Travel down the west coast of peninsular India and it is almost certain that every last fish curry will have coconut in it. Some will have ground coconut, others will have only the milk of ground coconut. All fish curries need to be soured to varying degrees—a throwback to pre-refrigerator times when fish-tamarind, kokum, raw mangoes or a locally available fruit called bimbli (bilimbi in Portuguese; Latin: Averroes carambola) were used. Depending on the quantity, ingredient and community, you would either end up with an almost sweet curry (as in Goan caldine or Kerala moilee) or one that was mouth-puckeringly sour.
On the east coast, on the other hand, coconut is notable by its absence, and the souring agent is a double whammy of tomatoes and tamarind. I was surprised to note that in coastal Andhra Pradesh, fish curry is simply called chapa pulusu. This is in sharp contrast to the curries of Kerala, where almost identical ones are graced by totally different names. The mélange of ingredients that go into chapa pulusu varies depending on which part of the coast the curry is being made in, Nellore being the one that is traditionally the most famous. However, when I suggest this to my friend Srinath Sambandan, I raise his hackles. He heads the kitchen at The Park Hotel’s Visakhapatnam property and has enough pride in the local cuisine to feel that Vizag is the apogee of Sircar cooking.
Sambandan never refers to Andhra cooking. Instead, it is the food of the coastal region of the state that I get to sample: The cuisines of Rayalseema and Telangana are beyond the distant horizon. Sircar food is dominated by chapa pulusu, a full-bodied curry that is always cooked in a terracotta vessel (even in a deluxe hotel kitchen) a day in advance and suspended from the ceiling by three ropes supporting a round base, all so that the flavours of the curry develop over 24 hours, away from the cat’s reach! People of the Sircar region would be bemused about the Goan-Keralite debate on the best souring agent for fish curries: The former think that dried, smoked kokum is suitably delicate, the latter feel the same about fish-tamarind; both share an aversion to the unsubtle tamarind. The only souring agent for fish and seafood all over Andhra Pradesh is tamarind. Sambandan thinks that tomatoes lend a bit of sweetness and that is why they are used in conjunction with tamarind.
Spiced up: Chapa Pulusu is always cooked in a terracotta vessel.
As I tucked into my meal of chapa pulusu and several chutneys, pickles and podis, the one thing I did not miss for an instant was coconut.
175g fish (cut on the bone)
1 sprig curry leaves
¼ tsp whole mustard
½ tsp cumin seeds
4 whole red chillies
6 cloves of garlic, peeled
2 medium sized onions, chopped
A lime-sized ball of tamarind
¼ tsp asafoetida
1 ½ tsp ginger paste
½ tsp cumin powder
2 tsp coriander powder
¼ tsp turmeric powder
2 ½ tsp red chilli powder (any good Andhra brand)
2 medium-sized ripe tomatoes, cut into quarters
1 heaped tsp jaggery
½ glass water
Salt to taste
25ml refined oil
Soak the tamarind in hot water for about 20 minutes and extract a fairly thick pulp. Keep aside. Fry the fish in hot oil to seal in the juices and re-serve.
Heat oil, add mustard, cumin seeds, red chillies, garlic pods and curry leaves, in this order, with gaps of 2-3 seconds between the additions, finally finishing with asafoetida.
Add onion and fry to a golden brown colour. Add tomato and the rest of the masala powders. Sauté for about 5-8 minutes and lower flame. Add the tamarind extract, jaggery and water to the masala, simmer for about 10 minutes and check seasoning.
Place the fried fish in the gravy and lower the heat to a bare minimum, stewing the dish for another 5 minutes. Do not stir the ingredients at this stage.
Turn off the flame and allow the flavours to mature for about 2-3 hours before serving. The consistency of the gravy will be quite thick.
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