Recently, Padma Lakshmi, the supermodel who has written award-winning cookbooks, was on television, gushing about a "fantastic" dish she had "discovered" while on a food trail across south India — meen moilee, or the ubiquitous Kerala fish curry. Alas, Padma Lakshmi didn't know that meen moilee is the most common dish you will find in coastal restaurants in Kerala. Had she explored into the culinary cultures of the many communities that inhabit the long Kerala coastline, from Kasargod to Thiruvananthapuram, she would have learnt that the moilee is just one of the myriad ways of dealing with meen (fish) in these parts.
In fact, the commercialisation of just a few popular dishes from the region is making many others that are equally interesting, but lesser known, gradually disappear. Some of these are perhaps too time-consuming for a modern, urban lifestyle that no longer affords us a bevy of servants to help put them together. Others have developed only in certain pockets because a particular community settled there or because a certain ingredient is available in abundance.
In the rich Syrian Christian households of south Kerala, famed for their culinary culture, it didn’t matter how long it took to prepare a dish as long as it was special. Servants plucked fresh tamarind leaves, dried the ginger and took care of other details. In north Kerala, the cuisine has been shaped by Persian traders who brought their own culinary traditions and ingredients to these shores. Today, in Moplah households, you can taste dishes that are a blend of local and foreign influences, and are rooted in the food habits of the Muslim community. Only a few of these, like the Thalassery biriyani, are known outside the region.
Here are three fish preparations that show the multi-faceted nature of Kerala’s coastal food. Each is from a different pocket of Kerala and represents a particular culture and ecosystem.
A Fishy Avial
Who hasn't had avial, the mildly-flavoured dish of vegetables, coconut and curd? But if you explore Ernakulam in central Kerala, you may come across an avial made of fish, just as Chef Naren Thimmaiah did. The head chef of the Karavalli restaurant at The Gateway hotel in Bangalore was so taken by this dish during a recipe-scouting tour that he invited homemaker Suja Zacharia from Ernakulam to teach his kitchen staff how to make it. The process is the same as the vegetarian avial but with the addition of silver fish at the end, since fish cooks quickly. "This is probably one of the healthiest ways to cook fish. It involves no frying and packs a lot of calcium too as silver fish bones are easily chewable," Chef Thimmaiah said.
In Kerala, three prominent religions — Hindu, Muslim and Christian — have been living in harmony for generations and this has influenced the cuisine too. "That is how a traditionally vegetarian dish like avial was transformed into a fishy avatar in Syrian Christian kitchens," he said.
In north India, they stuff parathas with potatoes. In Maharashtra, they like to put sweetened grated coconut into a puranpoli. But the Moplahs in north Kerala are different: they make a stuffing out of the day's fresh catch of fish. It is called the meen ada. The usual ada is made of rice flour with sweet fillings. "Instead of the coconut fillings, we stuff the rice pancakes with fish cooked in spices and onions to make meen ada," said Aaju Rasheed from Kannur. Mackereal is the preferred fish for this dish as it is easily available, fleshy and reasonably priced. The bland rice pancake is a nice contrast to the spicy fish filling and requires no accompaniments. "The Malayalis like to stuff their rice dough with all sorts of fillings and the Moplahs among them love their non-veg. So, it is natural that non-veg adas took shape in north Kerala where Arab traders first landed in historical ports like Calicut," said Rasheed.
Clean 1/2 kg silver fish (netholi) and wash with sea salt crystals till water becomes clear.lDrain and keep fish aside.
Soak three pieces of kodumpuli (a souring agent used in fish preparations in southern coastal region) in hot water for 10 minutes.
Grind 1 cup grated coconut, 10 shallots, 5 green chillies, ½ teaspoon turmeric powder, chopped ginger and salt to coarse paste.
Add fish to paste along with soaked kodumpuli and ½ cup water.
Boil fish with chopped onion, ginger, garlic, green chillies, curry leaves, turmeric, ground pepper, coriander powder and salt lOnce cooked, debone fish. Mix with masala
Add salt. Pour boiled water little by little to roasted rice flour. Stir into thick, smooth dough. Cover and keep this aside for 10 minutes
Knead into soft dough, looser than chapatti dough
Place a lemon-sized dough in centre of banana leaflFlatten with palm of hand. Spread fish filling on it. Fold banana leaf in half. Tuck in ends of leaf lSteam for about 15 minutes
In spring, when the tamarind tree sprouts fresh, tender leaves, the people in central Travancore painstakingly pluck them and use them in a rare dish called Meen Puliyila Chuttathu. The leaves are ground with coconut and local spices and green bird's eye chillies. Small fish are added to this tangy mixture, which are then wrapped in banana leaves and slow-cooked in a manchatti (a type of clay pot). "It takes hours to pluck out the tiny tamarind leaves, and the cooking is tedious too as you have to keep changing the banana leaves when they burn. But in the end, you get such a unique flavour that you just have to make it again," says Chellamma Divakaran, whose extended family gathers in her home in Moovatupuzha when it is time for fresh tamarind leaves. Meen puliyila chuttathu gets its character from the leaves, which are not available in markets. Divakaran has a tamarind tree in her garden, like most people used to do at one time in these parts. She also has the time and patience to treat her family to this special dish.
Meen Puliyila Chuttathu
Grind three cups of tender tamarind leaves with a handful of green bird's eye chillies, 1 cup of shallots, 1 grated coconut, 1 teaspoon of turmeric powder, pinch of coriander powder, curry leaves and salt.
Mix well with one spoon of raw coconut oil lMix fresh fish (any small fish like silver fish, anchovies or even sardines cut into tiny pieces) with this paste.
Wrap mixture in banana leaves and roast in clay pot on medium flame. Turn from time to time and replace banana leaves when they get burnt.