I have long loved all things curried. My first encounter with it was at a small hole-in-the-wall take out place in Brighton, MI, that my dad took me to. They also had this fantastic Thai-style fried rice—it was like nothing I had ever had before. Siam Cuisine in Ann Arbor quickly became my favorite place for a good curry; the beef and basil curry, and red shrimp curry were favorites of mine, and their Pad Thai was amazing, too. It wasn’t just the food that made this place special. It was run by two women—I assume from Thailand—who, between the two of them waited the tables and ran the kitchen. It was a staple in the Kerrytown area of the city, located in what I would imagine used to be a house. You would eat in the former living room and, through an encased opening that curtains were hung from, you could see the dining room just off the kitchen where the meals were prepared. And these ladies were characters; if you let them, or they were running low on something in the kitchen, they’d just go ahead and order for you. Unfortunately, as I just learned, they’ve closed their doors.
Curries aren’t exclusive to Thai cuisine, though. India, Africa, the Caribbean, and many other places around the world have some sort of curry in their cuisine. But I have to favor that of Thailand. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Garam Masala and mustard seeds of Northern India, the tamarind of Southern India, and of course chicken tikka masala (a.k.a. British curry), but Thai curry is at the top of my list. I’m a sucker for lemongrass (especially in my Lemongrass-Strawberry Shortcake), Thai basil (which I love to use in both a Thai basil pesto, made with Thai chilies, coconut milk and peanuts, as well as my Thai Basil Soda), and their balance between hot, sweet, and sour, as I imitate in Asian Steak Salad.
(If you buy a piece of lemongrass with the root end in tact, cut it off so you have about 1/2″ above the root and place it in a little dish of water. Keep it in a bright spot inside until little roots start to form–and clean the water daily–and then you can plant it in the ground and grow a whole lemongrass plant. It’s not winter hardy so either use it before the first fall frost or try bringing it indoors to grow–I’m trying this for the first time this year so I’ll let you know how it goes.)
“Thai cuisine” is a vastly sweeping generalization—it’s a bit like saying “American cuisine”. Is that Southern soul food, Midwestern meat and potatoes, fresh and light fare of the Pacific coast, or a piping bowl of New England clam chowder or a famous clam bake on the beach? The food of Thailand is no different; there are different regions, each with their own unique cuisine. Andy Ricker, the chef behind the Pok Pok restaurants, writes about some of these in his book of the same name. He was on The Splendid Table not too long ago talking about this, and it was eye opening.
That said, this recipe here doesn’t really hale from a specific Thai region, but, rather, from my own kitchen. Most curry pumpkin soup recipes use curry powder, which I think is more associated with Indian-inspired food. Curry powder is usually some varying combination of cumin, cardamom, coriander, turmeric, dry mustard, fenugreek, cinnamon, cloves, ground chilies and ginger. Here, I favor the pungent and brighter Thai curry paste—red to be specific. Similarly, it uses cumin and coriander but it differs in its use of fresh young ginger (galangal), red chilies, lemongrass and lime leaves, all having been worked into a paste. I love it because it’s this pungency that helps bring balance to the sweetness of the pumpkin or squash. I love adding another layer of aromatic sourness by adding not only fresh stalks of lemongrass to the soup, but also those florally-scented and hourglass-shaped kaffir lime leaves. Because all of ingredients going into this soup, curry paste and red chilies aside, have a certain level of sweetness to them—from the tender sweetness of the roasted pumpkin to the subtle tropical taste of the coconut milk—a generous bit of fresh lime juice and fish sauce is needed to help bridge the gap between the sweet and the spicy.
(If you find kaffir lime leaves sold in a packet in the store just wrap the ones you don’t use in paper towel, stick in a sealable plastic bag, and stash in the freezer–they’ll keep for a VERY long while!)
I love this with a garlicy naan. Thankfully, you can buy naan in most grocery stores now so this is just a question of doctoring it up with a little oil that’s been worked into a sort of paste with a hefty bit of garlic and scant bit of spices. I know naan is more of an Indian food, but it’s a great bread to have with this—and you need bread with soup, right?
Start by splitting the pumpkin or squash in half and scooping out the seeds. As coincidence would have it, the grocery store was out of baking pumpkins but had plenty of kuri squash. If there are sugar pumpkins, or some other baking/roasting pumpkin at the store though feel free to use that.
Either way, rub the inside and outside of the cleaned pumpkin with vegetable oil, sprinkle it with salt and lay it on a roasting pan or baking sheet cut-side down. Roast it at 400° for 35 – 40 minutes, until it’s tender and soft.
Meanwhile, heat a little vegetable oil in a Dutch oven, or some other heavy-bottomed pot, and drop in one yellow onion that you’ve chopped. Brown the onion with a little salt for 10 minutes.
Tie 2 large stalks of lemongrass together with kitchen twine and, by thwacking it with the back/spine of your knife, bruise it to release its aroma and flavor. Drop this bundle in with one minced red chili (such as cayenne), two minced cloves of garlic, and three bruised or torn kaffir lime leaves. I usually fish the lime leaves out at the end so I just rip them in half, but you can puree them into the soup later—just be sure to pull the center midrib out of the leaves if you’re going to do that.
Stir in some curry paste, and then whisk in a can of coconut milk, breaking up the curry paste and melting it into the milk. Pour in some vegetable stock and bring it to a boil. Scoop the flesh of the pumpkin from its skin and add it to the pot. Lower the heat, add in a little fish sauce, and let the soup simmer for 20 – 30 minutes before you remove the lemongrass stalks (and maybe the lime leaves) before you puree it.
To make the naan, mix some minced garlic, vegetable oil, salt and a very minimal amount of ground cumin and coriander seed. Bake it off in the oven for 10 minutes or so.
Just before you serve the soup give the pot a generous hit of fresh lime juice and serve it with plenty of fresh cilantro leaves, minced red chilies, sliced scallions, chopped cashews and, if you want, finely minced kaffir lime leaves.
I’m going to make it my mission to replace the pumpkin spice craze with pumpkin curry—I hope you’ll join the revolution.