It's one of those things that has become, quite without design, a seasonal ritual and a family tradition: pumpkin soup.
There's something so soothing about it, not too sweet, nor too spicy, simple comfort in a time of change. There's something cheerful about a cup of the sunny liquid in a smoggy grey day or as the light falls to an early dusk.
As the festival of lights and the sibling-bonding rites bring the high Hindu festive season to a warm close, aglow with flickering diyas and satisfaction, the natural seasons flicker through their own change of guards. It's time for migrating wagtails to bob along the window sill. It's time to contend with flu-bitten family members and with one's own scratchy throat (a little too well smoked from the frenetic fireworks of suburban celebrants). It's not quite time for the winter glut of tomatoes, cauliflowers, broccoli and cabbages; but it is the season of fourteen greens, of sprouted palms and apples and other exotic fruits (like raisins, once the purview of the kabuliwallah), and of the fat marrows, gourds, squashes and pumpkins of cooler months.
The sweet yellow pumpkin turned up in the five fried or frittered vegetables of the Durga Puja feasts. The ash gourd has been looking to meet up with a few coconut curls for a while. The small, round, speckled green pumpkins have been turning up whole in their youth, rather than sliced into the wedges that maturity enjoins. And the courgette or zucchini — name determined by a marketer's whims, being both equally foreign appellations in these parts — is at its green or yellow best now, though considered a springtime special in the temperate zones.
So it was for many reasons fitting that Hallowe'en lunch fleshed out the cliche of a carved-up pumpkin and a sliced-diced-spiced green courgette ... in a cauldron of soup.
There was leftover baked pumpkin — remnants of a batch of spicy cinnamon rolls! There was a courgette that had escaped last night's skillet of pasta. There was a spouse with a stuffed nose who exclaimed that nothing he ate tasted of anything, and yet the fever wanted feeding! Soup for a flu; a cauldron for a kitchen witch — it seemed this costume party was inevitable.
If the resultant soup's unexpectedly golden hue reminded us of our teatime guest, the golden oriole that startled us on his recon mission around our dining room, it was surely fitting to fleck it with the green of the leaves that hid this camouflage-adept spy? If it evolved into a laksa-ish Asian bowl along the way, though we had no noodles or beansprouts to hand, at least it was a welcome reminder of South Asian soup-stews for quarantined travellers. If it caught on a memory of coconut-flecked chhokka and demanded a garnish, that's the whole point of culinary tradition — to warm the heart with remembered flavours. And if the slices of spotted green courgette skin made someone (ahem!) yearn to call it a stew of sliced goblin fingers, that was apt too on a day when grown-ups are licensed to raid the dress-up box and act scary silly.
Curried Cross-seasonal Pumpkin Soup
4 bowlfuls of hot lunch or supper
1 kg of orange-fleshed pumpkin, baked and scooped out of its shell*
1 tbsp of sunflower oil or butter (I used a mix of both)
3 large cloves of garlic, finely sliced
1 large red onion, finely sliced
A thumb-sized 'knuckle' of fresh ginger, grated or minced (don't bother peeling; just wash well)
Salt or fish sauce to taste (or not at all — depends on your stock below)
2 single-serving sachets of tomato ketchup or 2tbsp tomato puree or leftover pasta sauce**
1 medium-sized green courgette, aka zucchini, halved lengthwise and sliced thinly into half-moons
1tbsp red chilli flakes
1 heaped teaspoon curry powder (I used medium-hot Madras style) or North Indian garam masala***
Pinch of cinnamon or allspice powder
3 to 3 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable broth (I used chicken soup stock cubes this time, supposedly for extra flu-fighting flavour!)
1 sachet of dehydrated coconut milk (I had an emergency stash of Maggi's in the cupboard) or a scant cup of coconut cream
Juice of half a lime (or more, if your pumpkin is quite sweet)
1tbsp of coconut or sesame oil
6-8 curry leaves
1tbsp of dessicated coconut, grated, or 2tbsp fresh coconut curls
- Mash up the pumpkin flesh with a fork, or if you're keen on a smooth pureéd texture, run it through the food processor.
- Heat the vegetable oil or butter (or both together) in a casserole or wok, and add the garlic, onion (reserving a few slices for garnishing) and ginger. Sauté gently until the onions start to turn translucent, which should take about a minute.
- Add the salt, if you're sure you'll want it, and the tomato sauce — yes, just pretend you're making the ubiquitous restaurant-style base 'masala' for some 'North Indian' curry. (You can buy it in a packet, I know, but I dislike the vinegary taste it seems to come with.) Cook for another minute, or till the onions are really quite translucent.
- Add the courgette slices and cook on very low heat for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, till the vegetables start to soften.
- Stir in the chilli flakes, curry powder, cinnamon or allspice. Mix in the pumpkin. Let them cook for another minute while you heat up the stock.
- Add the stock, stir to mix, cover and increase heat so that the soup comes to a boil.
- Turn down the heat to a simmer, mix in the coconut milk (or cream) and cook uncovered for about half an hour, or until vegetables are quite meltingly tender and the spice oils are starting to float up to the surface.
- Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly while you prepare the ingredients for the garnish. Put the reserved onion slices and curry leaves in a small frying pan or flambé ladle together with the coconut or sesame oil, and set aside until ready to serve.
- Add lime juice to soup. Stir and ladle up into bowls.
- Heat the ingredients for the garnish, and keep shaking the pan as the oil warms up so that the aromatics don't burn. Add the coconut as soon as the onion changes colour at its edges to a golden brown. The coconut should turn golden in just a few seconds; remove from heat immediately and spoon up the crispy garnish over the bowls of soup (avoid the oil as far as possible). And serve!
** You could certainly use a fresh chopped tomato or two. But unless you're alright with bits of tomato skin floating into your teeth, you'd need to blanch and peel, and ideally deseed them first — and I couldn't be bothered. It's fine if you intend to purée the soup though, which many (including the Boy) prefer. Don't skip the tomato entirely though — you won't taste it in the final dish, but you will miss its umami tang if you leave it out.
*** Yes, of course, the flavour changes depending on the spice blend you choose. But that's the fun of it! I like to do something different each time; but maybe you'll find a favourite blend and stick with it. I've also used Kolhapuri masala, chai masala(!), mulling spices, and apple sauce in this soup before — and it's all good. Maybe next time I'll have an yen for chermoula or za'atar — who knows?
NOTE: If you prefer to leave out the coconut milk, it's possibly best to blend the soup for body. Alternatively, you could add a cheese rind or three; or add a cup of plain thick yogurt at the end, along with the lime — just remember to take it off the heat first or it will curdle.