Sweet & Savory Pumpkin

Simmered with Chillies, Sesame, Coconut, and Brown Sugar

One of the things I love most about Indian cooking is how we can take an ingredient that’s ordinary or familiar and transform it into something new and unexpected. For example, you may have eaten pumpkin all your life, but I can guarantee you’ve never tasted it quite like this.

Chunks of pumpkin are flavored with a mellow, nutty blend of sesame seeds, coconut, and brown sugar. Meanwhile, fiery green chillies and mustard seeds provide a sharp counterbalance. The overall effect is a sweet and savory dish that elevates pumpkin beyond the usual desserts to which we’ve become accustomed.

If it happens not to be pumpkin season, this recipe is equally delicious with butternut squash, which you can usually purchase year-round.

Serves 6-8

One 4-pound pumpkin
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
10 to 12 curry leaves*
3 or 4 Indian green chillies*, cut in half
1 large onion, chopped
1 tablespoon minced ginger
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup sesame seeds
2 tablespoons coconut powder (unsweetened, desiccated coconut)
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
Cayenne, to taste
* Available at Indian grocery stores

  1. Using a very sharp knife, cut the stem off the pumpkin, creating a flat base so the pumpkin sits squarely on your cutting board. Then go around the perimeter and cut off the rind, in strips from top to bottom, similar to the way you would supreme an orange. Cut the pumpkin into quarters lengthwise and remove the seeds and fiber. Finally, cut each quarter into 1-inch chunks.
  2. Heat the oil in a very large saucepan over medium-high heat. Once the oil is shimmering hot, add the mustard seeds, curry leaves, and green chillies.
  3. As soon as the mustard seeds start to pop, add the onion and cook, stirring, until softened, about 3 minutes.
  4. Decrease the heat and add the ginger, cumin, salt, turmeric, and cinnamon and cook, stirring, for 1 to 2 minutes.
  5. Add the pumpkin to the pan and stir well for several minutes, until the pumpkin pieces are well coated with the spicy onion. Cover, decrease the heat, and simmer for 10 minutes.
  6. Meanwhile, gently toast the sesame seeds and coconut powder in a dry skillet over medium heat until lightly golden and fragrant, about 3 minutes. Grind in a spice mill to create a smooth powder.
  7. Add the sesame-coconut powder to the pumpkin along with the brown sugar and stir well. Cover and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, until the pumpkin is very tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Some of the smaller chunks should turn to mush, while the majority retain their shape but are soft all the way to the center. Feel free to add 1/4 to 1/2 cup water to help the dish come together.
  8. Adjust the seasonings to taste. The beauty of this dish is the balance of sweet, spicy, and salty, so play around by adding brown sugar, salt, or cayenne to your liking. Transfer to a large serving bowl and serve. Inform your guests to remove the green chillies and curry leaves while eating.

Reprinted from Bollywood Kitchen: Home-Cooked Indian Meals Paired with Unforgettable Bollywood Films by Sri Rao (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017). Order your copy today!

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