Some pieces of kitchen gear are very dear to me. At the top of the list is my trusted pressure cooker, in which thick-skinned lentils, the toughest red meat, and vegetable medleys, all soften under the heavy weight of compressed steam.
Seafood, however, demands a gentler touch. My grandmother only ever cooked fish curries in a meen chatti, an earthen pot designed specifically for fiery Kerala style fish curries (in Malayalam, fish= meen, pot = chatti). Having learnt from the best, so did my mother.
So convinced is my family that the best fish curries are cooked in meen chatties that when I first moved abroad, it was with a meen chatti wrapped tenderly in layers of newspaper before being swathed in my heaviest winterwear and packed into my suitcase. My very first experiments in cooking fish were conducted with the aid of that pot. Home seemed so much closer with a meal of steamed rice and fish curry at hand.
A few years later, however, when I moved to the US, in the rush of preparing for a return to student life, I failed to check-in a meen chatti, with the result that it has been a few years since one has graced my kitchen cabinets.
New meen chattis are the colour of rust. But that fades over time. My grandmother's chattis, having weathered decades of cooking for a large family, were all different shades of deep brown and black. They're easy to break of course, but will stay loyal for years with a little loving care. My only grouse against their kind is their one crucial design flaw - no lids. This means that one has to make do with lids that come with other assorted pots and pans. This is neither aesthetically nor practically optimal. Some lids are too small, and sloppily slide into the pot at the slightest provocation, dipping into the red gravy. Others are too big, and hang down the sides of the pot, which does not make a happy picture either. The women in my family, being largely unconcerned with the aesthetics of cooking, somehow made do.
Lid or no lid, one of the things that I have resolved to purchase on my next visit to India is a traditional Kerala meen chatti. In the meantime, in the spirit of those before me who made peace with mismatched lids and pots, I am also making do. In fact, given the frequency with which seafood features in our grocery bags, I use every opportunity to experiment with fish curry recipes. Some don't work out so well. Others do. This Thai-style fish curry was a resounding success. You do need a couple of obscure ingredients, but once you get hold of those, this fish curry is very much within reach, whether you own a meen chatti or not.
Thai Style Fish Curry (serves two)
Roughly 1 pound fish, around two medium size fillets (I used tilapia)3 stalks lemon grass stalks (discard outer most stalks, and use the fragrant inner ones)
1 inch piece ginger, minced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 tsp chili bean paste
1/3 cup canned coconut milk
2 tsp rice vinegar (or substitute with fresh lime juice)
2-3 tsp fish sauce
1/4-1/2 tsp jaggery (to taste)
1-2 kaffir lime leaves, cut into strips, for garnish (optional)
Rinse fish and cut into pieces of desired size. Set aside.
Chop lemon grass stalks into medium size pieces. Grind with ginger, garlic, chili bean paste, rice vinegar, and fish sauce to as smooth a paste as possible. I used a mortar and pestle.
Heat oil in a pan until it shimmers. Add ground paste and stir for 2-3 minutes till the ginger and garlic are cooked. Now add the fish pieces, jaggery and 2-3 tablespoons of water. Cover and cook for a few minutes until fish is cooked. Finally add the coconut milk. Test for taste, and add more salt or jaggery or rice vinegar/lime juice if needed. Garnish with kaffir lime leaves, if using. Serve hot with steamed rice.