Fish curry and nostalgia

IMG_7138_SnapseedIt troubled me that ‘Home’ to my parents, always meant our ancestral home in Kerala’s Syrian catholic headquarter – Kottayam. Each summer, we took the 48 hour train journey to Ernakulam Junction at the opposite end of the country. A hired open jeep would pick us up from the station to take us to our dad’s village, bumping through the potholed road. And as we watched the tarred, rain beaten road recede into a winding coarse ribbon, I couldn’t help but think wistfully of the world we are coming from – the North Indian, modern, concrete city of Delhi, where all my friends are. Vacationing.

Araca nuts drying in the defunct outside thatched kitchen

Araca nuts drying in the defunct outside thatched kitchen

A couple of hours later, the landscape became more familiar, the local church was sighted and the jeep inevitably slowed down as people start calling out greetings to our father. As the jeep made it’s way through the neighborhood peppered with houses belonging to relatives, glimpses of the land that he grew up around and still loves deeply, made my dad’s eyes start to twinkle. A deep, silent joy. As we got closer, his smile would grow wider and the landscape more lush.

The famous well in the front yard that has been a source of life for generations and holds umpteen secrets and stories inside its belly.

The famous well in the front yard that has been a source of life for generations and holds umpteen secrets and stories inside its belly.

Drying pepper and tamarind spread out on threadbare gunny bag sheets, bursting ripe jackfruit orbs, trees and shrubs heavy with coconut, cashew, mango, guava and nutmeg, my grandmother’s beloved cows and goats, smoke from the hearth and rubber sheets that are drying – all combined to make a thick perfume that to me is the signature of our visits ‘home’. As we descend from the jeep and climb up the long moss covered black sandstone stairwell that cut through the thick green plantation and lead to the main house, the smells that curl out of my grandmother’s thatched-roofed kitchen got more assertive. Familiar, yet alien, this old house was a peculiar entity. Like a dream I didn’t want to be dreaming. Home to my parents, yet so foreign to me.

The pepper vine snaking up a tree in the frontyard

The pepper vine snaking up a tree in the front yard

My father’s eyes would search the vicinity as he yelled out for his mother. ‘Chachi’ to her kids, siblings and grandkids alike, she was the rather formidable force behind the large clan that is the Puthenmanayil family. The woman who gave life to 9 strapping men and 2 devout nuns. The matriarch who ruled the house with a soft-gloved iron hand. On hearing his call, she would step out of the house, one hand outstretched, her black plastic slip-ons squeaking as she slowly walked forward in her white mundu and pristine blouse; her face wreathed in smiles, her eyes damp, a rosary inevitably hanging around her neck, clanging gently against the gold chain she wears. My grandmother.

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An abandoned metal pot in the thatched kitchen. Probably used to store ingredients away from the sun.

The trips would all pan out similarly. Reluctantly dragging my feet behind my parents who joyfully visit their siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins, I would cling silently to my sister as she dazzled all with her charm. Predictable, food was the only reluctant point of interest for me. An array of snacks and lemonade were inevitably laid out at generous teas, especially composed for the visitors from Delhi. Freshly fried plantain or as we called it, banana chips – plain as well as coated in caramelized jaggery spiced with dried ginger, jackfruit crisps, sesame flecked rose cookies that are just a tad sweet, crackling tapioca chips, crunchy sesame and jaggery undas (laddoos), coconut and jaggery filled steamed rice dumplings, jackfruit jam, pakavadas (ribbon shaped fried savouries) and my favourite – ethaka boli or plantains batter fried until they are sweet, melting soft inside and golden-crunchy outside.

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Puttu Kadala, a staple breakfast in Syrian Catholic homes of Kerala

And yet, as I look back today – a couple of decades hence, it’s surprising that Syrian Catholic Cuisine doesn’t feature large in my food laden childhood memories unlike the cuisines of North India that were almost a touchstone for deliciousness to me. For the longest time, friends would come back from visits to Kerala and rave about the food and I would be surprised. I would confess that it just wasn’t my thing. When Bengali friends at design school spoke longingly of mustard laden fish curries, and turned to me expectantly, waiting for me to join in with Keralite zeal, I would shrug and look away.

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Nutmeg growing abundantly among the plantations

Truth be told, in those days if there was one curry that represented Kerala to me, it was the omnipresent fish curry. The curry that was served at, what seemed to me, almost every single meal in Kerala. The ever-present meen (fish) curry that, though eaten every single day, also puts in an appearance at Christmas and Easter, weddings, baptisms, death anniversaries and betrothals. Even in Delhi, at the Christmas table it, would have its own little corner amidst far more seductive offerings like mutton curried in a roast coconut gravy, stir fried pork with black pepper and whole spices, crumb fried beef cutlets accompanied by its signature onion salad – challas, chicken curry, beef fried with coconut, masala fried fish, yoghurt curry (moru kachiyathu) and fresh green salad. There maybe duck, rabbit, quail, squid, mussels, prawns or crab gracing the table but the ever-present red coloured meen curry would never go away. Indeed, it seemed that this was the only way a Malayalee was to accept fish. Often I tried to plié my parents with fish dishes from around the world and was met with confusion or even amusement – why would anyone eat fish that wasn’t curried red with spice, darkened with the sharp taste of Kerala’s tamarind, toned down with coconut and made fragrant with curry leaves. Endlessly seeing the meen chutti (earthenware pot made specially for fish curry) on the dining table made me pout and wrinkle my nose in disdain. It’s unique tangy, coconutty aroma and bright red colour would elicit adolescent annoyance and a firm refusal to even venture in the vicinity. Giving into meen curry represented having to willingly go to Kerala in summer vacations instead of heading for what seemed like far more fun vacations in the mountains near Delhi. It meant giving in to a singular, Malayalee identity. It meant always being the outsider in both Kerala and Delhi. Thank you, but I would much rather have butter chicken.

