Kerala Toddy Shop Style Fish Curry

IMG_5805Summer seems to have officially made an entry. Before I moved to Vienna, I would have expected the temperatures in the city to not soar beyond maybe a 20 degrees, but I now realize I could not have been more wrong. At a solid 33 degrees, Vienna ensures that I am not spoilt beyond correction or recognition in the little ways she does. With the city that has not embraced the concept of air conditioners (apart from the ones you find in swanky offices) yet, gym visits are not so fun anymore. The idea of a ‘summer glow’ gets oft mistaken for the term ‘sweaty pig.’ The good part is that all the coats and the jackets have all been duly stowed away and the shorts, the tees, easy breezy dresses and the best of them all, open sandals that lets you show off pretty pedicures that cost half a fortune, have been brought out. Well, you win some, you lose some I reckon.

While walking back from the gym, sipping on a bottle of cold, freshly squeezed orange juice with a hint of ginger, watching the sweaty cyclists whiz past and the new moms ambling by in the sweltering heat with their babies in colourful prams, I realized that I am still lagging behind my whole plan of a-recipe-a-week. The past two weeks somehow kept me on my toes. Especially this week with the little nephew bobbing around in the house, with demands no less than Kathakali performances from your truly to keep him from crankiness, I am surprised I found time enough to eat three square meals. No, I am kidding. Food seldom gets jeopardized in a household I run and you must know that by now.

Anyway, since time does not make the effort to find you, I decided to keep dinner plans simple and instead put up the recipe of a dish a lot of you have been asking for; the Kerala toddy shop style fish curry. This is one recipe that can take me back to the Kallu Shaap (toddy shop, and toddy being fermented palm wine which is native to my part of the world, Kerala) by the backwaters of Kuttanaad, on that bright, sunny day in April, where I had my first taste of toddy with my dad. Kuttanaadu is one place, I am sure every malayali holds close to his/her chest with immense pride. Being the point with the lowest altitude in India, the beauty Kuttanaadu encompasses is something I believe no words can do justice to; her vast expanse of green paddy fields under the pastel blue skies; the canals and the backwaters that stretch out for as far as your eyes can reach; the coconut trees swaying in the wind that line the pristine water bodies; the kettuvallams or the houseboats with intricately woven thatched roofs that stand testament to the efforts put in by the natives; kids running by the narrow roads chasing old cycle tyres with sticks; the run down toddy shops serving cold toddy in tall, glass bottles; the peace, the quiet and the serenity; the food.

The toddy shop kitchens I believe are homes to raw, brazen culinary skill at its finest. Home to arguably the most beautiful water bodies on the planet, a dearth of fresh fish and seafood is unheard of in Kuttanaadu. That, coupled with the bold use of fresh condiments make the food served in the toddy shops not only spicy but also an unforgettable experience in itself. Today I share with you the recipe to the fiery, red fish curry, the way it is served in the toddy shops of Kerala. This is one dish for which my marginal utility never dips. If I had to pick just one dish for the rest of my life, it would be this red hot gravy. So, here goes.

 

Things you will need:

  • Fish- 500 gms washed and cleaned (I use Trout here. In India, this curry works best with Seer Fish or King Fish)
  • Onion- 1 large chopped finely
  • Tomato- 1 large chopped (this is strictly optional. A lot of people I know do not use tomatoes in this curry, but I love the flavour tomatoes lend and the fact that it helps in thickening the gravy, just the way I like it)
  • Ginger- 1 small piece chopped finely
  • Garlic- 6-8 pods sliced finely
  • Mustard seeds
  • Fenugreek seeds
  • Curry leaves
  • Turmeric powder- 1 tsp
  • Red chili powder (not Kashmiri chili powder)- 3 tsp (this is for a medium to hot curry. If you would want an authentic kallu shaap aka burn-your-bum experience, go ahead, be liberal)
  • Coriander powder- 2 tsp
  • Malabar Tamarind- 5-6 pieces (soaked in water for 15 minutes. This is the fulcrum of the dish and is absolutely unavoidable)

 

How to go about it:

  1. First, in a wok, heat some cooking oil and temper 1 tsp mustard seeds, a generous amount of curry leaves and ¼ tsp fenugreek seeds. Once the seeds splutter, add the ginger and garlic, sauté for a minute.
  2. Next, add the chopped onions to the wok. Sauté till they start to turn golden brown. Add the tomatoes to the wok, keep the wok closed for about a minute for them to cook. Once the tomatoes have softened, keep sautéing till the raw smell goes away. Add the turmeric, red chili and coriander powders. Mix well and keep sautéing till the oil starts to leave the sides and the raw smell of the condiments is lost.
  3. Add the tamarind pieces along with the water. Add about 1 glass and a little more of water and add salt. Mix the gravy well and then proceed to add the fish to the gravy. Coat the pieces in the gravy and keep the wok closed on high heat.
  4. Once the gravy starts to boil, reduce the heat to a medium. At this point, shake the wok well to mix the gravy that may look a little watery. Do not use a spoon to stir as that will break the pieces of the fish and the entire dish becomes unappetizing. Keep the wok closed to simmer for about 20 minutes. After that, open the lid and let the gravy boil on high heat for about 5 minutes or till the gravy starts to thicken.
  5. Once the fish is cooked and the gravy has thickened, the dish is ready to be served. This fish curry tastes better a day after it is made. Serve with hot rice or tapioca. Enjoy!

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