One of the few places where I’ve ever eaten seafood idlis – or even heard of them for that matter – is in Kattumaram, a tiny seafood restaurant just outside the gate of Chennai’s Park Sheraton. The chef, a TV food show host, has travelled down the length of the Tamil Nadu coast to research forgotten recipes for his TV show, but was so enthused at the sight of some of them that he decided to change the menu of Kattumaram, a small restaurant where he is the operating partner.
A quick recce of the area threw up a few interesting facts. Fish and seafood are divided up into what can be sold, what can be eaten by the fisherfolk themselves and what can be dried for a rainy day. Those fish that fall outside the pale of all three categories are buried underground, especially near trees and plants, in the belief that they will grow better – an important consideration in an area with brackish water.
What can be used by the fisherfolk themselves falls into a wide swathe. The best of the lot goes into the daily curry; everything else ends up as an ingredient in another dish entirely: few other restaurants in the state feature crab kootu parotta or fish vadas. Or for that matter curries using prawn powder, but Kattumaran is not merely showcasing premium seafood, it is documenting a way of life that few of us are privileged to see first-hand.
Kashmiri wazwan and Tamil Nadu’s coastal cuisine would seem to have little in common on the face of it, but I was irresistibly reminded of the huge celebratory banquets of Kashmir during my visit to the little restaurant with the focussed menu: one used up full sheep in a multitude of ways, each so inventive that you didn’t realise just how thrifty it all was. The other made sure that as little of the bounty of the sea was wasted as possible.
Dals, a staple in most of the rest of the country, was just another ingredient in Tamil Nadu’s coast. Powdered chana dal was mixed with pepper and cumin and used as a powder to coat freshly caught shrimp before being pan-fried. Kulthi dal is an ingredient in prawn powder that is used to sprinkle over a finished prawn curry so that it gets a punch that is impossible from fresh prawns themselves. Pounded with dried shrimp that is fried in oil, fried shallots, curry leaves, coconut, red chillies and salt, it is made in the Nagercoil region of the state.
It has a vague parallel on the other side of the country, in the Salcete region of Goa, where tiny salted shrimps are formed into a cake and sun-dried so that bits can be broken off and used as a flavouring agent in curries.
The most unforgettable dish in Kattumaran was, however, not from the coast but from ponds: inch long, freshly caught fish that have a delicate flavour.