stirring frequently, or until the aromatics have lost their raw smell.
3. Next, add the squash pieces, followed by the coriander, cumin, black pepper, cardamom, turmeric, cloves, fennel seeds and chilli powder, plus salt to taste. Stir to coat the squash pieces in the spices. Next, add the tin of coconut milk, before filling the tin with the same quantity of water and adding. The liquid should mostly cover the squash pieces, but it’s fine if it doesn’t do so completely. If using the pandan leaves, tie into knots and add to the liquid. Turn the heat to low, cover and cook for 10-15 minutes, until the squash is starting to soften.
4. Remove the lid and turn the heat up to medium. Cook for 10-15 minutes more, stirring often, or until the squash is fork-tender but not yet falling apart and the liquid is starting to thicken. To thicken further, add the toasted coconut powder and gently stir through. Check seasoning and add salt and brown sugar or jaggery if needed.
5. Meanwhile, while the curry cooks, prepare the coconut rice. Rinse the rice in cold running water for several minutes, or until the water runs clear. Add to a medium lidded saucepan, along with the salt, coconut oil, tin of coconut milk and boiling water. Raise the heat to high; once the whole mixture is boiling, turn the heat to medium-low and cover tightly. Cook for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and, leaving the lid on, allow to steam for 10 minutes more. Remove the lid and fluff the rice with a fork.
6. To finish, prepare the tempered spice garnish. To a small frying pan, add the coconut oil and place over medium heat. Once melted, add the curry leaves, black mustard seeds and fenugreek seeds. Cook for 3-4 minutes, stirring frequently, until the curry leaves are crisp and fried, the fenugreek is browned and the mustard seeds are starting to pop.
7. Once the curry is thickened, remove and discard the pandan leaves, if using. Divide the coconut rice between plates or bowls and top with the curry. Garnish with the fried spices and serve.
Claire M. Bullen is a professional food and travel writer, a beer and wine hound and an all-around lover of tasty things. Our first book with Claire, The Beer Lover’s Table: Seasonal Recipes and Modern Beer Pairings, is out now and available in all good book stores (and at HB&B). Follow her on Twitter at @clairembullen. Don’t miss out on Claire’s wine and food pairings, which go out every month in our Natural Wine Killers subscription box.