Cracking the Kerala Fish Curry

Ever since my Mallu friend whom I call Mots, and I started hanging out together from our Sydney days, I got exposed to Kerala cuisine. We lived a few minutes away from each other in Sydney, so cooking happened in either of our apartments. And, since he is fussy and conventional about food though he denies it, I found myself cooking more and more Mallu food. He also helpfully got me Vijayan Kanampalli’s Essentials of Kerala Cooking which today is my Bible for cooking Kerala food.

As I learnt to cook and thoroughly enjoy Mallu food, I would visit websites like Pachakam.com for recipes. Besides the ones in the books, I would try the ones I got online but other than the Meen Moilee and the Prawns in Raw Mango, none of the curries seemed to turn out right. There would always be that special something missing.

So, on a recent holiday to Coorg, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant on the main road headed towards Madikeri called Prestige. It was run by Mallu Muslims from Calicut so inevitably, the menu had Kerala meals and Fish Curry on offer. I played safe and ordered a biriyani while Mots ordered the fish curry and rice. He announced after tasting it that this was the taste we tried to get and never did. So I had a taste of the gravy and found it to be tasty enough. I personally prefer my prawns in raw mango but more about that later.

When the waiter arrived with the bill, I asked him in Hindi if I could ask the cook for the recipe of the fish curry. He looked taken aback as no one would have ever made that request I am sure. But he took me towards the counter which was basically a big square of open space in the wall between the dining area and the kitchen from where the plates of food changed hands from the cook to the waiter. I didn’t even have a piece of paper with me so the waiter gave me a leaf from his notepad on which he took orders. I still have it with me and I wrote on the back of it and the front has someone’s order of chilli chicken and chicken tandoori written on it.

The cook, a chubby fellow with curly hair was all shy and speechless when the waiter told him what I had asked for in Malalayam. Mots in embarrassment had slunk away to the car as his reserved nature is the complete opposite of my bindaas and sometimes gregarious one. Anyway, the cook knew Hindi and told me what went into it. No proportions, just the ingredients and the method. I made it a few times since our return and it has turned out rather well.

I have called it the Prestige Fish Curry and have written the recipe below as well as the picture of how it looks after it is made.

Prestige Fish Curry
Ingredients:
500 gms any fish [I prefer Indian Salmon or Rawas as it is called in Bombay; or seer fish]
2 onions, chopped [a paste is better as it blends with the tomato faster and gives a thicker consistency to the gravy]
3-4 tomatoes, pureed [depending on the quantity of the fish, up the number of onions and tomatoes you use but the tomatoes have to be more than the onions]
1 tbsp ginger garlic paste
A pinch of methi [fenugreek] seeds
1 pinch of turmeric powder/haldi
2 tbsps dhania/coriander powder
2 tbsps red chilli powder
A little tamarind soaked in water or a small piece of garcinia [kokum/kodampalli in Malayalam] soaked in water
Salt to taste; A few curry leaves
Coconut oil as required
Coriander leaves for garnish

Method:
Heat a little coconut oil and add methi seeds. When they turn golden brown, add curry leaves and onions and cook till the onions are soft and almost brown. Add tomato puree, ginger garlic, all masalas and cook. Meanwhile wash and clean the fish really well. After the gravy is done. add the tamarind/kokum extract and the fish and cook till done. Garnish with coriander leaves and serve hot with rice.

Note: This is a simple and easy-to-make fish curry. Though I have gone easy on the spice levels, what was served at the restaurant was really spicy — which I am told is how most Kerala fish curries are. That way you don’t need a whole lot of gravy and the little you use is enough for a fair bit of rice but I prefer it slightly less spicy. You can add fish masala for extra taste and flavour if you like.

Image

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