Travel down the west coast of peninsular India, eating fish curries all the while, and it is a fair bet that every last one of them will have coconut in them. Some will have ground coconut, others will have only the milk of ground coconuts, while still others will have no red chillies. All fish curries need to be soured to varying degrees – a throwback to pre-refrigerator times when fish-tamarind, kokum, raw mangoes or a locally available fruit called bimbli (bilimbi in Portuguese; Latin: averroes carambola) were used. Depending on the quantity, ingredient and community, you would either end up with an almost sweet curry (as in Goan caldine or Kerala moilee) or one that was mouth-puckeringly sour.
On the east coast, on the other hand, coconut is notable by its absence, and the souring agent is a double-whammy of tomatoes and tamarind. I was surprised to note that in coastal Andhra Pradesh, fish curry is simply called chapa pulusu. This is in sharp contrast to the curries of Kerala in which almost identical ones have been graced by totally different names. The mélange of ingredients that go into chapa pulusu varies according to which part of the coast the curry is being made, Nellore being the one that is traditionally the most famous. However, when I suggest this to my friend Srinath Sambandan, his hackles rise. He heads the kitchen at The Park Hotel’s Vishakapatnam property and has enough pride in the local cuisine to feel that Vizag is the apogee of Sircar or coastal cooking.
Sambandan never refers to Andhra cooking. Instead, it is the food of the coastal region of the state that I get to sample: the cuisines of Rayalseema and Telangana are beyond the distant horizon. Sircar food is dominated by chapa pulusu, a full-bodied curry that is always cooked in a terracotta vessel (even in a deluxe hotel kitchen) the previous day and suspended from the ceiling by three ropes supporting a round base, all so that the flavours of the curry develop over 24 hours, without letting the cat have a go at it! People of the Sircar region would be bemused about the Goan-Keralite debate on the best souring agent for fish curries: the former thinks that dried, smoked kokum is suitably delicate, the latter thinks the same about fish tamarind; both share an aversion to unsubtle tamarind. All over coastal Andhra Pradesh the only souring agent for fish and seafood is tamarind. Sambandan thinks that tomatoes lend a bit of sweetness and that is why they are used in conjunction with tamarind.
As I tucked into my meal of chapa pulusu and several chutnies, pickles and podis, the one thing I did not miss for an instant was coconut.