Sunday, 10 May 2015

Fish Curry

When it comes to fish, I am unabashedly parochial in my tastes. I have flirted with chowder, seafood pasta of all manner, and steamed fish, Thai style. Every now and then, I will enjoy a meal of fish and chips. But as far as my taste buds are concerned, none of these measure up to a good Kerala fish fry, or a mild fish molee paired with lacy appams. And if I happen to have the good fortune of choosing my last supper, there is no doubt in my mind that it will be the rustic Malayali kappa and meen (fish) curry, which is what my grandparents, and before them, their parents and grandparents would have favored, long before comfort food became fashionable.

Many of my childhood summers were spent vacationing in my grandparents' home in Trivandrum. One especially vivid memory from those holidays is of the weekly shopping ritual in their home. My grandfather, the patriarch, in his half-sleeved shirt and mundu, would round up all of us - those of his children and grandchildren who were visiting at the time. We'd climb into his Fiat and make our way to Palayam market to buy the meat, vegetables, fruits and fish that we would devour over many meals. Once we got to the market, we split up into twos and threes, and headed in different directions to execute this weekly ritual as efficiently as possible.

Given my precocious taste for fish, I'd often accompany my grandfather as he made his way to the crowded fish market. The fisherwomen, with their checkered lungis hitched up, would screechily announce their catch of the day through betel skinned teeth, straining to be heard over the market's everyday din. We stared at the fish. The fish stared back at us out of wicker baskets with their bulbous, unblinking eyes, mouths agape, scaly skins shining in the sunlight. I can't say I enjoyed shopping for fish. The smell of fish was everywhere, and there were too many bodies crammed into too small a space. Inevitably, pools of dirty rainwater, seemingly positioned at strategic spots, would catch us off guard and seep into our Bata sandals. Avoiding the slush involved a veritable game of hopscotch that even the adults joined in, although unwillingly.

My grandfather's responsibilities ended with procurement. It was my grandmother's job to clean, gut and descale the fish. If she was averse to this gory game, she did not make it known. Perched, bird-like, on a wooden seat, she'd attack the fish with a large knife, releasing a spray of fish scales, and proceed to pull out its muddy brown insides before slicing it up into generously large pieces that she'd drop into a clay pot, blackened with age. I watched her, but from a distance. The sight of blood at close quarters made me queasy, but with the benefit of distance, there a delicious thrill in seeing my grandmother - a slight woman - reduce an intimidatingly large fish to pieces.

Job done, she'd work her magic to create a curry, with the sweetness of freshly and painfully extracted coconut milk, the sourness of raw mango, and the aroma of curry leaves.

I'd dive into her fish curry with gusto, and in my zeal, often got tiny pieces of fish bone stuck in my gums. I was rarely fazed by these skirmishes with the food on my plate, and tended to gamely proceed with the battle until the enemy had been comprehensively decimated. My brother and some of my cousins tended to be more practical when it came to their meals. They preferred the more docile chicken dish that would invariably be served alongside the fish, voting for their gums over their tastebuds.

Like many others of their generation, my grandparents weren't a particularly expressive lot. Certainly, they never put into words their fondness for their grandchildren. But the depth of their feelings shone brightly through the food - it was evident in the elaborate meals that my grandmother slaved over in her kitchen, and in the haggling that my grandfather endured to ensure that my vacations always started with a delicious fish curry.

I wish I could say that I have my grandmother's finest recipes noted down in a journal somewhere. Instead, here's a recipe for a fish curry (by no means authentic) that I've concocted, improvising to make up for ingredients that aren't readily available in the grocery store where I pick up my pre-cleaned fish, without any haggling, Palayam market style.

Fish curry 

1.3 pounds of tilapia fillets cut into medium size pieces
coconut oil
1 sprig curry leaves
1 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 tsp mustard seeds
tamarind pulp, extracted from 1 lime sized ball of tamarind
1 tsp salt or to taste
1/2 small red onion, finely sliced
1 cup canned coconut milk (or more, depending on taste)

To Mince
7-8 cloves garlic
1 inch piece of ginger
1 serrano chilli (deseeded, if you want a mild curry)

2 tsp turmeric powder
1.5 tsp kashmiri red chilli powder
2 tsp sambar powder

Heat oil. Add mustard seeds. When they splutter, add the fenugreek seeds and curry leaves. Once the fenugreek seeds turn a shade darker, add the minced ingredients. Stir for a few minutes until the garlic and ginger turn golden. Next add the powders and the sliced red onion. Add salt. Cook until the onions turn limp, this should take no more than 2-3 minutes on medium heat. Now add the tamarind extract (and the water used to extract the tamarind pulp - around 1-1.5 cups). Let the mixture come to a rolling boil and simmer for around 5 minutes further. Now add the fish pieces. Cover and cook for a few minutes until the fish is just cooked. Do not overcook the fish. Finally add the coconut milk. Serve hot, preferably with rice. 

1 comment:

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