What fruit can you add to stir-fry, drink as agua fresca or beer, and make into sashimi or curry? Watermelon. I know, especially the watermelon curry is a bit of a surprise but stay with me. Of course, you can enjoy it in its natural state too, sliced and eaten “as is” or used as an ingredient in a simple summer salad.
I once assumed that watermelon was native to America or at least was most popular in the U.S. Boy, was I wrong!
I’m enthralled with watermelon curry, a far cry from the all-American watermelon slices on the porch. Before I get to the curry recipes, here are a few facts that set me straight on where watermelon comes from and how it is enjoyed in cultures all over the globe.
Watermelon from King Tut to Today (in 10 bullet points)
- No one is sure exactly where or when the ancestor of our modern watermelon was first grown, but archaeologists know that seeds from an ancient type of watermelon were eaten at least 5,000 years ago in Libya.
- More than 4,000 years ago, the Egyptians were cultivating watermelons and King Tut’s tomb contains pictures of watermelon. At the time, it was a rather bitter, yellowish fruit prized for its liquid.
- Somewhere in the period from 400 BC to 500 AD, watermelon moved from Africa to the Mediterranean. References to watermelon in Jewish law texts of that period and indicate that watermelon was being cultivated for sweetness and eaten for dessert.
- A Roman cookbook by Apicius includes a recipe for stewed melon (thought to be watermelon) with vinegar, honey and a seasoning called silphium, also called laserwort.
- By the 14th Century, watermelon was becoming redder and sweeter through domestication, as pictured in early Renaissance paintings and described in texts.
- Watermelons have grown in North America for hundreds of years. Native Americans consumed watermelon, possibly as early as the mid 1660s. The first cookbook of American authorship printed in the United States (in 1796), American Cookery, included a recipe for pickled watermelon rind.
- Today, China is by far the biggest producer of watermelon. That country is so smitten with watermelon that it has a watermelon-shaped 40,000+ square foot museum in Beijing devoted to the fruit. Other major producers (besides the U.S.) include Turkey, Iran, Brazil, and Egypt.
- Watermelons can be huge, tiny or anywhere in between – The Guinness world’s record for the largest watermelon is a 350+ pounder grown by Chris Kent in Tennessee. The smallest member of the watermelon “family” is the pepquinos, a cousin to the watermelon (as is the cucumber), and it is about the size of a quarter.
- Watermelon is 90% water, so naturally it works well as a beverage. My favorite “weird watermelon drink” is watermelon beer, made in southern Russia and also by at least one U.S. manufacturer, a microbrewery in Huntsville, Alabama.
- Although watermelon “meat” tends to disintegrate when cooked, it can be warmed or grilled without losing its shape. The rind is also cooked in several cultures and there are many recipes for using both the watermelon rind and meat in curry. That dish is a particular specialty of the Indian state of Rajasthan.
I decided to use Rajasthan watermelon curry as inspiration for a one-dish supper, by adding zucchini, bell pepper, cherry tomatoes, and tofu. If you like the concept but don’t want to go to the trouble of using a variety of spices to make the sauce, you can substitute pre-made curry powder.
This watermelon curry is spicy, but won’t leave you gasping for air. Just as all curries can vary from mild to hot, if you add more chili powder and cayenne than I specified or use hot curry powder, you can amp up the heat.
Watermelon and Vegetable Curry
Serves 4 as a main course with rice
Inspired by Watermelon Curry
- 4 pound piece of seedless watermelon
- 1 zucchini
- 1 red, yellow or orange bell pepper
- 1 dry pint (about 8-10 ounces) of cherry tomatoes
- 7 ounces extra firm tofu (or firm tofu with water pressed out *)
- ¼ cup (4 tablespoons) canola or similar vegetable oil
- ½ teaspoon oregano
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon celery or sesame seeds
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne (ground red) pepper
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic (about 3 medium cloves)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ¼ teaspoon turmeric
- Juice of half a lime
- Cut off and discard the green outer rind of the watermelon. Then cut the white part of the rind off from the meat and cut both into pieces about 1” square, setting them aside in 2 separate bowls. Cut the zucchini and bell pepper into chunks about 1” square and the tofu into 1” cubes. Cut the cherry tomatoes in half.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large pan. Sauté the zucchini and pepper chunks for 7-8 minutes, then add the tomatoes and cook for another 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Set the vegetables aside in a large bowl, add another tablespoon of oil, and sauté the tofu cubes for about 5 minutes. Add the tofu to the cooked vegetable mixture.
- Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil to the pan. After it heats, add the oregano, cumin, celery or sesame seeds, chili powder and cayenne, stirring on medium heat for 2-3 minutes until you begin to smell their aroma. Add the garlic and continue stirring for another 30-45 seconds, then add the chunks of rind, salt, and turmeric. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally for about 6-8 minutes. The spices will adhere to the chunks and the formerly white rind will darken slightly.
- Pour 1 cup of water into the pan, cover and reduce the heat to medium-low. Let the rind cook for about 10 minutes, until the pieces are tender enough for a fork to go through with mild resistance.
- Uncover the pan and raise the heat to medium high. Add the tofu, vegetables, and the chunks of watermelon meat. Stir the mixture gently to combine and bring the liquid to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-high and continue cooking for about 5 minutes, stirring gently once or twice, until the mixture is thoroughly heated and the chunks of red watermelon meat have begun to soften and glisten. After removing the pan from the heat, sprinkle the juice of half of a lime over the curry.
* Note on tofu – To press the water out of firm tofu, put a paper towel around the tofu block, then place a plate on top, with a heavy can or other object on top. Leave it for about 30 minutes, then remove the can, plate, and paper towel and pat the block dry.
Serve over basmati or jasmine rice.
Disclosure – This post is sponsored by the National Watermelon Promotion Board. All opinions expressed and all editorial decisions are my own.