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Sardines, a Keralite favourite. I most like these when crisp fried with spices and curry leaves

It’s been almost two decades since and things have changed. I left Delhi to go to college and my parents, much to my dismay, shifted back to Kerala. Chachi passed away a few years after they shifted base. I moved to Mumbai and eventually got married to a Punjabi. While I never got around to living in Kerala, my visits got far more enthusiastic as well as frequent. Disinterest turned into curiosity and then an appreciation for the unique mosaic of history, spirituality and a closeness to the land and all it begets that I recognized as my (much undeserved) cultural heritage. Distant disdain, defensive reserve and painful shyness evolved into familiarity, nostalgia and eventually a longing for home. It’s no coincidence that my relationship with the quintessential meen curry (fish curry) walked the exact same trajectory. It took time but I finally recognized mastery in the balance of flavours, honesty in the simplicity of the technique and wisdom in the use of local ingredients.

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Bananas a-plenty. A ‘kola’ or bunch left to ripen in the verandah while the banana trees in the background look on.

Today, I need to have a healthy serving of that spicy-pungent-fragrant curry ever so often. It’s now the taste of home, childhood, and the joy on my father’s face as we made our way towards his people. Somewhere, hidden in that glorious red gravy that begs to be mixed with steaming hot rice, is my own past. In fact, I even possess my own meen chatti now. One that I am forever terrified of breaking and being left without, again.

 

Fish curry and nostalgia
It’s a well-acknowledged fact among family and friends that my mother’s fish curry is one of the very best you can eat. The great news is that it’s simple and easy to play with. Fry the spice paste longer and you have a richer flavor, cook for a shorter time after adding the coconut paste and you have a fresher creamier coconutty taste, temper with mustard, shallots and curry leaves and you have an indulgence. You could make this curry with any medium or large sized fish that has been cut into pieces, though you should keep an eye on the cooking time and adjust it according to how meaty or delicate the flesh is. Swap out the Kodumpulli (Kerala tamarind used specially for fish) for regular tamarind paste/kokum/sour tomatoes/raw mangoes and it will work just as well. Make sure you adjust the amount of souring agent to the tang that’s right for you. Malayalees like this rather hot and sour but it’s absolutely a personal choice. And remember, when it comes to buying fish, fresh always trumps frozen.)
Ingredients
  • Fish – .5 kg (cleaned and cut into curry size pieces)
  • Curry leaves – 3 sprigs
  • Coconut oil - 2-3 tablespoons (We malayalees think this curry tastes best with coconut oil but feel free to replace with mustard or any other cooking oil you prefer)
  • Chilli powder (mild) – 1.5 tsp
  • Kerala tamarind (kodum pulli) – 2 pieces (you can replace this with the ingredients mentioned in the note above)
  • Sugar - .5 teaspoon
  • Grated coconut – 1cup
  • Chilli powder (hot) - 1 tsp
  • Turmeric - ⅓ tsp
  • Fenugreek powder – scant ¼ tsp
  • Garlic cloves , peeled - 4
  • For pounding
  • Ginger, scraped – 1 inch piece
  • Garlic cloves, peeled - 6 small cloves
  • Shallots, peeled and ends trimmed - 6-10
Directions
  1. Add 1 sprig of curry leaves to the fish and set aside.
  2. Coarsely pound together the peeled ginger, garlic and shallots. (You can also coarsely grind this in a mixie but pounding these aromatics together in a mortar helps release and meld the flavours much better. On the other hand the chopping action of the mixie blade oxidises the ingredients, altering the flavour slightly)
  3. Grind together the grated coconut with 1tsp chilli powder, fenugreek powder and turmeric to a fine paste, adding as much water as you need for the mixture to grind well.
  4. Heat 2-3 tablespoons of coconut oil in an earthen ware pot (preferably) or a wok. Add the pounded shallot mixture along with the remaining 2 sprigs of curry leaves. Stir for about a minute till the shallot pieces start to turn golden.
  5. Add the mild chilli powder. Stir well on medium heat till fragrant, while making sure that the spice doesn’t burn. Turn heat down to low.
  6. Add the coconut paste and stir well for about 3-4 minutes. Add ¼ cup of water (my mother rinses out the mixie jar with this water to ensure that she uses up all the flavourful paste stuck to the walls of the jar). Stir well and then add just enough water to let the fish pieces be submerged when you add them in. (About 1 to 1.25 cup should be enough)
  7. Add 2 pieces of tamarind along with salt and sugar. Bring the gravy to a boil over high heat before gently slipping in the fish and bring it to a boil.
  8. Let the curry boil for 2 minutes and then shake the pot gently. (Do not stir or you may end up breaking the fish up). Cook on low heat for a couple more minutes till the fish is cooked through but tender.

 

PS: This article first appeared on the NDTV Cooks website.

 

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