Last week, within the space of five days, I had tasted close to thirteen fish curries. I’m sure I haven’t plumbed the depths of all the fish curries in God’s Own Country: it is just that time and my appetite conspired against deeper ‘research’ into this fascinating subject.
It all started in Radisson Plaza, Kumarakom, where I ordered a fish curry made in a terracotta chatti. Chef de Cuisine Lyju E R made me Meen Vati Chathu, dark carmine with fish tamarind. This iconic curry is almost like a pickle, which is why Chef Lyju had chosen to make it, instead of one of the dozen others that he has up his sleeve. It is a Syrian Christian signature, and is usually made a day in advance, so that the extra gravy will be absorbed by the walls of the earthenware vessel, thus becoming richer and more flavourful. The smoky huskiness of the fish tamarind develops over a few hours, so the preparation acquires more depth of flavour. It is the only fish curry that has no coconut milk/grated coconut in it, though it does pay obeisance to terroir by using coconut oil. Meen Vevi Chathu s almost identical, except that it has more gravy than Vati Chathu.
Chef Lyju’s other gems included Meen Manga – a curry made with grated coconut, green chilli, saunf powder and slices of raw mango, which are available around the year in Kerala and Allepey Fish Curry, which is a very close country cousin indeed, by having everything that Meen Manga does, except that coconut milk is used.
My friend Manisha took me to a toddy shop called Kalimbin Kala in Kottayam. Their version of Meen Moilee was as light as a whisper as a foil to their other dishes. Meen Moilee has no red chillies or souring agents, so the implication is that it has to be consumed within hours of cooking it.
My education continued At Taj Malabar, Kochi, where Executive Chef Amit Ghosh confessed to being amazed at how, in Kerala, fish was plopped into curries without any kind of prior cooking. It was a huge departure from his native Bengal, until he realized that unlike river fish – the Bengali staple – sea fish lacked a fishy smell, and so did not have to be fried with turmeric and salt before being added to curries. Chef Ghosh initiated me into the finer points of Meen Mullagattada which typically has plenty of garlic and is eaten with steamed tapioca, Kottayam Fish Curry which has ground coconut instead of just the milk, as opposed to Meen Kaya Curry to which plantains have been added, after being cut crossways to resemble a fillet of fish!
Malabar Meen Curry, a classic of Moplah cuisine uses the unlikely combination of tomatoes and ground coconut, and is flavoured with far more spices than the Syrian Christian ones. Meen Varutharacha Curry packs a mean punch with roasted spices and roasted, ground coconut. And I still haven’t told you about Meen Pulli Curry or Meen Murungaikai Curry!