‘Pumpkins’ Xu Gu 19th c Qing Dynasty

After I maligned curry powder a few posts back (though I did redeem myself), a childhood friend reminded me how much I loved  his mother’s dip for vegetables. Margaret’s memorable dip, prepared with her homemade mayonnaise and… curry powder, was sure to be on hand for our frequent picnics in Delhi.

Many sundays during the winter, when the brilliant sun warmed us enough to shed our woolies, we would drive to the outskirts of the city, find a spot near some beautiful crumbling tomb set amid flowering mustard fields, spread out our durries and get ready to eat. There were no ants to ruin our feasting, but there were inquisitive goats to shoo off, pesky monkeys to be wary of and vain peacocks to admire.

Our summer picnics were on full moon nights beside crumbling tombs inside the Delhi zoo that boasted as its backdrop the majestic ramparts of the 16th century Purana Qila or old fort. The zoo would be closed to the public at that hour but my father pulled rank as he was the architect.  Aside from our chatter and clatter the only other sounds we could hear at night were of lions roaring across the moat nearby – roaring, I was convinced, at the ghosts of disgruntled Mughals swishing about the tombs.

Delhi Zoo, Habib Rahman Architect. Photo © Ram Rahman

Our picnics were an Indo-American affair of family and friends, and the menu seldom varied. We brought along tiffin carriers filled with my family’s signature shami kababs: my paternal grandmother’s recipe, prepared by our cook but referred to by our friends as ‘Kabib’s Hababs’ – named after my father Habib. The food the American family brought appealed to me much more. They introduced me to frankfurters roasted on a brush fire, brown bread spread with peanut butter and raw vegetables dipped into the curried mayonnaise.  And no Christmas passed without Margaret presenting us (though monopolized by my father) a jar of her homemade mayonnaise.

These days, I seldom eat frankfurters or peanut butter. Raw vegetables that are dipped in a sauce we now call ‘crudités.’ The mustard fields, and many of the tombs of the Delhi Sultanate that stood in splendid isolation, have been swallowed up by the megalopolis that is spreading its hideous tentacles miles and miles beyond where we picnicked.

But I do prepare crudités, deviled eggs and steamed artichokes with Margaret’s curried mayonnaise. And here in Maine when the leaves turn into brilliant reds and oranges and there is a hint of frost in the air I warm my family and friends up with steaming pumpkin soup spiked with ginger, nutmeg, cayenne and the ubiquitous curry powder. It’s the simplest dish to cook and adds a great zing to your Thanksgiving feast. A recent addition to my batterie de cuisine is a Cuisinart Smart Stick that creams or purees vegetables for soup right in the pot, without having to transfer it to a blender or food processor, making clean up a breeze. My ‘magic wand’ is also great for whipping up nutritious fruit smoothies for the kids.

Curried Pumpkin Ginger Soup:

2 tablespoons butter or olive oil

2 cups finely chopped onion

2 garlic cloves, smashed and minced

I small boiled peeled potato cubed

1 1/2 tablespoons peeled fresh ginger, minced

1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 tablespoon curry powder

3/4 teaspoon ground red pepper (cayenne), or to taste

2 15-ounce cans solid-pack pumpkin

6 cups water or milk

1 1/2 cups good-quality vegetable broth or chicken broth

1 14-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk or pint of half and half

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

1 jalapeño finely minced

Juice of half a lemon

Salt to taste.

1. In a large pot, heat butter or olive oil over moderate heat and add onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, ginger and potato, continue cooking for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add spices and puree in a blender or food processor with a little of the broth and return to the pot.

2. Add salt, pumpkin, water or milk , broth, and coconut milk or half and half, stirring to combine and simmer gently, uncovered, about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

3. Serve immediately, or refrigerate, covered, for 1 day. Reheat when ready to serve.

Squeeze some lemon juice and garnish with chopped cilantro, thinly slivered fresh ginger and chopped jalapeño (you might want to serve the garnishes separately for guests with timid palates). To make a spectacular presentation serve in a scooped out fresh pumpkin.

Serves 10 to 12.

© Sukanya Rahman, November 2009 (originally published in Art Insider)