Last week, within the space of five days, I tasted close to 13 fish curries. Yet, I’m sure I haven’t plumbed the depths of all the fish curries in God’s own country: Time and my appetite conspired against deeper “research” into this fascinating subject.
Fire power: Meen Vati Chathu is an iconic pickle-like curry. Photo: Taj Malalbar, Kochi
It all started in Radisson Plaza, Kumarakom, where I ordered a fish curry made in a terracotta chatti (cooking pot). Chef de cuisine Lyju E.R. made Meen Vati Chathu, which was a dark carmine, because of the inclusion of fish tamarind (or kodampulli as it is called in Malayalam; a type of smoked tamarind). This iconic curry is almost like a pickle, which is why Chef Lyju had chosen to make it, instead of one of the dozen other recipes that he has up his sleeve.
It is a Syrian Christian signature, and is usually made a day in advance so that the extra gravy will be absorbed by the walls of the earthenware vessel, thus becoming richer and more flavourful. The smoky huskiness of the fish tamarind develops over a few hours, so the preparation acquires more depth of flavour. It is the only fish curry that has no coconut milk or grated coconut in it, though it does pay obeisance to terroir by using coconut oil. Meen Vevi Chathu is almost identical, except that it has more gravy than Vati Chathu.
Chef Lyju’s other gems included Meen Manga — a curry made with grated coconut, green chilli, saunf (aniseed) powder and slices of raw mango, which are available round the year in Kerala — and Allepey Fish Curry, which is a very close country cousin — it has everything that Meen Manga does, except that coconut milk is used.
Next, my friend Manisha took me to a toddy shop called Kalimbin Kala in Kottayam. Their version of Meen Moilee was as light as a whisper and a foil to their other dishes. Meen Moilee has no red chillies or souring agents, so the implication is that it has to be consumed within hours of cooking.
My education continued at Taj Malabar, Kochi, where executive chef Amit Ghosh confessed to being amazed at how, in Kerala, fish was plopped into curries without any kind of prior cooking. It was a huge departure from his native Bengal, until he realized that unlike river fish — the Bengali staple — sea fish lacked the fishy smell and so did not have to be fried with turmeric and salt before being added to curries. Chef Ghosh initiated me into the finer points of Meen Mullagattada, which typically has plenty of garlic and is eaten with steamed tapioca. I also learnt about Kottayam Fish Curry, which has ground coconut instead of just the milk, and Meen Kaya Curry, to which plantains have been added, after being cut crossways to resemble a fillet of fish!
Malabar Meen Curry, a classic of Moplah cuisine, uses the unlikely combination of tomatoes and ground coconut, and is flavoured with far more spices than the Syrian Christian ones. Meen Varutharacha Curry packs a mean punch with roasted spices and roasted, ground coconut. And I still haven’t told you about Meen Pulli Curry or Meen Murungaikai Curry.
Malabar Meen Curry
by Chef Amit Ghosh
¼ tsp methi (fenugreek) seeds
1 large onion
4 green chillies
½ in piece of ginger, crushed
3 medium sized tomatoes
¼ tsp turmeric powder
½ tsp chilli powder
1 pinch of saunf powder
¼ of a coconut, grated
800g seer fish
2 tbsp coconut oil
12 curry leaves
Heat coconut oil, crackle the methi seeds and add the sliced onion, slit green chillies and crushed garlic. Sauté till the mixture just changes colour. Add approximately 2 cups of water. Add the chopped tomato, turmeric and chilli powders. Allow it to cook till the tomatoes become pulpy. Add the fish and coat well with all the other ingredients. Put in the saunf powder together with the grated coconut (ground to a fine paste) and reduce the gravy till it thickens and the fish is cooked. Add the curry leaves and cover with a lid.
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