It’s a beautiful bright morning with golden ribbons of sunshine streaming through the window filling the room with light, warmth and happiness. Enjoying a cup of tea, and a good few minutes lost in excitement of the upcoming family wedding, and thoughts drifting to pastel, floaty dresses, country charms and rain puddles, and lingering so, suddenly, I was in a mood to connect. I was missing home—it’s been a while—and my mind was filled with a multitude of beautiful images and memories from happy times before. So today I wanted to share something from my homeland, one that we lovingly call “God’s Own Country”—the lush costal strip of southern India where ayurveda, mansoon, backwaters and kathakali rules. Fortunately, I had some naadan, aka desi material in my draft, and I gave in to the urge.
I’ve been meaning to share this fish curry recipe for a while now. However, with the thermostats climbing daily, must confess I’m more and more drawn to chilly drinks, and somehow end up flaunting my love affair—summer sips—each time I stop by.
Speaking of regional cooking, I’m happy to see more and more people interested in discovering Indian cuisine beyond the ever-popular naan bread, hearty tandoori dishes and delicious butter chicken gravy. And is it any wonder? Honestly, one of my main goals to embark on this culinary journey was to catalog recipes from my homeland, and weave tales around the time I spent there—especially my childhood years in Kochi influenced by the dominant Roman Catholic education, and cultures of my Jewish tutors and Anglo-Indian friends. Little did I know it would transform into a journey of self-discovery and my path would lead me to new delightful territories and most beautiful things.
Now, back to the topic, the cuisine of Kerala is renowned for its delectable fish and seafood delicacies, and Malayalis have a great enthusiasm and passion for fish curry meals. Truth be told, no lunchtime fare at my home is complete without a fish curry. There is always a pot of meen (fish) simmering away in the kitchen—fresh fish doused with coconut milk or fiery ground chili, flavored with smoky kodampuli (fish tamarind), and always—yes, always—cooked in a mud pot or manchatti. Clay pot imparts an earthy flavor to curries, and Malayalis strongly believe that fish prepared in any other dish is not half as good—oh yes, I am guilty as charged!
Spicy, hot, red fish curry sans coconut milk is one of my family favorites, one of the tastiest, and one of our everyday staple served with rice, yoghurt and crisp bits of pappadam. Notoriously spiced with chilies, strongly flavored with kodampuli, and charmingly tempered with mustard seeds and curry leaves, the sauce is a wonderful mixture of hot, sour, pungent and salty. Tender chunks of deliciously firm and meaty fish fillets like seer, salmon and tilapia best suits this preparation.
Despite the common spice palette, there is no singular recipe for red fish curry—each region, perhaps each home has its own variations. I have mine too. In this version, I used crushed fresh tomatoes as a low-fat base to add body to the gravy—my family loves copious amount of gravy to go with rice. Kodampuli imparts sourness with a subtle earthy-smoky flavor, and coconut oil adds to the naadan taste. Note that the kodampuli I used—Eastern Cambodge—does not require pre-soaking, just a quick rinse is enough. Also, it is preferable to use chunks of skinned fish fillets instead of bony slices as you see in the pictures.
If you prefer your curry a bit milder, adjust the ground chilies and omit the green chilies.
So ready for a plate of delicious hero food? Yes, fish, chili, tomato and garlic are hero foods that are important for your good health—enjoy!
Red Fish Curry — Meen Vevichathu
Prep+cooking: 20 min
450g fish, cleaned, sliced or cut into chunks (I used seer or kingfish known as aiyakoora or neymeen in Malayalam)
2 tablespoons oil, divided (preferably coconut oil)
¼ teaspoon fenugreek seeds
¼ cup sliced shallots
2 sprigs curry leaves, plus few extra leaves for tempering
1 medium tomato
2 small green chilies
1 teaspoon ginger-garlic paste
½ teaspoon fenugreek powder
3 ½—4 teaspoon Kashmiri chili powder (I prefer Saras)
¼ teaspoon turmeric powder
4 pieces kodampuli, rinsed (I used Eastern Cambodge)
1 cup water
salt, to taste
½ teaspoon black mustard seeds
In a manchatti or clay pot, heat 1 ½ tablespoon oil over medium-low heat until shimmering. Add fenugreek and cook until the seeds crackle, about 15 seconds. Add shallots and curry leaves, and gently fry until shallots are tender, about 4 minutes.
Meanwhile, blend tomatoes, green chilies, ginger-garlic paste, fenugreek powder, chili powder and turmeric to a smooth paste in a grinder or food processor.
When the shallots are tender, add the paste, kodampuli, enough salt to taste, water, and bring everything to boil, uncovered, stirring occasionally. Gently tip in fish, stirring to coat the pieces in the sauce. Simmer for about 10 minutes or until the fish flakes easily, and the gravy is thickened and reduced to your taste. Gently swirl or shake the pot to mix the flavors, taking care not to break the fish pieces. Adjust seasoning as needed; remove from heat.
Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, heat the remaining oil (½ tablespoon) until shimmering. Tip in mustard seeds and cook until they crackle, about 10 seconds. Add the remaining curry leaves, and remove from heat. This cooking technique is called tarkha or tempering. Now quickly fold the toasted ingredients into the hot curry.
Serve hot with steamed rice and yoghurt on the side.