This recipe is for a Sri Lankan pumpkin curry with the lovely aroma of curry leaves, coconut milk and spices that is more like a saucy stew that can be had with basmati rice.
What makes this dish Sri Lankan?
Shared by a South Indian Tamilian chef Cynthia Shanmugalingam who grew up in tumultuous Sri Lanka, and now lives in London. Think of her recipe as a mix of Indian Tamil flavors with a Sri Lankan twist.
Honestly, given that the South Indian state of Tamilnadu and country of Sri Lanka are separated by a mere 35 miles across the Bay of Bengal, it’s no surprise that the two cuisines would be very similar. The tropical weather gives both these places an abundance of coconut, coconut oil and coconut milk and plenty of curry trees; and these ingredients have found their way into both the cuisines.
For me what makes this recipe uniquely Sri Lankan is the addition of cardamom pods and cinnamon. Tamilians rarely use these two ingredients in their savory foods. But in this Sri Lankan curry cardamom and cinnamon along with the usual spices is what gives the dish its distinct local flavor.
Recipes from Sri Lanka – Rambutan by Cynthia Shanmugalingam
Wall Street Journal did a brief write up on chef Cynthia Shanmugalingam and her new cookbook Rambutan where she explores the rich flavors and food traditions of Sri Lanka—and the complex political forces that have shaped them. In the article as an ode to autumn, she shared her recipe for a simple, coconut milk-laced pumpkin curry.
“Ms. Shanmugalingam’s recipes are full of easy-to-love flavors like coconut and tamarind and sway mostly Tamil in keeping with her family’s South Indian heritage. But she doesn’t shy away from Sri Lanka’s troubled political past—and present—either. Dishes like a Sinhalese black pork curry, adopted by her grandparents while weathering decades of civil war in a southern stronghold, speak to the need to flee, adapt and integrate. Food is political and it’s important to recognize that.” Wall Street Journal
Cynthia Shanmugalingam’s secret ingredient: fresh curry leaves
“Dry roast them, grind them, fry them … they’re the salt and pepper of Sri Lankan cooking.”
About curry leaves
“Fresh curry leaves. They are like olive oil for Italian food. For Sri Lankan food, there is no substitute. They’re in the family of plants that have citrus fruits and Szechuan peppercorns in them, so they have a bright, very bold flavor. They also have cinnamaldehyde, which is a compound that makes them taste slightly of cinnamon. There is nothing quite like curry leaves. They just intrinsically taste of Sri Lankan curry.” Cynthia Shanmugalingam
What is Sri Lankan Curry Powder
Also called Jaffa spice blend, Sri Lankan curry powder is a variety of spices that are dry roasted and then ground together to form a spice blend. Think of this like garam masala. What makes this curry powder different? It’s the addition of curry leaves. Curry leaves really turn the tables and give this spice blend a totally unique flavor. Other than curry leaves, fenugreek is also a unique spice that is in Sri Lankan curry powder. Besides these two, the other spices are what you normally find in garam masala and other Indian curry blends. Here is a sample of a Sri Lankan spice blend.
Sri Lankan Curry Powder
- 150g of coriander seeds
- 50g of cumin seeds
- 25g of fennel seeds
- 10g /1 tablespoon of fenugreek seeds
- 10g / 1 tablespoon of peppercorn
- 15 cardamom pods
- 3 strips of cinnamon, removed from a whole cinnamon stick(3 inches long)
- 5 cloves
- 2 pieces of mace
- 4-5 sprigs of curry leaves(this should amount to maybe 30-40 individual curry leaves)
- 200g of whole dry red chillies
Here is my Sri Lankan spice blend hack
Since I couldn’t find Jaffa spice blend I improvised. I used a combination of garam masala, fenugreek powder and curry powder. This combination is really aromatic and delicious. Give it a try!
Awesome side dish for Thanksgivng
When I made the Sri Lankan roasted veggies for the curry, they were so delicious that I was tempted to just eat them as is. They’re aromatic with the fragrance of cinnamon and spices all with a savory kick.
Here is a recipe for a delicious Sri Lankan roasted pumpkin curry from the book Rambutan and Wall Street Journal.
Sri Lankan Roasted Pumpkin Curry
—Adapted from “Rambutan” by Cynthia Shanmugalingam (Bloomsbury)
with a few tweaks
- 2 pounds cooking pumpkin or winter squash (such as red kuri or kabocha). Or a combination of butternut squash, sweet potato or delicata squash – about 5-6 cups
- 1 medium onion, peeled and thinly sliced
- 10 fresh curry leaves plus more for garnish
- 5 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
- 1 inch piece fresh ginger root, peeled and finely sliced or grated
- 1 tbsp Sri Lankan curry powder (such as Jaffna) ( use 1 tsp garam masala, 1 tsp fenugreek powder and 1 tsp curry powder plus red chili powder as much as you want)
- 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 2 whole cardamom pods, lightly crushed
- 1 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1 can coconut milk
- 1 lime
- Salt to taste
- 2 tablespoon coconut oil
- Olive oil
- 10 fresh curry leaves for garnish
First, roast the pumpkin: Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Scoop out seeds with a spoon and discard. Slice into wedges. Spread on a baking sheet. I used butternut squash and sweet potato. Toss with 1 tablespoon oil and season with salt and 1/2 teaspoon garam masala powder, 1/2 tsp fenugreek powder, and 1 1/2 tsp turmeric. Mix well. Roast until tender and golden and starting to brown at the edges, about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.
Make the curry: Place a medium-sized wok or saucepan over medium-high heat. Add 2 tablespoon of coconut oil, and when hot, fry the onion until translucent. Add curry leaves and garlic, and about a minute later, add mustard seeds, cumin seeds, 1 tsp turmeric, 1/2 tsp garam masala, 1/2 tsp fenugreek powder, 1/2 tsp curry powder and cardamom pods. Fry mixture for 1 minute, stirring and taking care not to burn the spices.
Add coconut milk and the roasted pumpkin. Add 1 cup of water and simmer gently for 2 to 3 minutes. Taste and add salt accordingly. Scatter with fresh ginger and squeeze lime overtop and stir in. Curry is ready. If it’s too thick feel free to add more water to thin it out.
To finish: Heat oil in a small pan. Once hot, add curry leaves and fry until crisp. Scatter leaves over the pumpkin curry and serve.
Serve with basmati rice or have it as a stew.