All along India’s coastline, the staple diet of the locals is fish curry and rice. But, do you think that it’s a single recipe all the way through? No way. There are many dozens of different preparations, depending on which part of the coast you happen to be. Fish curry makes its appearance during breakfast, lunch and dinner. For breakfast, the accompaniment is likely to be idlis, appams, pootu or iddiappams. For lunch and dinner, it is plain boiled rice, of the variety that the particular region grows.
Italian chefs working in India never fail to decry the habit of diners asking for a sprinkling of cheese on their fish. In Italy, fish and cheese are never, but never eaten together, except in the very southern tip of Italy. Well, in India, fish and dairy products are considered quite as inimical a combination, except in Bengal, where fish is often cooked with curd. Then too, Bengal is the only part of India where mustard seeds are ground and used to flavour the fish.
Much further south, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu use tamarind and sometimes tomatoes as a souring agent, whereas on the west coast, cocum does the job. Curd, cocum and tamarind are all sour, as are tomatoes, and their use in fish curries appears to be to make the fish firm. “Unlike meat or chicken, fish has no connective tissues, and so is far more liable to break. A souring agent is imperative. Even French cooking uses white wine vinegar in the court bouillon,” says Chef Bakshish Dean of The Park.
Chef G Sultan Mohideen of ITC Maurya Sheraton says that even in the Lucknow fish qalia, that uses cashew nut paste and grated onions, yoghurt is used as a souring agent.
There’s one common thread that runs through every fish curry, however, and that is chillies. In Andhra Pradesh alone, that boasts of three separate cuisines – coastal Rayalseema, Telengana of the interiors and Hyderabad of the capital – Rayalseema fish curries are made spicy by the use of the Goondu chilly. If you are making a fish curry, make sure you source the chillies that are used in that particular region, otherwise you are compromising authenticity.
Tamil Nadu has its own set of cuisines: Brahmin food doesn’t make use of fish at all – or any other non-vegetarian ingredient, for that matter. Chettinad and mainstream Tamilian cuisines have fish curries that are typically cooked in an earthenware pot called a chatty. The great advantage of this utensil is that, the next day, the fish curry intensifies in flavour, but doesn’t spoil. When housewives in Tamil Nadu want to keep fish curry overnight, they don’t use tomatoes in the gravy.
You can get fish curries in Tamil Nadu that are cooked in a thin, watery gravy, using nothing else but tamarind water, onions, garlic, cumin and pepper – it’s called meen saar – but all over the west coast, grated coconut forms the base for a fish curry, whether it is in Kerala, Goa or Mangalore. The only difference is in the spicing.
In Goa itself, there are two schools of thought about the use of coconut. People in one part of Goa extract the milk of the coconut and add it to the gravy. In another, less sophisticated part, coconut is ground and added to the gravy, which naturally becomes far thicker. Here, the main souring agent used is cocum, called kodampulli in Kerala, fish tamarind in English and binni chi solan in Goa.
Finally, the oil used gives it a distinct flavour, and sets it apart from its country cousins. In Kerala and Goa, coconut oil is traditionally used; in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, groundnut oil and coconut oil are used interchangeably, depending on the community that’s doing the cooking; in Karnataka, it’s sesame oil that finds favour, and in Bengal, only mustard oil will do.
Chef G Sultan Mohideen of ITC Maurya Sheraton has given us his recipe for meen poondu kozhambu, the most famous of the Chettinad fish curries. For best results, it should be cooked in a clay pot over a charcoal fire.
Fish cubes 2½ kgs
Oil 200 gms
Fenugreek seeds 10 gms
Cumin 10 gms
Onions 250 gms
Garlic 200 gms
Sambar onions 250 gms
Tomatoes chopped 300 gms
Chilly powder 80 gms
Coriander powder 80 gms
Turmeric powder 20 gms
Tamarind 50 gms
Salt to taste
Coriander leaves 25 gms
Green chillies 20
Cut fish into cubes, leaving the skin on. Dice the onions and chop tomatoes. Peel sambar onions and garlic. Prepare tamarind by soaking in hot water and extract 1.2 litre. Slit green chillies.
Heat oil in a pan (or chatty), add fenugreek and jira. Whey they crackle, add the onions, sambar onions, garlic paste, curry leaves, slit green chillies and sauté till onions turn golden brown.
Add the turmeric powder, chilly powder, coriander powder and sauté.
Add the chopped tomatoes, tamarind extract and let it simmer for 15 minutes.
Add the fish cubes and simmer till done.
Check for seasoning, and garnish with chopped coriander leaves.
When this curry is made in Chettinad homes, the spices would be individually roasted and pounded between two stones.
Compare this with Goa’s mildest fish curry, the caldine.
750 gms pomfret, cut into fillets
half a coconut grated
¼ tsp cumin
1 tsp turmeric powder
3 flakes garlic
small piece ginger
1 medium onion, chopped
3 green chillies
tamarind and salt to taste.
Soak the coconut in boiling water. When cool, press through a sieve or muslin. Do this twice, using more water the second time around. Keep both sets of coconut milk separate. The first milk will be thicker and richer, the second more watery.
Fry the onion till translucent, but not brown. Add the cumin, turmeric, garlic and ginger, all ground together and sauté gently. Next, add the thin coconut milk and chillies and simmer for 15 minutes. Slip in the fish and cook till done, add salt to taste, tamarind that has been previously softened in hot water, and finally, the thick coconut milk.