One of the few places where I’ve ever eaten seafood idlis—or even heard of them for that matter—is in Kattumaram, a tiny seafood restaurant just outside the gate of Chennai’s Park Sheraton. Chef Jacob S.K., a TV food show host, has travelled the length of the Tamil Nadu coast to research forgotten recipes for his show, but was so enthused at the sight of some of them that he decided to change the menu at Kattumaram, where he is the operating partner.
A quick recce of the area threw up a few interesting facts: Fish and seafood are divided into what can be sold, what can be eaten by the fisherfolk themselves, and what can be dried for a rainy day. Those fish that fall outside the pale of all three categories are buried, mostly near trees and plants, in the belief that they will grow better—an important consideration in an area with brackish water.
Fresh catch: Very little of the sea’s bounty is wasted in Tamil Nadu. Chef Ravitej Nath / The Trident, Gurgaon
What can be used by the fisherfolk themselves falls into a wide swathe. The best of the lot goes into the daily curry. Everything else ends up as an ingredient in another dish entirely: Few other restaurants in the state feature crab kootu parotta or fish vadas. Or for that matter, curries using prawn powder. But Kattumaram is not merely showcasing premium seafood, it is documenting a way of life that few of us are privileged to see first-hand.
Kashmiri wazwan and Tamil Nadu’s coastal cuisine would seem to have little in common on the face of it, but I was irresistibly reminded of the huge celebratory banquets of Kashmir during my visit to the little restaurant with a focused menu: One served a full sheep in a multitude of ways, each so inventive that you didn’t realize just how thrifty it all was; the other made sure that as little of the bounty of the sea was wasted as possible.
Dals, a staple in the rest of the country, were just another ingredient on Tamil Nadu’s coast. Powdered chana dal was mixed with pepper and cumin and used as a powder to coat freshly caught shrimp before being pan-fried. Kulthi dal is an ingredient in prawn powder that is used to sprinkle over a finished prawn curry so that it gets a punch that is impossible from fresh prawns themselves. Pounded with dried shrimp that is fried in oil, fried shallots, curry leaves, coconut, red chillies and salt, it is made in the state’s Nagercoil region.
It has a vague parallel on the other side of the country, in the Salcete region of Goa, where salted shrimps are formed into a cake and sun-dried so that bits can be broken off and used as a flavouring agent in curries.
The most unforgettable dish in Kattumaram was, however, not from the coast but from ponds: inch-long, freshly caught fish that have a delicate flavour.
Fish Curry (Fish Kozhambu)
1kg seer fish, washed and cubed
3 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp aniseed
1 tsp poppy seeds
½ tsp peppercorn
1 lime-size ball of tamarind soaked in 3 cups of water and strained, or 4 tsp of ready-made tamarind liquid
¼ tsp turmeric powder
4 tsp chilli powder
6 tsp coriander powder
15 pearl onions (shallots), peeled and pounded coarsely
10 pods garlic, peeled
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 tomatoes, finely chopped
Salt to taste
½ tsp aniseed
1 tsp fenugreek seeds
Heat oil in a pan and add the tempering ingredients. Add the onions and garlic, and saute. Add the ground ingredients and saute until the raw smell disappears. Add the tomatoes, turmeric powder, chilli powder and coriander powder. Also add the tamarind water and salt. Boil until the curry turns thick. Put in the fish and continue boiling for 5 minutes. Remove and serve.
(Recipe courtesy The Bangala, Karaikudi)
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