The Circus Gardener's Kitchen

seasonal vegetarian recipes with a side helping of food politics

Keralan-style pumpkin and lentil curry

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I spent three weeks in India at the start of this year. It was my first visit to that wonderful, extraordinary country and I brought back many great memories. Hair-raising tuk-tuk rides through the crazy Bangalore traffic, the vibrant hustle-bustle of the huge Devaraja fruit and vegetable and flower market, beautiful lakeside sunsets up in the hills of Wayanad, tea plantations gracing the slopes around Coonoor, sailing a converted rice barge through the languid backwaters of Kerala: all will stay with me forever.

With so many fond memories of the region, it was shocking and upsetting for me to see the devastation across Kerala throughout August and September when the state was hit by flooding and landslides. Around 400 people lost their lives in this disaster, with over a million displaced from their homes. In addition, nearly a million hectares of crops were destroyed, an area around half the size of Wales.

Kerala is used to flooding. It has 44 rivers and several large dams and, like the rest of the country, is subject to monsoon rains for three months a year.

However, this year was different. The amount of rainfall was 30% above average, and the devastating landslides were exacerbated by a combination of poor drainage, poor reservoir regulation, deforestation and illegal quarrying. There are also strong indications that climate change played a part. The region has experienced incremental increases in rainfall and temperature in recent years.

Kerala is known as the Land of Spices, famed for cardamom, vanilla, ginger and black pepper as well as an abundance of fruit and vegetables, tea and coffee.

However, with current projections suggesting that average temperatures in India will rise by 3 degrees by the end of this century, much of the fertile region of Kerala will become impossible to farm, a picture that will be mirrored across the world.

Global problems like climate change need government action at a global level, and time is running out. But while the clock is ticking we can still act, even at an individual level, by living more sustainably. For example, actions like stopping or reducing meat consumption, buying locally produced foods, switching to renewable energy and walking or cycling instead of driving all make a small but significant difference.

The more of us making these seemingly inconsequential changes then the more momentum we will generate, to stimulate the bigger changes needed to turn this whole thing around before it’s too late.

Kerala has its own distinct culture and cuisine, and this dish is my interpretation of a wonderful curry I ate at the Old Harbour Hotel in the coastal city of Kochi.

We dined in the hotel’s beautiful garden, serenaded by live musicians playing traditional Indian songs.

I loved this dish so much that I sent effusive compliments to the chef, who came out to talk to us. Given the skills and ability evident in his dishes, I was shocked by how young he was. Some people just have an innate feel for ingredients, textures and flavours. I told him, in all honesty, that the meal I had just eaten had been the best food of my three weeks in India.

I like to think this version comes pretty close to doing it justice.

Keralan-style pumpkin and lentil curry

650 g pumpkin or winter squash, peeled, deseeded and chopped into roughly 2 cm cubes
300 g red lentils, rinsed and drained
2 red chillies
2 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
3cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
2 onions, finely chopped
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
pinch asafoetida
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp sea salt
10 dried curry leaves
400 ml can organic coconut milk
400 ml can organic chopped tomatoes
2 tbsp groundnut oil
20 g fresh coriander leaves

to serve

boiled basmati rice


1. Chop the chillies roughly (if you prefer your curry mild, remove the seeds first). Place the chopped chilli, with the garlic and ginger, in a food processor or pestle and mortar and grind down to a rough paste. Set to one side.

2. Heat the groundnut oil over a high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the mustard seeds and cumin seeds and cook for 30 seconds, by which time they will have started to brown and give off a lovely aroma. Add the asafoetida and stir, then add the onions. Reduce the heat and stir until the onions have become soft and translucent. Add the garlic, chilli and ginger paste, sea salt, cubed pumpkin, lentils, ground cumin and turmeric. Stir to combine, making sure all the pumpkin and lentils are exposed to the oil. Now add the chopped tomatoes, curry leaves and 500 ml fresh water. Stir, bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer.

3. Cook for a further 20 minutes, or until the lentils are soft and the pumpkin is just tender. Stir in the coconut milk and bring back to simmer, then add the garam masala and half of the chopped coriander. Remove from the heat.

4. Serve the curry hot, sprinkled with the remaining chopped coriander and accompanied by plain basmati rice.

Categories: dairy free, gluten free, vegan, vegetarian


17 replies

  1. I am smiling as I print this out for the kitchen – the recipe will go to the very top of the to-do file ! Wonderful, and I even have the asafoetida which many know as hing powder. Lucky you: I have a dear German gf living in Kochi and I have been unsuccessfully planning a couple of years to visit and stay awhile . . . Would love to visit the spice plantations and love both Keralan and Goan cuisines . . . and, as usual could not agree more about your feelings re our need to know the truth and the obligations that truth brings. . .

    • Thank you Eha. I loved Kochi, which was probably the most westernised of the various towns and cities we visited in our trip across Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. There is so much to love and admire in this amazing country and I hope that one day I will return. If you do manage to get to visit your friend in Kochi, I highly recommend the Old Harbour hotel, the food is truly exceptional. Steve x

  2. Congratulations on an inspiring description of your visit to India – it makes me want to too. The recipe looks great too and I hope to make it.

    Teresa N

  3. So glad you’ve been able to have a ‘taste’ of India. We’ve been lucky enough to spend almost six months therein recent years. I love country and its food. Kerala’s cuisine is especially enticing. Thanks for this amazing recipe which I will make within two weeks. Company is coming from overseas and expecting one of my Indian feasts. On a sad note, like you I was devastated to hear of the flooding. We all need to do our part, especially because so many governments seem unable/unwilling to act.

    • Hi Peggy. Reading about your extraordinary travels has been inspiring, and after my visit to India I now share your love of that country. I hope that Kerala will recover from this devastation, and I would like to think that we will return there one day. Steve x

  4. Never been to India, but hoping to before my life is over. I have many things to say about flooding events and how we’ve destroyed historically stable climate conditions (and yet refuse to reverse that trend .. don’t get me started).

    But YEAH! I could eat this for breakfast. Was wanting something new for the holiday pumpkin flesh chilling in the fridge; this is definitely it. Cheers!

    • Hi Shannon. I hope you get to fulfill that wish. It is impossible for me to find words adequate enough to describe the experience of India. Our visit will stay with me forever – the people, the culture and, of course, the food. It manages to be all at once astonishing, upsetting, beguiling and uplifting. Steve x

  5. Yum! Pumpkin curry! An excellent seasonal recipe. Any suggestions as to roasting some radishes and green beans, in terms of herbs or flavorings?

  6. I have so many winter squash his year I will have to give this a try. It looks delicious!


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