Make This Roast Pumpkin Curry to Celebrate Sri Lankan Immigrant Cuisine
Cynthia Shanmugalingam’s book Rambutan combines personal and diasporic Sri Lankan recipes—with a good dash of ‘Tamil joy.’
I have a special place for Sri Lankan cuisine in my heart. While it has some similarities to the ways Tamilians eat in India, in Sri Lanka, dishes are robust and laced with spices, with emphasis on techniques and ingredients. And so, I found it evocative to read the description of Point Pedro, a town at the northernmost tip of Sri Lanka, in Cynthia Shanmugalingam’s new cookbook, Rambutan. It transported me to the coastal state Tamil Nadu, an Indian region connected to Sri Lanka’s Jaffna district via the Palk Strait.
“In the large, airy building, some feet away from the black and gold sand, you can still hear the Arabian Sea, ferocious with fish, crabs and catamarans,” she writes. “Beside the shouting in the fish market and above the rice guy with his nineteen different kinds of rice, the vegetable sellers sit cross-legged on a cement floor. Each one is surrounded by beautiful piles of fruit and veg.”
Shanmugalingam is a first-generation Sri Lankan who grew up in Coventry, England in the 1980s. Her parents—dad, a university lecturer, and mom, a factory worker—moved from Sri Lanka in the ’60s. In addition to various office jobs, Shanmugalingam ran street food pop-ups in London for more than 10 years, all of which culminated into a culture-rich Sri Lankan cuisine cookbook.
“While growing up, mum and my grandmother who also lived with us, made Sri Lankan food everyday,” she says. “We ate a lot of ‘rice and curry,’ usually fish or seafood with plain white rice and a lot of vegetables. Sometimes to be modern, they tried their hand at ‘noodles’ which means a kind of Sri Lankan stir fry, or ‘bolognaise’—a kind of spicy beef curry with spaghetti, which was completely delicious.”
Before she wrote Rambutan, Shanmugalingam’s dream was to open a Sri Lankan restaurant. “I felt like there was something to say about being the child of immigrants, caught between two worlds, and giving people a kind of view into my sense of the island,” she says.
In 2020, amid global pandemic quarantines, Shanmugalingam shelved the project temporarily. “Then, with George Floyd news, there was this explosion in conversations about race and representation in lots of areas. It seemed like it was high time for a Sri Lankan to write a cookbook.”
To write Rambutan, Shanmugalingam combined personal and national narratives. She used recipes from her grandmother’s notebook—including a stand-out chicken sodhi curry—as transcribed by her mother, as well as several of her mother’s recipes. She also traversed through the country to learn from locals.
“Sri Lankan mums tend to give you maddening instructions like ‘Cook it until it’s cooked,’” she says. “If you ask, ‘Do I put coconut milk in now?’ they say, ‘Why not? Something new.’” These mothers are stellar chefs, too, helping Shanmugalingam to create a cookbook of shared ideas that represent the diversity of Sri Lankan cuisine.
Rambutan features varied recipes from the island. Some have modern twists, and some are straight-up classics. It’s also the story of how an immigrant kid views their parents’ home.
“It’s full of melancholy and Tamil joy and politics and family and cricket and curries, and I hope it gives the reader just a bit of the same wonder and excitement I’ve had about Sri Lanka all my life,” Shanmugalingam says.
This roast pumpkin curry shows how enterprising home cooks build complex flavors with a relatively short list of ingredients. Plus, it can be made with different types of squash or pumpkin, so global cooks can adapt the recipe to their kitchens.
Cynthia Shanmugalingam’s Roast Pumpkin Curry Recipe
• 1 pumpkin or squash, such as delica, kabocha, or butternut, approximately 2-2½ pounds
• 2 tablespoons coconut or vegetable oil
• 2 tablespoons salt
• ½ teaspoon Sri Lankan curry powder or 1 teaspoon chili powder
• 1 medium red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
• 20 fresh curry leaves, divided
• 3 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
• 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
• 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
• 2 whole cardamom pods, lightly bashed in a mortar and pestle
• 7 ounces coconut milk
• 1½ teaspoon ground turmeric
• 1 tablespoon coconut or vegetable oil
• 1½-inch piece of ginger, peeled, finely sliced or cut into matchsticks
• 1 lime
1. Preheat the oven to 425°F. With a spoon, scoop the seeds out of the pumpkin and discard. Cut the seeded pumpkin into wedges around ¾-inch thick, leaving the skin on). Place on a baking tray with 1 tablespoon of oil, and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of salt and ¼ teaspoon of the curry powder, mixing well. Roast for 20–25 minutes until tender and golden and starting to brown at the edges. Remove from the oven and leave to cool on the tray.
2. To make the curry, put a medium-sized wok or saucepan over a medium-high heat. Add the remaining tablespoon of oil, and when hot, fry the onion until translucent. Add 10 curry leaves and garlic, and about a minute later, add the mustard seeds, cumin seeds, and cardamom. Fry the mixture for 1 minute, being careful not to burn the spices, stirring and adding more oil if necessary.
3. Pour the coconut milk into the wok or saucepan, and then add the turmeric and remaining ¼ teaspoon of curry powder, 1 teaspoon of salt, and two pieces of the roasted pumpkin for flavor. Cook until the curry is gently bubbling, 3–4 minutes, then remove from heat.
4. Place the roasted pumpkin wedges on a plate, and spoon the curry liquid over and around it.
5. Heat coconut or vegetable oil in a small pan and add the remaining 10 curry leaves. Fry until crisp, and then scatter over the pumpkin curry. Add fresh ginger and finish with a squeeze of lime.