Fragrant and creamy, with a very slightly bitter edge, pathola maluwa (snake gourd curry) is one of Sri Lanka‘s less fiery dishes, yet is no less delicious than its spicier counterparts. Made with coconut milk and a wealth of aromatics, pathola maluwa is full of flavor, and is a perfect introduction to Sri Lankan cuisine.
What is pathola?
Pathola – a member of the squash family – gets its serpentine moniker from the fact that this vertical-hanging gourd grows to lengths of up to six feet, with skin that resembles the patterns found on snakes.
It’s eaten green, during its immature state, but if left to ripen, it will begin to twist, and eventually turn a vibrant orange. The delicately lacy white pathola flower is particularly beautiful too, with petals that end in long, wispy, tendril-like fronds.
Taste and texture-wise, pathola is similar to immature calabash and loofah – yes, the same thing you scrub your back with in the shower!
Pathola can also be used to make spicy, yet refreshing salads, as well as dal dishes, known as kuzhambu (pronounced “kulambu”). It’s sometimes fried too.
The inside of the immature pathola is similar to that of the fava bean, and within the velvety white interior nestle pale green seeds. Some Sri Lankan cooks prefer to remove these insides from the pathola, while others don’t. I’m firmly in the camp of don’t, simply because there’s so much goodness in those immature beans, plus a bit more flavor.
The food of Sri Lanka
In Sinhala – one of the two languages of Sri Lanka (the other being Tamil) – sri (pronounced, ‘shree’) means resplendent, and lanka means island. Certainly, most people who’ve visited this South Asian paradise, would, I suspect, be inclined to agree that Sri Lanka is indeed a resplendent island.
The food of Sri Lanka is as exotic and exciting as the island itself, and like its peoples, has a diverse heritage. Although the main forebears of Sri Lankan cuisine are South Indian, Malaysian, and Indonesian, influences from Sri Lanka‘s Middle Eastern and European colonial history are also evident in the cooking of this tropical island.
As with Samoan cuisine, the food of Sri Lanka is dominated by fish and coconut. Unlike Samoa, however, the Sri Lankans, like their Indian counterparts, have a love of spices.
Like other South and South-Eastern Asian countries, rice is a staple food in Sri Lanka, and is thought to have been in continuous cultivation for almost three thousand years. Today, around 90% of Sri Lankan farmland is used for growing rice.
Whether eaten as an accompaniment for curries (of which fish ones abound), made into idlis or hoppers (appa), or served up as kiribath, rice is as much a part of everyday Sri Lankan cooking as coconut… the latter being used for its oil, flesh, milk, etc. Flatbreads, such as roti, are also a staple part of the Sri Lankan diet.
Sri Lankan dishes, like those of South India, follow Ayurvedic principles, which means the food is not just created to taste good, it does you good too. And it’s so easy to make! Can you think of better reasons not to fall in love with it? I can’t.
So what sets Sri Lankan cuisine apart from its Indian neighbors to the north? Both traditionally use a wealth of aromatics but whereas South Indian food tends to lean toward being somewhat mild, Sri Lankan fare tends to have more of a fiery kick to it, and often has a flavor cycle of hot, sour, and salty that’s reminiscent of Thai food.
It’s fair, however, to say that Sri Lanka has evolved a delicious culinary tradition that’s all its own, of which this pathola maluwa is a fine example.
Pandan and curry leaves
Two other indispensable staples of Sri Lankan cuisine are rampe (pandan) and karapincha (curry leaves). You’ll find these little powerhouses of flavor in almost every Sri Lankan dish, including pathola maluwa. And with good reason; they’re not only some of the main aromatics in curry but they’re also used to flavor oil too, especially for sambols and pickles.
You’ll also find that curry leaves are as ubiquitous to South Indian cooking, as pandan is to Thai.
By the way, curry powder is not just dried and ground curry leaves! Curry powder is a blend of spices, which are ground up. Some blends are roasted to release their aromatic oils first (e.g. bathapu thuna paha), while others (such as the one below), which are used for vegetable dishes, are ground without roasting.
If you can’t find thuna paha (raw Sri Lankan curry powder, which you will need for this pathola maluwa recipe), you can easily make your own by grinding together the following spices…
3 tablespoons coriander seeds
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
½ tablespoon fennel seeds
⅓-inch piece cinnamon stick
2 fresh curry leaves
Thuna paha will keep for around six months in a cupboard in an airtight jar.
Pathola maluwa is sometimes also called pathola kiri hodi – snake gourd white curry – and because it’s so mild and creamy, it’s considered an everyday dish, suitable for everyone, even children. It’s also said to be an ideal healing food if you’re under the weather.
Serve up pathola maluwa with a plate of appa or roti, or a bowl of rice, and you’re good to go. As part of a larger meal, the mildness of this curry works really well with other, more strongly-flavored dishes, such as elumas, wambatu moju, or achcharu.
Whichever way you have this pathola maluwa, enjoy!
Fragrant and creamy, with a very slightly bitter edge, pathola maluwa (snake gourd curry) is one of Sri Lanka's less fiery dishes, yet is no less delicious than its spicier counterparts.
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil
- ½ teaspoon mustard seeds
- 6 curry leaves
- 1 pandanus leaf , thinly sliced
- 1 green chilli pepper , thinly sliced
- 2 Bombay onions (or 2 medium red onions), grated
- 2 cloves garlic , crushed
- 1 tablespoon umbalakada (smoked and dried Maldives fish)
- ½ teaspoon fenugreek powder (or 1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds)
- ¼ teaspoon turmeric powder
- ¼ teaspoon chili powder
- ½ teaspoon thuna paha (raw Sri Lankan curry powder)
- 10 oz. pathola (snake gourd), skin scraped off, cut into half-moon slices
- Salt , to taste
- 1⅔ cups coconut cream
- 1 tablespoon lime juice
In a saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat, and splutter the mustard seeds, curry leaves, pandanus leaf, and green chilli pepper for 20 seconds or so.
Add the onions, mix well, and fry for 5 mins, until translucent. Add the garlic, and continue to fry for another couple of minutes.
Add the Maldives fish and the spices. Mix and cook for 1 minute.
Add the snake gourd and mix well. Add salt to taste. Cover and cook for 6 minutes.
Add the coconut cream and lime juice, and cook another 3 minutes.