Kaveri G Ahuja from Coorg remembers the simple fish curries her grandmother used to make in Coorg. Swarms of tiny fish used to feed in the rice fields on either sides of the weir. Once the weir was opened, the water would recede and fishermen used to catch the fish. Kaveri says that they were the tastiest little fish she has ever tasted. The belief in Coorg was that feeding on the stumps of the harvested rice stalks was what gave the fish their tastiness. The curry was simplicity itself. Grated coconut was blended with cumin and coriander; turmeric and a smidgeon of chilli powder was added and the fish curry was ready. It didn’t take long to prepare, partly because of the cooking method and partly because the fish didn’t need to be gutted or even slit.
Coorgs or Kodavas – Kaveri winces at the term Coorgis – are not known for their fish cookery: their pork Pandhi Curry is the Coorg signature in the same way as Butter Chicken rules the roost in the north. However, the fish curry that most families make on occasion has one thing in common with all the others that are made on India’s west coast: the use of coconut.
It is one of life’s mysteries. All the fish curries made all up and down the west coast from Maharashtra to Kerala, almost without exception, contain grated coconut or coconut milk. By contrast every last fish curry on the east coast from Bengal to Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu contains no coconut at all. On the west coast, there are a variety of souring agents as we shall see, but tamarind is never one of them, being considered too strong for subtle seafood. Instead, tamarind is used for red meats like beef and pork. On the east coast, not only tamarind but tomato as well, is used as a souring agent in fish curries. The most famous one of all – Nellore fish curry in Andhra Pradesh – uses this double whammy. What’s more, it is stored overnight in an ingeniously fashioned rope basket that is suspended from the ceiling, so that the cat can’t get at it!
In the west coast, while the use of coconut remains the same, what differs is the souring agent used. In Goa, Lyra D’Souza, 80 something doyenne of the kitchen, tells me that there are three commonly used alternatives: kokum or binni chi sollan, bimbli and whole young mango. They are used more or less interchangeably. Lyra lives in a bungalow in the interiors of the state, far away from popular beaches. Her kitchen garden contains a bilmbi tree, whose Latin name is Averrhoa Bilimbi, though it is called bimbli in Konkani and similar versions all over the regions where it grows, including the Philippines and Sri Lanka. Used fresh, it is merely slit and added to fish curries in the final stages.
We are talking in the cavernous kitchen of the D’Souza household in Aldona, a village so far from civilization, I wonder if I am dreaming. Outside, in the bright sunshine, birds chirp and mothers call out to their children, but there’s not a sign of the present century: no sound of traffic, or even the blare of televisions here. An ancient maid sits in the corner of the kitchen, grinding the afternoon’s curry. Round and round her bony arm goes, on a mammoth basalt grinding stone that is more or less welded to the floor. Along with coconut, coarse sea salt, whole red chillies, a few peppercorns and cumin seeds are being ground, along with fresh turmeric root. So far inland, every house is a Portuguese-style villa with its own generous garden, and coconut trees, mango, jackfruit and chikoo trees are the norm, as are patches of turmeric and a couple of vegetables.
This is where river fish is eaten; nearer the coast, sea fish takes over. Goa is blessed with its abundance of rivers and when I tell Lyra about the tiny fish in Coorg, she shows me equally tiny prawns that have come from the local weir that morning. It is a rare delicacy, however, and many people who live in Goa have never tasted shrimp from the rice fields, simply because supply is a fraction of demand. I also get to see kokum: each family buys enough for a year. Without its seed, it looks like a burnt apricot. It is dark reddish brown in colour and is sour with a fruity punch that distinguishes it from tamarind. Add it to fish curries in the last stage, and you’ll get a pleasant pinkish colour that darkens the curry and imbues it with a faint yet unmistakable sourness. The Latin name is Garcinia Indica and it is the same genus as Thai mangosteen. Had I but known it, kokum and its close relative were to follow me throughout the west coast.
In the Coorg region of Karnataka, there is a delicious, fruity, mouth-puckeringly sour vinegar that is every bit as characterful as aceto balsamico from Modena, Italy. It is made from none other than Garcinia Cambogea, a sort of country cousin of kokum. Both are sour yet fruity, both grow profusely on the west coast of India and both find their way into fish curries in the region. However, it’s only in Coorg that the pumpkin-shaped berry is made into a thick liquid. Unlike Goa and Kerala, Coorgs use kochampuli, as this avatar of Garcinia Cambogea is called, to sour everything in the cuisine that needs souring. North and south of Coorg, Garcinia is used in fish curries while tamarind is used in red meats.
In Goa, all curries tend to have, rather boringly, the same ingredients and consequently have the same name: kodi. This is notwithstanding the fact that they may contain mackerel, pomfret, surmai or any one of the lesser-known, locally available river fish. There is only one exception to the rule and that is fish caldine, a yellow curry made with thick and thin coconut milk rather than ground coconut. When you go to a local restaurant, you ask for <I>xitt kodi<I> which translates as rice and curry. Unless you have wandered into a vegetarian joint, you will be given a fish curry. Visit the same eatery the following day and the fish may be different, but the curry is likely to be the same. It all goes by the name of kodi!
By contrast, in Kerala, every slight tweaking of the recipe results in a differently named curry. Thus, the Syrian Christian pickle-like curry, angry red in colour with the quantity of red chillies used, is called vettichathu, while a curry with a more flowing sauce (made with ground coconut) is called vevichathu. Allepey fish curry is soured with raw mangoes, meen manga curry is almost identical except that it has no coconut, meen moilee has neither red chillies nor souring agent, meen varutharacha is a Mopilah speciality and has roasted ground coconut and many more spices than the simpler Syrian Christian ones. Meen mullagattada has plenty of garlic and is usually eaten with steamed tapioca rather than red unpolished rice, Malabar Meen Curry is another Mopilah version, and just for variety, there are Meen Murungakai Curry, Meen Puli Curry and Meen Kaya Curry. But guess what! They can all be made with the same fish: king fish!
Viva la difference.