Credit: Earl Carter

Pumpkin kola kanda

O Tama Carey is the owner of Lankan Filling Station. Her first cookbook is Lanka Food. She is a food editor of The Saturday Paper.

Credit: Earl Carter

I have mentioned this many times before in various places, but I feel that it shouldn’t be understated: I love Asian breakfasts. (“Asian” as a blanket word is not great, particularly in terms of food; however, I do think we can make an exception here.) I love the bold savoury flavours they so often deliver and the cookedness of them, despite many coming from countries where the morning heat or humidity can be intense. I love their depth of different flavours and the hearty excitement of eating soups, curries, rice and pickles to start the day. (In this vein, I would like to put forward my case that there are many pasta dishes that should be eaten for breakfast. Isn’t spaghetti carbonara basically eggs, bacon, cheese and toast anyway?)

Don’t get me wrong, I am partial to a morning pastry. I think porridge is a wonder, and toast is actually one of the finest things in life. I also understand a quick smoothie and, weirdly, about once a year I get a cornflakes craving. I fully appreciate that any spare time in the morning is often best used to get a little more sleep.

A warming, nourishing breakfast, however, is a thing of beauty, so when you have a bit more time, perhaps you would like to try this. I suspect kola kanda is a dish little known outside of the island of Sri Lanka and its diaspora, but it follows in the tradition of eating rice for breakfast in one of its many wondrous forms. It is essentially a rice porridge along the lines of the better-known congee.

Traditionally, the rice is cooked with lots of water, fresh coconut is added and then, near the end, a paste of various combinations of wild, bitter and healthful herbs is added, sometimes rendering the soup bright green, sometimes a little murkier. It can be runny or thick but is usually served with a piece of jaggery on the side to chew on as you go. Whatever its looks, it is a bowl of health and will set you up for the day.

This pumpkin version veers away from tradition and arose from two separate sources. One morning when I was feeling poorly, my man friend cooked a pumpkin congee for my breakfast. It did wonders for my strength and fortitude. And then, serendipitously, the very next day my work man friend suggested we do a pumpkin kola kanda for brunch on the weekend. Now I’m sharing it, so we should all say thank you to Muu and Coco.

This can be prepared in advance and sit in your fridge for days of enjoyment and, like congee, it does well with extra condiments. In the tradition of a temper, I cut some bacon into small pieces and gently cooked it until crisp, adding some curry leaves and mustard seeds at the end. Spooned over the top, this was most delicious. Thinly sliced shallot rounds would also be good, as would some fresh coriander. In my mind, a chilli condiment is essential, whether it be an oil or a crunch. And a crisp thing never goes astray. Chinese fried bread would work, or do as we do at Lankan Filling Station – fry thin strips of roti and serve them with our Maldive fish sambol, which is a bit like an XO sauce. (If this sounds good, you’ll have to come buy a jar from us.)


Serves 4-6

Time: about 1 hour preparation + cooking

  • 110g sushi rice
  • 45g ginger, ⅔ cut into a fine julienne, the rest left as a whole piece
  • 2 tsp salt flakes
  • 2 litres water
  • 700g piece of Kent pumpkin
  • 1 tbsp ghee
  • 150g freshly grated coconut
  • salt flakes and white pepper to season
  1. Wash and drain the rice, then place in a medium heavy-based saucepan. Add the piece of ginger, salt and water and bring to the boil, before reducing to a gentle simmer. Cook for 40 minutes, stirring from time to time as it thickens.
  2. Meanwhile, cut the skin off the pumpkin and remove the seeds. Grate a third of it on the large holes of a box grater and set aside. Cut the remaining pumpkin into medium-sized chunks and place into a baking tray with the ghee and a nice amount of salt. Cover with foil and bake in a preheated oven at 180°C for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven (the pumpkin should be soft enough for you to mash it into a puree with a fork). Set aside.
  3. When the rice has been cooking for about 40 minutes, add the coconut and the grated pumpkin and give it a little stir. Cook for another 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, as the coconut can cause it to stick a little.
  4. Add the pureed pumpkin and the rest of the ginger, stir well and allow it to heat back up.
  5. At this stage, it’s just a matter of tasting for final seasoning and checking the consistency. This version is quite thick but feel free to add more water if you wish. Any rice you use will be a little different, so go with what you like best.
  6. Serve hot with accompaniments.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 13, 2023 as "Hot and hearty".

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